As I struggled to put together this blog post, I wondered why? I had the basic high points of my maternal great-grandfather’s life; usually that’s been enough to get me going. I guess I sensed that John Peter Biliunas had a bigger story to tell. Now I think that who he was ties into the things that were bigger than himself: his family and his country.
John was born on September 16, 1886 in Lithuania. His US World War I Draft Registration does show his place of birth, which looks something like “Viaule” or “Virule”. (I’ve ruled out it beginning with “N”, based on the other writing on the form.) What do you think?
I have no idea who John’s parents were, but I know he had at least one brother (Anthony William) and perhaps two more (Ziborios and Kazimeras, according to some photos that my aunt has). I believe that John was the first to immigrate to the United States in 1907 (according to the 1920 census); Anthony followed in 1910. I strongly suspect that John came through Ellis Island, though I still need to order his naturalization paperwork.
Somehow, John met an married the young widow Anna (Valek) Urnezis, probably no later than mid-1915. With Anna, he got more than a wife, but a farm on the corner of Sound Avenue and Herricks Lane in Riverhead, Suffolk County, NY, and two young children: John and Ann Urnezis (who were born 1908 and 1910, respectively). Soon young John and Ann had a little sister born on June 7, 1916: Viola Alice (my grandmother)!
On his June 5, 1917 Draft Registration Card, John noted that he had a wife and three children depending on him for support. He also noted that he had filed his intent to become a citizen of the United States. Certainly Riverhead was established in his heart as home.
Two more children were born to John and Anna: Bruno Antone (or “Bert”) on September 6, 1917 and Evelyn Mary on April 20, 1920. The family was now complete.
December 21, 1926 was a big day for John: he was part of a group of 88 immigrants – the largest in Suffolk County history at that point – who became U.S. citizens. New York Supreme Court Justice James A. Dunne presided over the ceremony, at which each new citizen was presented with an American flag. (How I wish I knew what happened to John’s flag!) Mrs. Joseph Townsend, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, spoke at the ceremony. She encouraged the new citizens to join a church if they hadn’t already, and to obey all the laws of the land, especially the Eighteenth Amendment (the Prohibition one!). I have to wonder if the whole family was there to witness the event. Perhaps Anna and the children were all dressed up, along with other families.
Other than his children’s marriages and the births of most of his grandchildren, John’s naturalization was the last major documented event in his life. He passed away on January 27, 1948 at home. His funeral was held four days later at Sacred Heart Church in nearby Cutchogue and he was buried in its graveyard.
That’s all I know about John Biliunas so far. Next time we will look at his wife, whose long life and surrounding family tell us even more.