Volume 31, No.3 - Fall 1985
Editor of this issue: Antanas Dundzila
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1985 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


From olden grandeur to Soviet-style barracks


Lietuvos Bažnyčios [Churches of Lithuania], 4 vols. to date. By Bronius Kviklys. Lithuanian Library Press.

A recent revelation by Pope John Paul II, that he was denied permission by Moscow to visit Lithuania, speaks eloquently about the extent of both religious and personal freedom in Lithuania. Nevertheless, this country is a stronghold of Catholicism in the Soviet Union despite the various continuing repressive measures undertaken by the Soviet authorities, as recorded in the long-lived Lithuanian underground publication The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, appearing since 1972. The atheistic government of Soviet-occupied Lithuania would never countenance the publication of a testimonial of the deep faith and perseverence of Lithuanian Catholics, one that vividly depicts the effect the Communist takeover has had on the faithful, the clergy, and the churches of Lithuania. Yet an unfalsified portrayal of Lithuanian churches and other religious monuments created by the Lithuanians throughout the centuries, since the country was formally christianized in 1251, is a matter of great priority.

The churches have been deteriorating over the years, for the permits required before attempting renovation are not readily forthcoming. Many churches of exceptional architectural beauty were destroyed during World War II. Some were never rebuilt, and others were replaced by humble, barracks-type structures. Many churches have been closed or remodeled into warehouses, art galleries, concert halls, and the like, with the resultant destruction of their religious art treasures. By 1974 only 639 functioning churches remained in the two archbishoprics and the four bishoprics of Lithuania from the 885 churches in operation in 1943. Even of these, many had no resident full-time priest. The shortage of priests was created deliberately by the strict quotas on seminary enrollments imposed by the Communist authorities on the sole theological seminary remaining in Lithuania — in Kaunas — after they closed down the seminaries located in Telšiai and Vilkaviškis. According to the Chronicle (no. 50, December 8, 1981), the Catholic church in Švenčionėliai is the sole still-functioning church in Lithuania that was constructed after the war. Before the already faded photographs of once-magnificent churches that are now only ruins become indecipherable blurs, before other losses occur, before the knowledgeable persons among us carry their knowledge to their graves, the task of documenting the churches of Lithuania has to be completed.

Bronius Kviklys stoutheartedly took up this challenge, to accomplish in the free world what is impossibility in Lithuania itself. For many years a member of the editorial staff of Draugas, a Lithuanian-language newspaper published in Chicago, and also a contributor to various Lithuanian periodicals, Kviklys is no stranger to such undertakings. He earlier gave us the four-volume encyclopedic work MŪSŲ Lietuva [Our Lithuania; Boston, 1964-68]. Though far from his native Lithuania, Kviklys garnered the necessary information and a multitude of illustrations — from treasured family snapshots that allow a glimpse into the past to contemporary photographs, often of the same sites. As a result, each volume presents a panorama, both verbal and visual, historical and contemporary, of hundreds of churches exteriors and interiors of great beauty, including altars, belfries, confessionals, organs, ornate pulpits, grand churchyard gates; of clergymen, past and present, including those who suffered or perished at the hands of the Communists, memorialized here, and also those who withdrew to the West. The steadfastness of the Lithuanians who kept building and rebuilding their churches because of the ravages of time, fire, and war is inspirational and evidenced on every page.

Of the six volumes envisioned — one for each diocese — four are now a reality, the fifth in press, and the sixth a completed manuscript. The series is being published in Lithuanian with a brief explanatory English introduction (also in Polish for the Archdiocese of Vilnius) by the Lithuanian Library Press, In., among whose other publications are Lithuanian Writers in the West: An Anthology, edited by Alina Skrupskelis, Lithuanian Bookplates by Vitolis E. Vengris, and Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: Lithuanian Visionary Painter by Alexis Rannit.

The first volume of the series was published in 1980, and its 400 pages with over one thousand illustrations describe 176 churches and chapels of the Diocese of Telšiai in western Lithuania (Žemaitija or Samogitia). The diocese was originally established in 1417 as part of the Diocese of Žemaitija, which in 1926 was subdivided into three bishoprics. It has twelve deaneries and one prelature (Klaipėda). Just before the war, in 1940, the diocese comprised 142 parishes and houses of worship with 238 priests and 385,872 believers. Forty-nine priests were either imprisoned or slain (including two bishops), while tens of thousands of the faithful were either killed or deported to the far-off reaches of Siberia. Sensing the impending danger, about eighty priests fled to the West. One of the many poignant tales told here concerns the Mary, Queen of Peace Church in Klaipėda. Even though the necessary permits had been obtained, the pastor and other parishioners were arrested and sentenced and the completed building was confiscated in 1961. The church was transformed into a philharmonic hall. Numerous petitions to high-ranking Soviet officials signed by thousands and tens of thousands and even 148,149 persons in 1979 were to no avail.

Volume 2, published in 1982, devotes 480 pages and over seven hundred illustrations to 108 churches and 28 chapels of the Diocese of Vilkaviškis, which was established on April 4, 1926. It was once a part of the Diocese of Vygriai (1797-1818) and then the Diocese of Seinai-Augustavas (1818-1926). Fourteen of its churches were destroyed during World War II. Seven of these were repaired, and others were eventually rebuilt, but as much simpler structures. The site of the former cathedral of Vilkaviškis is now a town square, and all traces of its former grandeur have been obliterated. The Soviets closed twelve churches and twenty-eight chapels, and permitted the founding of only one new chapel. In 1980 there were only ninety-four functioning churches in the diocese. Of the 247 priests working in the diocese in 1940, at least fifteen were either slain by the Communists or died in exile in Siberia. Some ninety priests fled to the West. From 1940 to 1980 at least fifty-four priests were either arrested, imprisoned, or exiled. An addendum provides information about twenty-one churches of nearby southern areas that were once part of the territory of Lithuania but now are in the Diocese of Lomza (Poland). Many Lithuanians still live in these areas and are sometimes subjected to discrimination. For instance, in Seinai Lithuanians have been petitioning for over thirty-five years that they be allowed to pray in their own church in their own native tongue.

In 1983 the third volume of the series appeared. Its 512 pages containing close to eight hundred illustrations are devoted to 150 churches (some date back to the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries) and chapels, some now closed, of the Archdiocese of Kaunas. The archbishopric was established on April 4, 1926, when the Diocese of Žemaitija was partitioned. In 1940 there were a total of 240 Catholic houses of worship (including chapels) in the archdiocese. Eight churches were destroyed during World War II; a dozen were damaged. Most were rebuilt after the war, but the Soviets closed twenty-three churches and no longer allow religious rites in the chapels and the oratories. One hundred and twenty-two churches were functioning in the archdiocese in 1982, but more than twenty lacked a full-time priest. There were 368 priests werving the spiritual needs of the archbishopric's 500,000 Catholics in 1940. Forty-three priests and ten seminarians were incarcerated in either Soviet or Nazi prisons and concentration camps. Sixteen priests were either slain or tortured to death. More than seventy fled to the West. Circumstances also forced Archbishop Juozapas Skvireckas and his assistant, Bishop Vincentas Brizgys, to leave the archdiocese, and for forty years the archdiocese was ruled by apostolic administrators.

A unique holy place in the archdiocese is the Hill of Crosses (Kryžių kalnas), which is located in the fields of Jurgaičiai Village. More than four hundred crosses stood on the hill in 1938, some brought from neighboring countries. The Soviet authorities have been trying to eliminate this traditional practice of erecting crosses here and have destroyed all the crosses more than once, yet there were 360 crosses on this site in 1977. Another religious shrine, once attracting up to 100,000 pilgrims during annual religious festivals on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, continues to draw believers despite roadblocks and intimidation.

The churches of the Diocese of Panevėžys, established on April 4, 1926, are detailed in the 532 pages and over seven hundred illustrations of Volume 4, published in 1984. There were ninety-one parochial, twenty-seven affiliated, and seven rector-headed churches in the bishopric in 1940 and eighty-two chapels; the believers numbered 418,950. The Soviets closed eight of the churches — only three were later reopened — and all eighty-two chapels. In 1984 there were 120 churches in the diocese; only 101 had a | full-time priest. Fourteen priests were killed during the German and the Soviet occupations of Lithuania; fifty-six were arrested and imprisoned or deported. About fifty priests and many religious fled to the West. This volume describes 128 churches and many chapels and is based in large part on the data collected by the bishopric's first bishop, the Most. Rev. Kazimieras Paltarokas.

So much information was available about the oldest bishopric in Lithuania, the Archdiocese of Vilnius, that Volume 5 is being printed in two parts. Part One (440 pages and about five hundred illustrations) includes a historical look at the six-hundred-year-old diocese, together with the biographies of its bishops and the descriptions of forty churches, several dozen chapels, various religious monuments, and the cemeteries of the city of Vilnius. Its expected date of publication is late 1985. Part Two will focus on the areas beyond the Vilnius city limits and will illustrate and describe eighty-two churches of Vilnius Province within the territory of Soviet Lithuania and fifty churches (most have been closed) presently under the rule of Soviet Byelorussia. It will also devote space to the struggle waged by Lithuanians of the Archdiocese of Vilnius for the right to worship God in their churches in their own native tongue.

Volume 6 should be available in 1987 and will feature the Diocese of Kaišiadorys. In addition, it will update any important changes that have taken place and correct any errata of the previous volumes. Information and illustrations that were unavailable earlier will be included, together with explanations of religious and architectural terms. An index of personal names and place names for all six volumes will enable readers to seek out with ease the required information from the wealth of data provided in this major accomplishment.