Lithuanian Friars Commemorate 30 Years of Resumed Ministry

Patrick McCloskey, OFM Franciscan World

Some of the friars —  both Lithuanians and visitors — who celebrated 30 years of renewed ministry and the 550th anniversary of the founding of the Lithuanian province, gathered in Kretinga. (Photo courtesy of St. Casimir Province)

The friars of St. Casimir Province in Lithuania may be the most hospitable group of friars that I have ever met. How they got that way is a great story.

Ten days after the Berlin Wall was opened on Nov. 9, 1989, friars of St. Casimir Province descended on their former friary in Kretinga, in northwest Lithuania, and celebrated a Mass in its courtyard, much to the amazement of startled government officials who years before had turned that friary into a museum of local history. It and four other former friaries were eventually returned to the friars. The first friars had come in 1252 to Lithuania, making it the last country in Europe to accept Christianity.

Celebrants enjoyed hearty soups, fresh breads, and delicious desserts at Saturday night’s cookout. (Photo courtesy of the author)

On Friday, Nov. 15, I and 16 other friars from outside Lithuania joined approximately 2,000 people gathered in the civic center in the nearby city of Palanga to celebrate 30 years of renewed ministry and the 550th anniversary of the founding of that province. I was representing the English-speaking Conference and St. John the Baptist Province. Mark Soehner, OFM, provincial of SJB, and the Lithuanian provincial attended the same “provincials’ school” in November 2017.

A two-hour program in Palanga featured an orchestra of 60 musicians, dancers, singers of all ages, tributes from government officials, and the very talented trumpet-playing mayor of Klaipeda, the country’s third-largest city. Filmed for editing into a one-hour program for subsequent national broadcast, this event celebrated the rebirth of friars in Lithuania, the first religious congregation to do so while the country was still under Russian control for another year.

Bouquets of flowers were given to all performers and to the hosts, two media professionals. ” Mine were not the only moist eyes during parts of this celebration, especially when the audience so passionately and enthusiastically sang “Salve Regina.”

Historical Perspective
In 1940, the Russians invaded Lithuania, which resulted in the closing of the province’s five friaries and the scattering of its 139 friars. In 1947, the province moved its headquarters to Kennebunkport, Maine, and continued to accept new members, ministering in the United States, Canada, and Lithuania, and later became a member of the OFM English-speaking Conference.

Annuntiation Church. (Photo courtesy of Pat McCloskey)

After 1989, provinces from the ESC and from across Europe contributed formators, finances, and moral support to help the Lithuanian friars begin again.

The Nov. 15 to 17 celebration in Palanga and Kretinga drew 17 friars from roughly a dozen OFM entities  — including Italy, Poland, Germany, Ireland, England, Ukraine, the United States, and Australia — to show their solidarity with the Lithuanian friars. The Lithuanian province has a special relationship with the Tuscan province, where several new Lithuanian friars did part of their initial formation. Lithuanian, Polish, Italian, Russian, English and many languages were spoken at meals and evening recreation.

The Lithuanian friars resumed some of their previous ministries and began new ones, such as a facility to house adults undergoing cancer treatment at a special hospital outside Klaipeda. Autistic children are also welcomed to programs there. Friars visiting in November were lodged in the facility’s rooms not occupied by cancer patients.

The 35 Lithuanian friars minister in parishes, schools and a variety of specialized ministries. They helped establish a Poor Clare monastery with a prioress from Mantua, Italy, and seven Lithuanian women who spent several years in Mantua to become Poor Clares.

Getting to Know Lithuania
On Saturday, Nov. 16, visiting friars explored a Lithuanian heritage museum, discussed with local friars their hopes for the Order’s future, and took part in a two-hour prayer vigil with the local Franciscan family. Anthony Jukes, of the UK custody, and I had a tour of the adjacent grade school that the friars founded almost 85 years ago; it and the nearby Catholic high school enroll almost 1,000 co-ed students. I had brought shirts, hats and other apparel from Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati, to provide to the Lithuanian students.

Caption needed. (Photo courtesy of the author)

The Baroque-style church is  similar in size to St. Clement Church in Cincinnati and St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City. Then followed a Mass at which Provincial Minister Algirdas Malakauskis, OFM, presided and General Counselor Caoimhin O’Laide, OFM, preached with simultaneous interpretation into Lithuanian by one of the Lithuanian friars. A cookout followed outside with hearty soups, breads, and delicious desserts.

The next day we were back in the same church for a Mass at which the country’s newest cardinal — a Jesuit imprisoned for many years by the Russians — presided, assisted by the local bishop, a friar bishop from another part of the country, plus many visitors and local friars. John Puodziunas, OFM, of ABVM Province and a former general visitor of the province preached in English and Lithuanian, with simultaneous interpretation into the other language.

After lunch and spirited speeches in the friary, most of the visitors went to the Poor Clare monastery to pray with the nuns. The entire celebration demonstrated that all the friars, the Clares, the Franciscan sisters, and the Secular Franciscans are indeed members of the same family. March 4, the patronal feast of St. Casimir Province, will never again be the same for me.

The following day, one of the friars drove five friars to Vilnius to catch their flights that day or stay overnight at Vilnius friary for departures on Tuesday. We stopped at the country’s famous Hill of Crosses, but that’s a story for another article.

Pat McCloskey, OFM, a member of St. John the Baptist Province, is executive secretary of the Order’s English-speaking Conference as well as the Franciscan editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. He marked his 50th anniversary since profession in 2018.