National shrine awaits historic rebirth

  • 2004-08-12
  • By Steven Paulikas
KAUNAS - The focal point of the Kaunas skyline confounds stereotypes about the differences between Lithuania's first and second largest cities.

While Kaunas is often portrayed as the hopelessly commercial underling to a refined and cultured Vilnius, the church spires of the capital are now dwarfed by the steel-and-glass office towers that arose this spring. In the meantime, the "materialistic" residents of Kaunas are preparing for the grand opening of Resurrection Church, a monumental national shrine that will preside over the entire city and help preserve the city's Old World charm.
The story of Resurrection Church is in many ways an allegory of the history of independent Lithuania. When the forefathers of the independence movement began mulling over a monument to their newfound freedom, it was agreed to build a magnificent church - a focal point of the country's thanks and prayers - something akin to a Lithuanian Westminster Abbey. Construction on the audacious design by architect Karolis Reisonas began in 1933 after more than 1 million litas (290,000 euros) - a phenomenal sum at the time - was collected from the national treasury and donors around the country.
By the time it was halted in 1940, the massive nave - 69 meters by 26 meters - had been completed, as was the bell tower, which stands at 70 meters, or the equivalent of a 22-story building.
Stuck with the massive and ideologically blasphemous structure, the Soviet authorities brainstormed a number of uses for Resurrection Church, ranging from a cultural center to a potato storage shed. In the end, Stalin signed a decree to transform the church into a radio factory, a function it served until the early 1990s.
More than five decades after the first brick was laid for the church, the building became one of the focal points of the movement that led to the resurrection of Lithuanian independence. A major effort was launched in 1989 to have the property transferred back to the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Kaunas, while massive letters "slove" (praise) were affixed to the bell tower in protest of the atheist regime.
But even after religious authorities regained control of the church, it was unsure exactly what should be done with the massive and crumbling structure. A committee was formed to gather donations to transform it back into a place of worship, and the archdiocese established a temporary parish church nearby in the hopes that the congregation would soon move into a restored Resurrection Church.
"I've given donations to the restoration effort, just like my parents gave donations to build the church," said Danute-Marija, a parishoner.
Nonetheless, postindependence Lithuanians have been less eager than the previous generation to voluntarily fund a gargantuan shrine whose purpose is less clear than it was in the 1920s. After almost a decade of only modest success in raising funds, the committee was given a boost when the national government stepped in and transferred millions of litas to bring the project to a close.
Thus with close to a century of bewitched planning behind it, and finishing touches being placed on the interior, Resurrection Church finally has an opening date: This coming Christmas should mark the formal consecration of the building as Lithuania's national shrine.
"There's already a long waiting list for weddings," said church vicar Saulius Domas while standing on the gleaming granite plaza that sprawls atop the roof, from which can be seen a complete panorama of Kaunas and its surroundings.
The spacious interior, which can fit 5,000 worshippers, follows Reisonas' original stark yet unique design, a sort of cross between muted art deco and austere minimalism. And in the tradition of any national shrine, a columbarium, or place for storing human remains, is being built underneath. It will become the permanent resting place of the greatest national figures.
Worries still loom that the church may fill a need that expired decades ago, but those involved in the project take an optimistic view toward the role it will play in the life of both the community and the nation.
Also, city architects have been working on an acoustic problem. Sound produces in the nave echo for an incredible 14 seconds. Understandably, this threatens plans to use the church as a concert hall.
Meanwhile, parishioners are preparing to make the move from their current cozy home to the imposing new building that stands as a symbol of a country at a crossroads.
"It's fine with me. It's a church not just for us but for all of Lithuania," said Ona, a worshipper, after mass.