St. Casimir's Church survives perils of history

  • 2000-10-26
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
St. Casimir's Church is one of the finest Baroque churches in Vilnius. And few churches in Lithuania can rival its unique, colorful history.

St. Casimir's began as a Roman Catholic church of Jesuits. However, at times, the church has also been Russian Orthodox, Lutheran, and a house of atheism - depending on which foreign occupying power happened to be around. The church was even occasionally transformed into a granary.

St. Casimir is Lithuania's patron saint. His importance to the country could easily be compared to what St. Patrick means to Ireland. The church is one of the most famous in the country and is now again a Roman Catholic church run by Jesuits.

Opinion of an Atheism Museum employee

Natalija Klimanskiene is a pensioner now. She worked as a scientist in the church after it was turned into the Museum of Atheism by the Soviets.

"Even when this church was the Museum of Atheism, people, especially Polish tourists, were coming to the church, kneeling down and praying," said Klimanskiene, who used to oversee the Buddhist section of the former museum.

The museum's employees were in a rather dubious situation. "Most of the employees of the museum were Roman Catholics - same as the rest of the nation. It is good that this church was transformed into a museum, because some other churches became warehouses in Communist times. Being a museum preserved the building," Klimanskiene said. She herself is very close to the Vilnius Buddhist community and celebrates all Catholic holidays, though she remains Russian Orthodox, respecting her Russian-German-Latvian roots.

"I respect all religions. My husband, now deceased, was Catholic. My daughter is Catholic. I have great respect for the Buddhist traditions," Klimanskiene said.

She said she is happy to attend concerts at St. Casimir's, which has now been returned to Catholic believers. Klimanskiene told of the dramatic history of the church.

Complicated history

The Jesuits founded St. Casimir's Church. Its construction began in 1604. The Vatican canonized St. Casimir in 1602. Lithuanians call Casimir by his Lithuanian name, Kazimieras. However, he is known in the rest of the world as Casimir, the Latin version of his name. There are St. Casimir's churches even in Latin America.

Casimir was born in 1458 and named after his father. He was a son of Lithuanian Grand Duke Kazimieras. The future saint's father wanted Casimir to become king of Hungary. In the 15th century, Lithuanians occupied the Polish, Czech and Hungarian thrones. However, Casimir wasn't interested in a political career. Instead, he preferred to pray near Vilnius Cathedral every night. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 24.

St. Casimir's Church was finished and consecrated in 1635, but it burned down in 1655, when the Russian army entered Vilnius. When Lithuania's army forced the Russians to withdraw, the church was rebuilt, but it was destroyed by fire two more times, in 1707 and in 1749.

When the Lithuanian-Polish confederation state authorities suppressed the Society of Jesus (official name for Jesuits) in 1773, the church was given to the Augustians.

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon turned the church into a granary, while opting to destroy the altars and paintings. In 1815 the church was given to missionary priests. The missionaries were banished by the Russian occupation regime in 1832, and the church remained vacant and unused. In 1839 the Russians turned it into an Orthodox church known as St. Michael's. Russian architects tinkered with the design by lowering the existing steeples, adding a larger one in the front, and covering all of them and the cupola with onion domes.

In 1915 the German army turned the church into a Lutheran house of worship for their soldiers. Even German Kaiser Wilhelm II visited this church during World War I. In 1917 the church was returned to the Catholics. In 1919 Vilnius Bishop Jurgis Matulaitis returned the church to the Jesuits.

In 1949 the church was again closed, this time by the Soviets, who stored grain in it. At this time everything in the church was destroyed, including the organ and bells. In 1963 the church was turned into the Museum of Atheism.

Rebirth of St. Casimir's Church

The church was returned to the Roman Catholics in 1988 and it started to function in 1991. The Jesuits again worked in it. In 1993 painter Antanas Kmieliauskas adorned the church with paintings of the Resurrection, St. Casimir, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Andrew Bobola.

The church has some specifics which make it entirely unique when compared to other churches. "We are proud that the priest of the church has work experience in the slums of Sao Paulo and the jungles of Bolivia," said Janina, one of the churchgoers.

"Each Sunday after the midday Mass, Lithuania's best musicians, mostly choirs, hold concerts in our church," said Sister Lina, a Catholic nun who works with the Jesuit center at St. Casimir's.

Most of Lithuania's ethnic Russians live in Vilnius where they make up some 19 percent of the city's inhabitants and are the third largest ethnic group after Lithuanians and Poles. Some of local Russians chose to be Catholics. "St. Casimir's Church is the only church in Lithuania where Mass in the Russian language is consecrated apart from usual Masses in Lithuanian. Russian-language Mass is consecrated on the first Sunday of each month. Some Russian-speaking Poles come to this Mass. But mostly real Russians and Belorussians come to the Mass in their language," Sister Lina said.

Vladimir Tarasov, artist, famous jazz musician and head of the Vilnius Russian Drama Theater, placed his installation on the two towers of the church. The installation is called "Bells for St. Casimir." Each unit of bells has 15 tones of sound. Tarasov's bells ring even in the smallest breeze.