Vilnius' Lutherans celebrate

  • 2000-11-23
  • Darius James Ross
VILNIUS – Most visitors to Vilnius are astounded by the beauty of the many baroque Roman Catholic churches that dot the city's skyline. But tucked away in a courtyard off Vokieciu Street is the 444-year-old Vilnius Evangelical Lutheran Church. On Nov. 19 the city's Lutheran community celebrated the fifth anniversary of the re-dedication of the church and the 10th anniversary since the community itself was re-established in Vilnius.

Historically, the community consisted largely of German and Polish merchants and trades people and was given protection by Lithuania's Grand Dukes. This ended with the Soviet occupation of the city during World War II. The church was then turned into a workshop and later a basketball hall. Most of the ornamentation and artwork were destroyed.

Today, thanks in large part to financial assistance from Hamburg's North Elbian Church, it has been almost completely restored to its original splendor. The first thing one notices is the wonderfully ornate altar and crucifix. "People often have preconceived notions about what a Protestant church should look like," said Arden Haug, the English-language pastor.

"Austere churches are part of the reformed Protestant tradition. This church is more like what Bach would have envisaged when he was writing his music."

Haug explained that austere churches came after Martin Luther (1483 - 1546), the initiator of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was a reformer but he still believed that crucifixes and decoration could help people in their worship. "Still, most people think this is a Catholic church when they enter. Actually, all Lutheran churches in Lithuania have crucifixes," said Haug.

Haug came to Vilnius via Riga, where he had been pastor at St. Savior's Church. He was born in Minnesota and attended divinity school in St. Paul before becoming a pastor at a Norwegian church in the same city. He tends a flock of about 50 expatriates in Vilnius but also sees a fair number of visitors at his English services. "On any given Sunday, we have people from any number of confessions attending: Catholics, Presbyterians, reform Lutherans, etc. We aim to provide foreigners here with some kind of community that they might not otherwise have," he said. Haug's job is also to work with young Lit-huanian ministers.

Twenty-five-year-old Mindaugas Sabutis is the Lithuanian community's pastor at the church. While he presides over a congregation of roughly 600 people, only one remains from the pre-1939 period.

"Most of the community is from Western Lithuania, which is the homeland of Lithuanian Lutherans," he said.

Klaipeda and the surrounding area, known historically as Memel, were under Prussian domination from 1635 to 1919. Sabutis is from Taurage in Western Lithuania, an important city for Lithuanian Lutherans, and the city where the country's bishop resides. Sabutis also said that a few Latvians and Estonians living in Lithuania also attend and that they sometimes have services in these languages as well as in German.

"I find this job meaningful," said Sabutis, "I get to proclaim God's Word and Gospel and lead others and myself to salvation. We don't have a special task to convert people though. If people come and see us and they like this church, they stay."

Finding the church requires some patience. It is located in a courtyard at Vokieciu 20. Visitors need to pass through a very low archway that leads to the church. "This archway dates back to the Counter Reformation and was built as a defensive measure after the city's Calvinist church was destroyed by mobs. These gates were under 24-hour guard back then," said Sa-butis. "We are two congregations hidden behind a wall on Vokieciu," said Haug. Nevertheless, all visitors are welcome. The church is a popular place for recitals of baroque music.