Lithuanian Passionist Mission Band of St. Paul of the Cross Province
by Clement Kasinskas, C.P.
Editor’s Note: The term ethnic cleansing has echoed in our hearts and minds through this spring of 1999. Ethnic survival, identity and culture are essential to life. Does ethnicity assist us in finding the road to peace? Does it set up roadblocks between cultures? How does ethnicity and belief in God breathe forth the Holy Spirit? This reflection, offered by Passionist Clement Kasinskas, is a reminder to us all about how Catholicism in the United States has been shaped and graced by ethnicity. As one generation of Passionists, Catholics and Christians gives way to another there remains a profound need and sensitivity to remember and learn that ethnicity has a rich heritage of the Gospel. Throughout his life Fr. Clement Kasinskas, who now resides at Holy Family Monastery, 303 Tunxis Road, West Hartford, CT 06107 has been a tireless Lithuanian preacher and teacher of culture. Should diocesan priests request a Lithuanian Passionist for weekend work or temporary substitution, Fr. Clem may be available and hopes that someday the Passionists may establish a monastery in Lithuania – Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Julius Urbonavicius: The First Lithuanian Passionist
Born 15 January 1884, Julius Urbonavicius arrived in the United States in 1902 at the age of eighteen. He lived with his brother who had already settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Julius worked in a coal mine until he was twenty-one years old. In 1905 he sought admission to the Passionist Congregation at St. Ann’s Monastery which had just opened its doors in Scranton. As was the custom he took his Passionist vows on 3 December 1907 and became known as Alphonsus Maria Urbanowicz. He was ordained a priest on 26 May 1915. In 1916 after his year of sacred eloquence, which emphasized study of preaching, he was assigned to the Passionist home mission band apostolate to preach Lithuanian missions.
Fr. Alphonsus Maria Urbonavicius (Urbanowitz) preached in Lithuanian and Polish for twenty-seven years. He translated the Confraternity of the Passion booklet into Lithuanian. He died at St. Gabriel’s Monastery in Brighton, Massachusetts on 18 October 1949 at the age of 65
What impact did the preaching of Fr. Urbonavicius have? It did not take long for Fr. Alphonsus to make his presence known. Preaching from parish to parish he noticed that in many instances the people of his native land were suffering hardships. Some were old and lonely. Others were sick and feeble. As a response, Fr. Alphonsus established the Sisters of Jesus Crucified to assist these people.
Monsignor Juskaitis, a good friend of Urbonavicius asked if it might be possible for some of the Sisters of Jesus Crucified to teach in his parish: Immaculate Conception in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The answer was yes! Soon after the Sisters of Jesus Crucified were teaching in Lithuanian parish schools and some non-Lithuanian parish schools. They also began to care for the sick at nursing homes in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania and Brockton, Massachusetts.
At the same time Fr. Urbonavicius had a direct personal impact in attracting young men to the Passionists. During a mission in Lawrence, Massachusetts he made an impression on Francis Jaskal-Jeskelevicius who entered the Passionists and was ordained Fr. Gabriel Jaskal. Bright, studious and a tireless worker, after ordination on 15 March 1930 he studied Polish for three years in Poland. Later he studied Russian at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois. Fr. Gabriel Jaskal was a preacher of missions in Lithuanian, English and Polish for some forty years and was able to hear confessions in six languages. He also translated the prayer booklet of the St. Ann’s Novena held in July at Scranton, Pennsylvania into Lithuanian. He died on 6 December 1970 at 66.
At St. Peter’s Lithuanian parish in South Boston, Massachusetts Fr. Urbonavicius’ preaching from the mission platform attracted fifteen-year-old altar boy Alexander Matejune-Motiejunas. Entering the Passionists Matejune was professed 15 August 1931 and ordained 30 May 1938. He became a successful preacher in Lithuanian and English who was able to attract the attention of the young, old, educated professionals, and everyday people. An active preacher for thirty-three years, Fr. Matejune died on 17 May 1999 at St. Joseph Manor Nursing Home conducted by the Sisters of Jesus Crucified in Brockton, Massachusetts at the age of 87.
Teenager Tommy Walters-Valteris came from St. Casimir’s Lithuanian Parish, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Born 21 December 1918, he entered the Passionist Seminary at Dunkirk, New York. Professed 15 August 1940 with the religious name of Hilarion Walters, he was ordained 28 April 1947. Walters’ dream was to be a missionary, and right after ordination hr went to China. But the Communist takeover in 1949 forced him to return home where he was appointed Passionist Director of Students and taught Canon Law. Soon after he was assigned to the Lithuanian mission band. People loved Fr. Hilarion for his wholesomeness. In the late 1950s Fr. Walters got his chance to go to the Philippine missions when Fr. Clement Kasinskas was ordained in 1957 and appointed to take Walters’ place on the Lithuanian mission band. Walters resides in the Philippines at the present time.
In May 1944 Clement Kasinskas served as an altar boy during a parish mission given by Fr. Gabriel Jaskal at St. Anthony’s Lithuanian Parish in Ansonia, Connecticut. Toward the end of his mission Fr. Jaskal invited Clem to enter the Passionist Preparatory Seminary at Dunkirk, New York. Born 17 August 1929, at fifteen years old he commenced study with the Passionists, was professed on 15 August 1950 and ordained 3 May 1957. Fr. Kasinskas was an apprentice of Fr. Matejune for about ten missions. After that Fr. Kasinskas preached alone and did not include as many Lithuanian parishes as that of Fr. Alphonsus, Gabriel or Gerald. Fr. Clem’s preaching circuit consisted of essentially fifty-three Lithuanian parishes where he used a plain, ordinary, but eager Passionist preaching style and was willing to fulfill every request offered him by various Lithuanian pastors.
During the psychedelic phenomenon of the 1960s Fr. Kasinskas conducted what he called a “mission festival” for a period of five years. Instead of taking the traditional mission trunk which would hold the mission cross to be raised before the congregation on a mission platform, Fr. Kasinskas rolled up eight beautiful banners, each the size of a large stain-glass window and carried them in a large leather case.
Made by Fathers Norbert Herman, C.P. and Godfrey Reilly, C.P., some of these classical banners were in Lithuanian and others were in Lithuanian and English. During each day of the “religious festival” or mission a different banner was exchanged for the previous day’s “stain-glass window” depending upon the subject on which the missionary was preaching. The banner depicting Jesus Christ Crucified was on constant display for the entire mission festival. These banners served as objects of curiosity, conversation pieces, and “backboards” to which the young missionary referred as he preached. It helped keep listeners visibly attentive and interested in the topic of the particular day. On the night of the Solemn closing all eight exquisite banners were brightly displayed in the Sanctuary.
Fr. Norbert Herman, C.P. told Fr. Kasinskas that he would be the last Lithuanian speaking Passionist. This proved to be true. In the thirty year period of Fr. Clement’s preaching many elderly Lithuanians have died. In time the older American-born Lithuanian pastors died or retired. At times when Fr. Clement came to conduct a parish mission pastors asked him to preach only in English but to weave Lithuanian subjects into his talks, because many of the parishioners could not understand the mother tongue of their parents or grandparents. Then too, third or fourth generation priests did not speak Lithuanian. Presently non-Lithuanian priests administer a number of Lithuanian parishes. Some other parishes have closed.
Located in the lowlands of Central Europe on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea, Lithuania is predominantly agricultural with one fourth of its land forests. Over three thousand lakes with numerous rivers and rivulets grace its terrain. No one knows precisely how long Lithuanians have been living there.
Julius Urbonavicius spoke an ancient Baltic Indo-European language that is important to modern day linguists in the study of comparative languages. Lithuania, surrounded by primeval forests, large marshes and rivers, had little contact with other nations and so preserved much of the qualities and purity of form of their ancient language. For this reason Lithuanian is studied in philological departments in most European universities.
Lithuania is also the land of the Rupintojelis. Derived from the Lithuanian word rupestis it can be translated as anxiety, concern and solicitude. This woodcarving depicts a man in a sitting position, leaning on his elbow, looking pensively and sadly at passers-by. At times the Rupintojelis is sitting on a tree stump or a stone wall. This image is carved in various styles, but always in a way that you immediately know he is suffering. Some scholars think that perhaps village woodcarvers consciously or unconsciously expressed their own worries, and fears through woodcarving. The Rupintojelis was found in the home, at crossroads and other public places. Gradually the Rupintojelis evolved into Christ the Man of Sorrows pondering all the ills of humanity. All emphasis is placed on the facial expression of deep thought and infinite sorrow. The Rupintojelis may be another reason why Lithuanians readily identified with the Lithuanian Passionist missionary who preached so fervently about Christ the Man of Sorrows.
Urbonavicius’ native Baltic region is known as the Land of the Crosses because there are numerous wayside crosses that dot the lovely picturesque country. So when Passionist preachers preached in Lithuanian and raised the mission cross during the parish mission Fr. Clem Kasinskas suggests that the atmosphere could have reminded those in the church of their native land.
The initial wave of immigrants arrived in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in 1867 where they established a parish. In 1869 Lithuanians settled in Plymouth and in Maizeville, Pennsylvania in 1871. Over the years northeastern Pennsylvania became home to twenty-two Lithuanian parishes.
In the 1880s the number of Lithuanian immigrants to the United States increased. They continued to settle in Pennsylvania but moved on to New York, New Jersey, New England and Maryland. Lithuanian historian Dr. Antanas Kucas has determined that by 1965 there were over one hundred and twenty three Lithuanian parishes in the United States.
English is now taught in present day Lithuania. Lithuanians who come to the United States today have a fair knowledge of English. They no longer need ethnic ghettos for mutual support. Lithuanians are now coming to the United States in great numbers.
The Lithuanian mission band in St. Paul of the Cross Province lasted from 1916 to 1990. Lithuanian people have been living in the United States for about one hundred and thirty years. If you add up the years of preaching by the five missionaries it totals approximately one hundred and thirty years!
Every 26 July on St. Ann’s Feast Day at St. Ann’s Passionist Monastery in Scranton, Pennsylvania a Lithuanian Mass is celebrated and a novena service conducted in Lithuanian.
For more information on Lithuania and Lithuanian Catholics in the United States
William Wolkovich-Valkavicius, Lithuanian Religious Life in America , 3 volumes (Lithuanian Religious Life in America: Norwood, Massachusetts, 1998) 1-800-344-4501
William Wolkovich-Valkavicius “Lithuanian Catholics in America” The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History edited by Michael Glazier and Thomas J. Shelley (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1997): 803-805.
Lithuania: An Encyclopedic Survey (Vilnius, Lithuania, 1986)
Vladas Butens Pennsylvanijos Angliakasiu Lietuva (Lithuanian Library Press, Inc: Chicago, IL, 1977).
Encyclopedia Lituanica (South Boston, MA, 1970)
Sister Virginia Vytell, C.J.C, Praise the Lord All You Nations (n.d.)
M. Variakojyte-Inkeniene Lithuanian Self-Taught (Siauliai, Lithuania, 1936) Later edition Chicago, IL 1958