On August 1, 1976, the feast of Saint Dominic, the church of Palėvenė (Kupiškis Rayon), celebrated its 300-year jubilee. The sermon on the occasion was preached by Father Pranciškus Masilionis,
Father Pranciškus Masilionis
who had served at this church. He mentioned briefly the history of the church in Palėvenė; the Dominican Friary founded there, and the school and library they ran, and he described other churches and schools like those of Palėvenė — Pažaislis in Kaunas; SS Peter and Paul, Saint Michael and the Bernardine Church in Vilnius; Tytuvėnai, Linkuva and Kražiai. These were centers of art and learning which had a decisive influence on the formation of the country's attitudes and customs:
"All this prepared the Lithuanians for those struggles and sufferings which awaited them later. All this nourished and strengthened the Lithuanians in their most difficult times. All this encouraged the Lithuanians to hold out and struggle for freedom. All this aroused in Lithuanians feelings of admiration, self-confidence and even a healthy self-esteem. And now, they are treasures of our nation, given to us by on i ancestors, inviting us to hold on to our faith and love of our "fatherland," said Father Masilionis.
The preacher reminded his listeners that one of those who attended the church in Palėvenė and studied in the school run by the friary was the famous Lithuanian architect, Laurencijus Stuoka Gucevičius. Touching on the difficulties of the church of Palėvenė (throughout its 300-year history), Father Masilionis vividly recalled the fire which happened to the church in 1958, and the problems with rayon representatives and with the office of the Commissioner for Religious Affairs in connection with the reconstruction of the church. Following is an excerpt from the sermon:
"...In conclusion, may I remind you of what we have experienced in common with you. I remember the fire and the problems until the roof was reconstructed. At that time, you showed unusual kindness. Your faith and goodness surprised even the neighboring clergy. To all of you, I am very grateful."
"At that time, the church committee, with its chairman, secretary and treasurer, the choir and adoration society, among whom were a good number of our beautiful young people, performed yeoman service. I recall very many good individuals and families who helped in all sorts of ways. I trust that you will continue to help the church so that this beautiful and dear mother of ours might be loved as before. . . " ——
On July 10, 1958, the roof of the friary caught fire at the chimney on the church side near the church. The roofs were of wooden shingles, old and very dry. A strong wind blew in the direction of the church. The church is high; it cannot be climbed to extinguish a fire. A crowd gathered, I asked one boy to climb up on the church and quickly throw down from the tower windows church documents and old books which had little value. The boy threw down some of the things, and that which he threw down became scorched and were further damaged.
By the time the firemen arrived from Kupiškis, and with them the rayon leadership, the friary was almost gone. Some men almost beat up rayon Chairman Paplauskas for telling the firemen to extinguish the dying friary fire and not allowing them to save the church. The fire paid no attention to the firemen, devouring more and more of the church roof. I brought the Blessed Sacrament out to my apartment. There was danger that the roof would buckle, so I took out the liturgical vessels and appointments. The zeal of the salvagers did some damage: one powerful man ripped out the tabernacle to salvage it, others tore down about four stations of the cross, merely destroying them, while others jumped up and grabbed the chandeliers to salvage them, but only broke them up. Seeing it all, I told them not to do so. They stopped bringing out the tabernacle and tearing out the stations of the cross, but they demolished the chandeliers.
The fire was getting close to the tower. The large windows of the tower had been open for many years. Crows and magpies used to bring twigs for their nests in the spring. Below, on top of the tower arches, was a great pile of twigs. There also lay a dead crow. It was impossible to clean them out, neither down through the opening behind the wall nor upward through the windows which were high, perhaps ten or more meters above.
The good bell-ringer, Juozas, chopped an opening in the masonry and one on the Lėvenas side Then he hauled out of the tower sixteen large wagonloads of twigs! This was a benefit which had not for seen. Meantime, the fire approached the tower, and the flames like golden serpents crawled through the windows and were licking at the wooden supports of both great bells.
I asked the men to save the bells, but the hose was too short and the firemen from Kupiškis,were unable to do anything. It looked as though there was no hope: the bells would fall, cave in the tower arches and break. We were afraid that the church roof would also collapse. I asked all the people to leave the church, and locked the door. But what was I to do with the bells? I couldn't do anything. As I left the church I saw that the wooden bell-supports were already burning. Tongues of fire were glowing. A little while longer and the bells would be falling.
Suddenly, into the churchyard raced another engine company. They were wearing helmets like soldiers of old. The first one barely into the churchyard shouted, "Where's the problem?"
I replied that it was the bells in the tower, but in the belfry it was equally dangerous for people. The firemen immediately rushed to extinguish the fire. The bell supports were burning. Some of them were burned through and sagging. It was dangerous for the bells and for the firemen. However, they were able to extinguish the fire. But the danger of collapse was not past because the supports were badly damaged.
This church was an artistic monument. For the preservation of artistic monuments, there is a committee. It has a power greater than that of the communal farm, the district; rayon or regional governments It is responsible directly to the Council of Ministers. There was a local division of it, and perhaps it still is in Šiauliai. Palėvenė is in the region of Šauliai.
The next day I tore off to Šiauliai, to the aforesaid division, and they immediately sent a specialist. Engineer-Architect Nistelis. He checked everything and told us what had to be done to prevent the bells from falling until they were restored. He did not say that the church should be closed. The men immediately took care of everything.
We moved back into the church and began holding services there. In Vilnius, the Committee for Preservation of Monuments has a special shop. I immediately contracted with it. They sent a man to draft renovation plans, and allotted material. Bishop Paltarokas and representatives of the Committee for the Preservation of Monuments advised me to go to Commissioner tor Religious Affairs Pušinis to ask for more material. Pušinis spoke in a strangely pleasant and saccharine manner. He heard me out when I told him that we were having services in the church again. No sooner had I left than Pušinis ordered the Kupiškis, Rayon to close down our church. The second and third day after I arrived home from Vilnius, the Vice Chairman of the Kupiškis, Rayon came to see me; he was a Russian. If it had been Paplauskas, it would have been worse. To the Russian, I complained that we had no place to hold services. I asked him to allow us to do so in the sacristy. He, being sensible and seeing that there was no danger to life, left us the sacristy. Departing, he locked the church doors and took the keys with him.
In the sacristy, at the door to the church, we set up an altar of sorts. The sacristy keys were in our possession. The renovation work began. In the churchyard, lumber was piled. Rayon Chairman Paplauskas and the Rayon Party Secretary, who had come from the Village of Aščiagaliai in the same parish of Palėvenė, became very angry. They scolded me, threatening me with imprisonment. The Party Secretary even became hysterical, In the churchyard, the workers assembled the rafters and had to hoist them up onto the church . . . I asked the rayon for the keys, since the steps to get onto the roof of the church were only from the tower, which was also locked. The rayon would not accede to my request. They told me to go to Vilnius to see Pušinis.
I went to Vilnius to see Pušinis and told him what was the matter. He called Kupiškis, saying;, "Open the church! Let them pray!" and he told me to go home. When I arrived home, I went for the keys. Once more, the rayon would not give them to me. They demanded a document which no one had given me. I went back to Pušinis Once more, it was the same story. I don't know how many times I went to see Pušinis and it was always the same story. The workmen made themselves a long ladder, climbed up on the church roof and began to haul up rafters and whatever else was needed. After some time, the men once again asked for the church keys, because from church, it is easy to climb into the tower, and from the tower, it is not difficult to climb up onto the roof. Once again, I went to Pušinis Once at the beginning he asked me, among other things. "Where do you pray now?"
Not sensing the trick, I replied, "They left us the sacristy because there is no room elsewhere. That's where we pray." I had hardly returned home and finished Mass when Rayon chairman Paplauskas himself showed up and sternly ordered everything to be taken out of the sacristy. He disregarded my explanation and entreaty. How to save the situation? Where to turn? I said to myself, "I'm going to telephone the bishop, and ask him, what to do."
I took the sacristy key and hurried out. The public phone was then nearby. It was difficult to make connections with Vilnius, and I had to wait. Suddenly, Paplauskas appeared in the doorway and said, "I've sealed the sacristy! Just try to break it open. . ." and he left.
The sacristy key remained in my possession. I went home and found the sacristy sealed, but unlocked, so I locked it. Remaining in the sacristy were the Blessed Sacrament, all the sacred vessels and altar breads, wine, books, my overcoat and my assistant's breviary. My assistant was substituting for me, because I was suffering from tuberculosis.
The churchyard of Palėvenė is enclosed by a masonry wall. In it are fourteen niches for stations of the cross. The niches are shallow. The Dean and Pastor of Kupiškis, lent me everything necessary for one priest to hold services and bury the dead. We set up an altar in one niche of the masonry wall. They had held two candles. It was more difficult when the wind blew, since then the Blessed Sacrament was in danger. In those cases, we used to cover it with the pall. On Sundays I used to preach right there, and after Mass, I used to go in front of the sacristy and kneel down, since behind the doors was the Lord, and we used to sing Šventas Dieve (Holy God). During Mass, the choristers and congregation also used to sing. When there was a funeral, we used to set the casket right there in the churchyard. Its roof was the beautiful sky. I used to hear confessions sitting on a chair.
We struggled along in this way for two months; the weather was good. But with the coming of September, the weather became cooler. In the morning, grey fog would envelop our church like incense. What was going to happen next? Autumn was at our door. The workmen kept asking for the keys and we had begun to run out of material. In Vilnius, men from the Committee for the Preservation of Monuments and its workshop advised me to go to Pušinis and ask him in writing for material and for the church key. I thought that this would only make matters worse, because he would again form a committee, on which would be people from the first committee. After considerable persuasion, I gave in.
I wrote Pušinis a second request that he form a committee, ascertain the condition of the church and return the keys. In Vilnius, I also dropped in on one of the members of the aforesaid committee. Suddenly, he received a call from Pušinis. Pušinis began to criticize me to an employee, who did not know me: "That pastor is terribly lazy. Just think, I told him to submit a request in writing and we would open the church. But he refuses! Obviously, he's lazy! If I were the rayon chairman, I would take a fence picket to him!" I was standing very near and could hear everything, while the employee looked at me and smiled. Pušinis' anger seemed strange to him, too.
When I returned from Vilnius, the churchyard was swarming with many men, led by rayon officials. It was the new committee to check the condition of the church. In the center of the churchyard stood a man who was not getting involved, but only smoked incessantly. I was told that it was someone from Vilnius, specially sent from the Commission for the Preservation of Monuments. I later learned that there really had been a man from Vilnius, but that he had been sent to the Kupiškis Rayon regarding tractors! The lie was invented to give the commission greater weight. The men of the commission, all sorts of little men chosen to make a greater impression and lend an air of importance, climbed everywhere and poked into everything. Finally they left.
From everything, it was clear that for our church, it was the end! There was a serious danger that it would be demolished. That same day, I left for Vilnius to go to the Commission for the Preservation of Monuments for assistance. In Vilnius, the offices were already closed. That evening, I went to see an important engineer. Not finding him home, I waited outside his house until midnight. Where was 1 to put up for the night? With great care, I paused for a moment before the bishop's door. I had not made a mistake. Immediately, I was admitted and pleasantly received by the Chancellor, Canon Bronius Antanaitis.
It was useless to try to see anyone on Saturday. On Sunday, I was supposed to be in Panevėžys, and to preach there. In return, the pastor at that town, then still Canon Dulksnys, promised to set asside the entire collection for the erection of a church. I was still hoping to meet someone from among responsible persons before Monday, since on Monday, I thought, the Commission from Kupiškis, Rayon would send Pušinis their report, the latter would give an unfavorable answer and it would be all over with our church. To my way of thinking, it was essential to head off this misfortune, but I did not know that the report had already arrived and the Commission for the Preservation of Monuments had already been informed. I did not understand how the rayon could do it so quickly.
I hurried, but they were quicker. On Saturday, I got nowhere and no one helped me. The bishop did not get involved in such matters. The chancellors merely helped one to see Pušinis or his secretary, code-named Audronaša (Stormy).
It was a beautiful early Sunday morning. In Panevėžys they were observing the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. That's where I should have been. I made excuses for myself, saying that the pastor was a gentleman, would understand and would not get angry. What was I to do?
Unexpectedly the idea occurred to me: The church is an artistic monument. It belongs to the Commission for the Preservation of Monuments! The Commission has a jurisdiction greater than that of the rayon or of the department. So the conclusion was clear; I must go to them and say, "This church is under your control. You yourselves make up a commission, go there and on the spot check everything. If you find that the church is in danger of collapsing, restore it! If it is in good shape, allow us to hold services in it and let the workmen proceed!"
On Monday, working in the office were people who were important to me. My idea met with approval from the monument protection people. They immediately recommended that the chief inspector go and check everything. With him to Palėvenė came also a young engineer, to draw up the plan for the monastery roof, because the monastery, too had been damaged by fire. So the committee formed itself. I suggested that we leave Vilnius in time to arrive in Kupiškis before 9:00 AM, since after 9:00 AM the rayon leaders go out to the communal farms.
Early on Tuesday, we were already in Palėvenė, since the road goes through there. The engineers found the church still sealed. At 9:00, we were already in Kupiškis. At once we found the two rayon leaders, Paplauskas and the Party Secretary from Aščiagaliai, whom I mentioned earlier. There is no way they wanted to give up the church key. The man from Aščiagaliai kept asking for the papers, and checking them over again. The inspector said, "Why are you fighting with the church. That's not your job. Your job is to worry about the communal farm. To undermine the church, there is Commissioner Pušinis. "
Whether anyone was listening to him or not, the man from Aščiagaliai kept criticizing and blaming me for interefering with the communal farm, and he told me that I would not be eating the tasty bread of Kupiškis much longer. Finally the rayon leaders gave us the keys, and we left for Palėvenė with Paplauskas and the man from Aščiagaliai hurrying after us to Palėvenė.
The members of the commission were already going to inspect the church when the man from Aščiagaliai suddenly accosted them and demanded papers. This behavior on their part seemed very strange. The commission removed the seal on the entrance and climbed up the tower onto the church roof. They were followed by the man from Aščiagaliai. An argument ensued, the man from Aščiagaliai affirmed that the church walls were of unfired brick. They had crumbled from the blaze. The walls were going to collapse!
The commission, after making its inspection, replied that, "The walls have become fire-hardened. There is no danger!"
The man from Aščiagaliai continued to argue, "You can see the crack in the church wall. The tower is leaning to one side, and the church to the other. It's dangerous"to life and limb!"
As a matter of fact, the church roof, perhaps as a result of the war, had had a crack across it, but according to the expert, such a crack is not dangerous. The committee, after making its inspection said, "It could support a tank! There really is no danger that it would collapse."
The rayon chairman remained silent. I stayed with him and explained that we get along well with the collective farm. I wanted very much to be with the commission, but I purposely remained with the chairman because my assistant priest had, about a month previously, deftly twisted back the string from the seal, we had opened the sacristy and removed the eiborium with the Blessed Sacrament, and everything we needed. Then my assistant priest had carefully replaced the string and there remained no significant trace of what had been done. I was afraid lest the chairman would check the sacristy doors which he himself had sealed, and notice something suspicious, so I stayed with him and tried to keep him talking. But the chairman did not move from the spot, and waited sullenly for the commission to climb down. When the commission returned, the chief inspector said, "You can open the sacristy yourself."
I replied, "The rayon closed it. Please open it so that you might not blame me for it later.
In the meantime, I had unlocked the sacristy door. The inspector, in opening the door, pulled off the seal and went in, with me close behind. Behind me, the man from Aščiagaliai fairly flew in and disregarded by everyone, but clearly and suddenly upset, repeated, "There is no danger here! There is no danger here! Really, the walls here are a meter thick and of hardened masonry. There is no clanger here!"
Yet it was precisely on account of this "danger" that they had ejected us from the church and from this sacristy! In the sacristy, they drafted a report to the effect that the church had been inspected, that it was in no danger of collapse, and that services could be held there. They gave instructions that we should not ring the bells until they were repaired. They left me a copy. The rayon representatives were shocked. They both kept quiet. The commission went to check the fire-damaged monastery where the office of the communal farm was. Later, people said that the communal farm leaders had been quite nervous since the monastery premises were in great disarray.
I accompanied the visitors as far as the gates of the monastery enclosure. After the inspection of the Friday before, as I already mentioned, carried out with deceiving solemnity, the rayon government had immediately reported to Vilnius that the church in Palėvenė was in a precarious condition since the tower was leaning to one side and the church itself to the other. Now the rayon government kept silent, and this was not all. After perhaps a good half-year, the architects of Lithuania had a meeting. A representative of the Office for the Preservation of Monuments in his speech complained that there are rayons whose leadership not only fails to help preserve monuments, but even interferes with their repair. As an example of such a rayon, he mentioned the Rayon of Kupiškis, which interfered with the repair of the church in Palėvenė.
But the rayon would not calm down. . . It could still go after the workers on the communal farm, and it did. It announced that it woidd check in the barns the hay reserves of those communal farm workers who went on weekdays to help out on the repairs to the church. And that help was necessary! There was a law at the time, and perhaps still is, to the effect that nine-tenths of the allotted land parcel was earmarked for grazing, and only one-tenth could be mowed by the communal farm worker for winter hay. People used to do just the opposite, grazing one-tenth and mowing nine-tenths for the winter. Thus, everyone was guilty. The government knew it and threatened, "Whoever goes on a work day to help out at the church will have his hay reserve checked. If an overage is found, all of the hay will be confiscated.
So people went to help out, not on work days, but on holidays. When it was time to lay the shingles, the roof was full of people after services, like bees around honey. It finally ended as follows: the church roof was rebuilt, the rotten wooden cross on the belfry was replaced with one of iron. The iron stations of the cross in the churchyard were replaced or re-set, and in place of the cross on the great bells which had been damaged by fire, there was now an iron cross. It remained only to mount two rather original iron ornaments in the gates. They remained to be mounted because the one who made them was late with his work. The livestock hand, Guoba, kept promising. Finally, he came with his son, erected a work table, took down the gate archway, and had begun to mount the ornaments which were supposed to be on either side of the cross (they are still there), when two men showed up in the churchyard and said, "I am the Kupiškis Rayon architect, and this man is from Vilnius, from the Commission for the Preservation of Monuments. By what right is this restoration taking place? Do you have a permit?"
I replied that we had a general permit. The architect angrily said, "Stop working immediately, you re not allowed to make repairs." How could such an educated man, an architect, a high official, lie? I believed him. I asked livestock hand Guoba to put everything back as it had been, and not to continue with the repairs. After all this, they ordered me out of Palėvenė and took away for awhile my permit to work as a priest.
Sometime later, the chairman of the Commission for the Preservation of Monuments himself, a young man, came to inspect Palėvenė.
Reverend Father Jonas Uogintas, the new pastor, said, "Your office sent over a man on such and such a date. He came with the rayon architect who then forbade me to complete small repairs on the churchyard gate."
The guest, after reflecting, replied, "No, we sent no man at that time!" So the Kupiškis Rayon official dishonorably lied! It seems that petty spies had informed the rayon about the repairs on the gate and rayon administrators had sent their architect to Palėvenė to stop the work by lying. The work was completed by Father Uogintas, the new pastor of Palėvenė. Soon after, the man from Aščiagaliai was relieved of his duties, reportedly for speculation in flour from the bakery, and Chairman Paplauskas is dead.