Historic Lithuanian parish welcomed Blessed George

By Chris Sparks

It’s a sad yet all-to-familiar story in dioceses across the United States: Historic Catholic parishes, some more than a century old, are closed due to a lack of priestly vocations.

Case in point: Only 60 miles south of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy lies St. Joseph’s, a Lithuanian parish in Waterbury, Connecticut, that closes its doors on Sept. 30. Saint Joseph’s is the oldest Lithuanian Catholic parish in New England, founded in 1894.

And there’s a strong Marian connection. Our Renovator, Bl. George Matulaitis (1871-1927), visited St. Joseph’s in August 1926, remaining for two weeks, celebrating Masses, giving talks, and conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation on hundreds of adults and children.  

The causes for the closure of this diocesan parish are numerous. Partly, the demographic decline of the area has reduced the parish membership to such a degree that the Archdiocese of Hartford thinks it unsustainable; partly, the priest shortage has cut deep into archdiocesan manpower. 

Absent some last-minute intervention, the final Mass at St. Joseph’s will be celebrated this coming Sunday, Sept. 24, at 9:00 a.m. EST.

 

“Future saint”
Long-time parishioner Peter Verseckas shared the book prepared by the parish for its centennial in 1994, which includes a photo of Bl. George with priests and members of the parish, reproduced from the Aug. 1926 parish bulletin. The caption calls him a “future saint” and says, “it is reported that he confirmed 1,009 men, women, and children” around the state.

Blessed George was in the United States for the 1926 Eucharistic Congress in Chicago, and was serving at the time as titular Archbishop of Adulia and apostolic visitor to Lithuania. Essentially, he was the papal delegate in charge of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, and as such, had a special place in ministering to the Lithuanian diaspora, including in the United States.

According to Verseckas, Bl. George and Fr. Joseph Valantiejus, the pastor of St. Joseph’s from 1919-1959, knew each other from seminary. He believes that is the reason why then-Archbishop George stayed at the parish rectory in 1926.

Waterbury was home to a large and thriving Lithuanian community, and in its heyday, St. Joseph’s boasted 6,000 parishioners. Many Lithuanians migrated to the city from Pennsylvania, leaving work in the coal mines for Waterbury’s brass factories. 

So notable was Bl. George’s time in America as a part of Lithuanian and Catholic history that his visits received coverage from a number of local newspapers. Also, some rare videos survive of the trip: Video 1 and Video 2

“Before the final blessing at every Mass, we pray in unison the prayer for his canonization," says Verseckas.

Marian vocations
“Waterbury was for a very long time ‘fruitful ground’ for vocations to the priesthood,” the Most. Rev. Leonard Blair, Archbishop of Hartford, Connecticut, wrote in his letter announcing the parish closure. “That, sadly, is no longer the case. So please join me not only in praying and encouraging priestly vocations, but also for a renewal of Catholic Faith and practice among all our people in the Archdiocese and our country.”

The Marian Fathers were one of many congregations to benefit from the Waterbury vocations boom. The book prepared by the parish for their 1969 Diamond Jubilee includes a list of members of the parish who had discerned vocations to the priesthood or religious life. That list includes a number of Marian priests: Fr. Anthony Ignotas, MIC; Fr. Albin Gurklis, MIC,  and Fr. Joseph Amodeo, MIC.

The present church, at the intersection of Congress Avenue and John Street just south of downtown Waterbury, was built in 1904, ten years after the parish was founded. In the distance can be seen the large illuminated cross of the Holy Land Shrine, which looms over the still-predominately Catholic city. In front of the church is a traditional Lithuanian wayside cross, delicately carved in wood.

The fate of the church and its many artifacts is up in the air. The property may be sold or repurposed. Verseckas and fellow Lithuanian Catholics, including Christian Allyn, a dynamic 28-year-old, and members of the Knights of Lithuania Council 7, are hard at work appealing for the preservation and protection of St. Joseph’s. A number of options are on the table.

The Lithuanian flag flies on telephone poles and light poles all around the parish grounds, a brave statement of history and heritage in the face of impending closure.

What’s next?
There are lessons for all of us, wherever we may live. Pray for our Catholic community in America, that we remember our history, value our heritage, and seek to evangelize our neighbors rather than close our parish homes.

Prayer; proclamation of the Gospel; practicing Divine Mercy (including through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy); the love of God and neighbor that emerges from receiving the Sacraments; studying Divine Revelation; living our faith — these are the fundamentals of healthy, living, growing parishes. 

With living faith (see Mt 17:20-21), our parishes will thrive. We may accomplish the new evangelization, convert the present culture of death, and transfigure our society into a civilization of love.

Blessed George and St. Joseph, pray for us!
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FHMHC

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