Surviving church of Lithuanian immigrant community
In the 1980's, this was where many innovative theater projects happened. One of the vibrant new plays that was staged was my play "Life and Death With Business In Between." It was a great place to do theater and Linda Pakri and her husband had set it up as an intimate cabaret. The energy in the room was contagious.
It is also a church that has served many different nationalities for over 100 years. Today, Lithuanians call it their church but it really is a neighborhood church.
The yellow brick, red doored building is always so welcoming in the light. It is a friendly building and would be sorely missed if it is torn down. The sanctuary has been closed due to major roof repairs, and the Archdioese is thinking of closing the church. The congregation is trying to save the church and needs help in preserving it so a major building does not take up valuable airspace as well as taking a spiritual and cultural landmark from the city. (December 2006)
The Roman Catholic Parish of Our Lady of Vilnius was founded in 1905 by a Lithuanian born priest, Father Sestokas, who, after his ordination continued to work as a longshoreman on the nearby docks. The Church, completed in 1911, was financed by the contributions of Lithuanian immigrants. The surrounding community, largely Lithuanian and Italian, was destroyed when the Holland Tunnel was built. Nonetheless, the congregation survived because the Lithuanian-American community was willing to travel to congregate and worship. The religious/fraternal organization, Knights of Lithuania, met in the church hall, where they sponsored cultural and athletic activities.
Our Lady of Vilnius herself has an interesting story. The original icon stands in a chapel of the Eastern (Dawn) gate of the city of Vilnius. The gate, built in the 1500's, is the only remaining gate of the medieval city. Its survival is attributed the Virgin Mary as depicted in the icon. In addition to this icon, the church houses beautiful stained glass windows by the Lithuanian artist Vytautas Jonynas.
The church is a very small yellow brick building with 2 towers and a rose window. It stands next to the Holland Tunnel as a grittier and less grand echo of Lady Liberty lifting her torch beside the Golden Door. It is a landmark to the captives of the outbound traffic jam. The church continues to provide a home for the Knights of Columbus, some of whom worked the west side docks as longshoremen. It is an oasis of peace and encouragement for area residents and office workers who come for the weekday noon Mass. The two Sunday Masses attract neighborhood residents, including a small Portuguese community and Lithuanian Americans from the tri-state area. Twice every month Lithuanians, Lithuanian-Americans and others with adventurous tastes gather in the church hall for concerts, lectures and films. The author of a program prepared for the 90th Anniversary of the parish in 1995 wrote: "Almost lost in these huge communities is a Lithuanian remnant, a little Lithuanian island in Manhattan-Our Lady of Vilnius parish."
I would venture to say that it is the most visible symbol of Lithuanian immigrants in the USA. It is also a symbol of the faith and dedication of immigrants in general and of the rapidly disappearing working class presence in Manhattan. It is a symbol of community, humanity and endurance through change. It is a charming remnant of old New York, which lived on a smaller and more human scale. Despite its evocation of times gone by, it lives in the present as a home to several small and vibrant social, cultural and religious communities that carry the tradition forward. There is a special charisma about the parish that attracts artists, dreamers and thinkers.
The church is a perfect miniature of a traditional Lithuanian church set down in an urban landscape. Very little has been modernized over the years, yet has been preserved with the loving care and frugality typical of its immigrant founders. Stepping into the basement hall feels like going back in time. The bar, the old portraits and photos, the strings of large colored lights, the disco ball comprise a dreamy hodge podge of the aesthetics of 10 decades. If the hall was modernized, I would miss this surrealistic dreamscape very much. It inspires a singular devotion.
In 2004, Father Sawicki noticed cracks along the wall at the base of the ceiling. The Archdiocese of New York sent engineers, who determined that the beams were unstable. The sanctuary was closed pending repairs. Since then, the sanctuary has been periodically assessed, but the Archdiocese has not permitted the release of insurance money nor authorized the repairs. Communication from the parish to the Chancery regarding this issue have received no response. On July 31 of this year, Father Sawicki was informed by Cardinal Egan that he would like to close the church. (October 2006)
For more information: http://ourladyofvilnius.org
Our Lady of Vilnius Rectory
Father Eugene Sawicki, Administrator
Joy McAleer, Trustee
This beautiful church has four stained glass windows by the eminent artist V. K. Jonynas, who created the Vatican pavilion at the New York World's Fair, chapels in St. Peter's basilica in Rome and the Catholic Cathedral in Wasington, DC, etc. He lived and worked in New York City and has a museum dedicated to his work in Lithuania. Go and visit the church and see how beautiful it is. You can go to the internet and click on Save Our Lady of Vilnius and see the works of art.
Cardinal Egan wants to sell the church to developers. The destruction of the church would be a catastrophe. (November 2006)
New comment added in June 2006: The church is a New York jewel and should be preserved. This beatiful church has been stripped and its frescoes have been painted over by the order of Archbishop Egan. It is awaiting a wrecking ball for new commercial development. The parishioners are desperately seeking the protection of the church as a notable NYC landmark and a fitting monument to Lithuanian immigrants.