All Souls Day: Lithuanian Catholics remember victims of Soviet occupation

October 27th, 2010 By Father David O’Rourke, OP

Throughout the days of October, the sky in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, transforms from a brilliant blue to a cold gray. Then, almost overnight the linden and maple trees around the Dominican church, Sts. Philip and James, on Lukiskiu Square turn from green to gold to barren, occupied once again by hordes of quarreling crows, shrieking from high up in their dead-stick nests. I am reminded that All Souls’ Day will soon be upon us. It is a major holiday, remembering the dead in this Catholic country where one out of every six citizens was exterminated by the Soviets during their 50-year occupation.

Throughout the week for All Saints and All Souls Days, older folks, mostly women, come into the sacristy of our church before the noon Mass. They carry paper bags, wrinkled and faded and stained. Inside the well-used bags are candles, but they are different from the ones we see in the U.S. They are rough and handmade from honey-colored beeswax, and the wicks seem to be made from any available pieces of string. In Lithuania, you do not buy honey in jars at the store. You buy it on street corners when it is still in the honeycomb from farm ladies who bring it in from the countryside, where so many people still live. The honey, of course, is as fragrant as a Baltic summer field. And for non-natives like me, it is a treat to see the farm ladies in their practical coats and sturdy shoes, kerchiefs tied around their heads, come into the city during harvest time. The city people wait anxiously for them every year, first, of course, for the sweet honey, but also for the beeswax from the combs. They need it for their candles. In the sacristy they come up to me and, with hands obviously accustomed to hard work, hold the bags out for me to bless. It is not an easy task for me. Seeing their humble piety, the hours of work evident in the candles, the calloused hands themselves – all of these cause my eyes to fill up and my voice to shake.

But I bless the candles, in Lithuanian if I can manage it, or in Latin if I can’t, which is usually the case. And without a word, they leave and go back into the church for the start of Mass. For the last 50 years our church and priory have been situated in Lenin Square (not Lukiskiu Square) and facing us is the old KGB headquarters. This is where the Soviets brought many of the hundreds of thousands who were considered enemies of the state, especially those who were religious, and fit only for annihilation. Over a thousand never made it out of the KGB building alive, having been shot to death in the dirt-floored basement. Their bodies were then secretly trucked out at night to a small cemetery just outside the city where they were dumped in a trench prepared for mass burial. A few years ago that mass grave was discovered, the bodies exhumed and identified if possible, and then reburied honorably in the cemetery’s new National Memorial built for that purpose. Each November 1, the night of All Saints, the people take their beeswax candles to these graves and the graves of their relatives in all the cemeteries around the Old City and light them. They burn all through the cold night, giving a rich honey-colored glow to the Old City’s hills. Then they are re-lit on the feat of All Souls, to brighten another grim November night. We too remember our dead, but for us it is different. For the most part we know where they are buried. We were able to be there for the funerals and the burials, to mourn them and say goodbye. Everyone in Lithuania, in all the Baltics, lost at least one loved one to the Soviet terror.

But they don’t know where they are. Some were last seen at the horrific moment when the Soviet police banged open their door and dragged them out to the street to one of those big, black Russian cars that still strike terror. Others were herded into a group, stuffed into the back of a truck, and then driven away to the KGB building or the railroad yard and the waiting cattle cars. Many simply left for work or school in the morning and never came back. We look to the Church’s early martyrs with great reverence. During the 20th century, however, there were more martyrs, more victims of religious persecution than in all the previous 1900 years of the Church’s existence. Why were they taken away? What had they done? Where were they taken? What happened to them? Where did they die? Were they even buried? Their families never knew. Hundreds of thousands. Everyone lost someone, many their entire family. And in that, I now realize, is the meaning of the candles. They light them, of course, for the dead buried in the cemetery. But they light them also as their point of contact with those who disappeared. They are able to take the blessed candles, made with their own hands with beeswax from their own land and light them to burn throughout the two nights.

They light them to dispel the darkness under which they lived for 50 years. They light them to renew the light of human memories. They light tem with the hope that, wherever they may lie, the souls of their dead may be in the hands of God. Dominican Father David O’Rourke is pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Point Richmond and Defender of the Bond in the Canon Law/Marriage Tribunal of the Diocese of Oakland. He is co-producer, with Dominican Father Kenneth Gumbert, of the documentary film “Red Terror on the Amber Coast” about the 50-year Soviet occupation of the Baltic republics. On Aug. 23 of this year the film aired on national television to mark the anniversary of Stalin’s 1939 takeover. It received the highest ratings in its time slot, beating out all the regular prime-time shows. This article first appeared in the October 2010 newsletter of the Dominican Mission Foundation.