Lithuanian Catholics restoring Hill of Crosses damaged by fire

Florida Catholic
Catholic News Service
By Jonathan Luxmoore
January 3, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Catholic News Service/
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

A visitor walks through the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai, Lithuania, Jan. 3. People had begun placing new crosses in areas of the site that suffered fire damage in late December. (Reuters)

OXFORD, England (CNS) — Lithuanian Catholics have started to restore the country’s historic Hill of Crosses after a fire damaged some of the smaller crosses.

“People have already begun praying and placing new crosses in the damaged area so it won’t look empty and desolate for long,” Meilute Pozemeckaite, a local council official, told Catholic News Service Jan. 3 in a telephone interview.

Bishop Eugenijus Bartulis of Siauliai said most of the damage was done to small crosses that can be replaced, but some of the large crosses were charred.

“Fortunately the most valuable crosses were spared, so the damage is more moral than material,” the bishop told CNS Jan. 3 by phone.

Lithuanian church sources estimated that at least 200,000 crosses of various sizes were standing on the hill at the time of the Dec. 28 fire. A crucifix donated in September by Pope Benedict XVI was undamaged, they said.

Four fire brigades extinguished the blaze, which burned approximately 60 square yards, according to an Interior Ministry statement Dec. 30.

Pozemeckaite said it was believed the fire was started by candles, which are not permitted on the hill.

“This is by far the most cultural place in this part of Lithuania — a symbol of hope for the living rather than the dead,” he said.

The Hill of Crosses, seven miles north of Siauliai, is believed to mark the site of a pagan massacre and contains crosses, statues and rosaries commemorating sufferings from the communist rule and the war in Iraq.

The stationing of crosses, dating from the 14th century, began on a mass scale after an 1831 uprising against Russian rule and was revived in the 1950s by Catholics returning from Siberian exile.

The Soviet government bulldozed the site multiple times and considered flooding the area. However, the Soviets failed to deter the placing of crosses.

Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the hill during his 1993 pilgrimage to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and he donated a large crucifix a year later.

Newly married couples traditionally leave a cross on the hill, visited annually by more than a million tourists and pilgrims from around the world.