Remember those who fought for independence

The Times-Tribune
John E. Usalis
March 16, 2007

We’re in the home stretch as today marks the beginning of Holy Week, seven days away from Easter. Hope your Lent has been a fruitful one. The Orthodox Church began the Great Fast last Monday, so the Orthodox faithful are just beginning their journey to the Pasch (Easter), which will be celebrated on April 27 (Julian Calendar date of April 14).

Next week, I’ll explain how rare celebrating Easter so early in the year really is. Everyone who is alive now will never see it happen again, suspended animation or time machines notwithstanding.

The Knights of Lithuania Amber District held its district meeting in Saint Clair last Sunday. This was the first district meeting I’ve attended.

The district holds three meetings per year, rotating them among the 10 councils in the district. This meeting was hosted by Anthracite Council 144, which has members mainly in Schuylkill County.

I know there are members from Northumberland County in C-144, although most probably belong to Shamokin Council 156. There are two members from Cornwall in Lebanon County. At one time, there were 11 councils in the district, but the Harrisburg council disbanded due to lack of members, with those Knights added to Anthracite’s roll.

The K of L will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2013, which is a significant date in that one of the major Lithuanian celebrations marks Lithuanian Independence Day, which occurred in Feb. 16, 1918.

So, the Knights actually formed five years before Lithuania declared its independence from Russia and Germany. Of course, independence didn’t last long before the country was occupied in World War II by Germany and the Soviet Union, which illegally made it a Soviet “republic” until the March 11, 1990, declaration of independence, making it the first of the Soviet “republics” to tell the Soviet Union to take a hike. It took about another year and a half for the Soviets to acknowledge Lithuania’s independence.

The Anthracite council celebrated LID at a special dinner in February in the church hall. The dinner meeting included a long-delayed kucios, or traditional Christmas Eve dinner. It was originally planned for December, but bad weather canceled it, eventually having it moved to be part of the LID gathering.

Just like many Eastern European tradition, the kucios has 12 dishes that normally begin being served at the sign of the first star of the evening. An alternate tradition had 13 dishes to recognize the 13 lunar months in the year, but now the dinner generally consists of the dozen foods.

Of course, the dinner meeting was held around noon, so there were no stars out to kick off the celebration, but you make do with what you got, and technically there was at least one star out at noon, which, of course, was the sun.

The main dinner speaker was the Honorable John E. Domalakes, a Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas judge. He gave a great presentation about the struggles Lithuania has endured, especially in the last few centuries.

There are plenty of stories of other countries who have had their own struggles, especially in Eastern Europe during communist rule, either as captives of the Soviet Union or their own communistic, totalitarian rulers.

In the United States we have no idea what many of those people went through. Millions died and suffered. When I hear people complain about how bad our current government allegedly is, even to the point where we have stupid Hollywood entertainers declaring that it is (or will be) so bad that they plan to leave the country (which, of course, they never do), I feel sorry for them.

Unless they’re putting up an act, they just show how stupid and/or ignorant they really are. Even during bad times, Americans are really blessed.

Some want to undermine those blessings, while some want to take undue advantage of them, which is why we need people who understand the blessings of liberty and make sure that no one is successful in taking our freedoms away.

Read about what other countries have gone through and understand that it takes a concerted effort to preserve freedom.

During his presentation, Domalakes said, “Today, Lithuania is a full-fledged, independent member of the world community. It enjoys membership in NATO, the United Nations and governs itself as a democratic-republic. But its road to this status has been difficult and fraught with hardship, tragedy and sacrifice. So today, as we celebrate its independence, we also come together to honor those who laid the foundations of that independence. By joining with one another to reflect upon the main tenets of our heritage, we add to the content of our Lithuanian identity. So let us be witnesses for one another that we Lithuanians cherish our heritage.”

Lithuania’s fight for freedom in the past century occurred in the country’s forests, through the preservation of the Christian faith, on the world stage and in the hearts of those whose families came from there. During the Soviet occupation, we can be proud to say that the United States never recognized the annexation of the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, even though most of the world’s nations did the opposite.

There are a lot of people reading this whose ancestors fought — and in some cases died — for their freedom or became victims of communist rule. Some people fight tyranny when it firsts shows its ugly head, while others actually support it at the beginning, figuring they’ll get something out of it until it’s too late. Vigilance is always the key.

Domalakes said, “Let us remember and honor today the native sons of Lithuania, who defeated the Teutonic Knights. Let us remember and honor today the grit of the peasants who took on the Russian army of the czars in the 1800s. Let us remember and honor today the courage of the members of the Lithuanian Activist Front. Let us remember and honor today the heroic partisans, outgunned and outnumbered, who held the might Soviet army at bay for over a decade. Let us remember and honor today the brave and idealistic patriots at the television tower in Vilnius in 1991.

“This is the heritage we celebrate today as Lithuania shares the world stage with other countries as a free and independent nation. This is the heritage of which we all can be so justly proud. This is the history that must be trumpeted to the world as an inspiration to all freedom-loving people everywhere. As Lithuanian-American people, we must never forget that freedom is not free. Nor should we ever forget those who paid the price for that freedom.”

Back to the district meeting. Amber District President Diane Drumstas touted the accomplishments of the district members, saying that their enthusiasm and hard work is very much recognized at the national level.

One of the subjects raised during the meeting was St. George Church in Shenandoah. In case you don’t know, the church is the home of the oldest Lithuanian parish in the country. Shenandoah gets to show off since it has two historic churches, with St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church as the first Greek Catholic church in the country.

St. George Church is closed and fenced in, supposedly for safety reasons. There is a dispute as to what needs to be done involving repairs of the steeples and the cost.

Unfortunately, as the church remains empty and not used, we can only wonder what the inside of the structure looks like without maintenance. Over the years, the church was always maintained. If repairs were needed, they were done.

In the late 1980s, the church went through a major renovation to celebrate the 100th anniversary, estimated at a cost of $1 million, and the parish didn’t go into debt to do it. That’s usually the case with ethnic parishes. They are solvent. Accusations are already flying that one of the determining factors in what churches will close in the diocesan restructuring coming up will be those with money in the bank. That may be hard to prove, but it’s a speculation that may have circumstantial evidence on its side.

Drumstas mentioned last year’s St. Casimir Day district meeting and how the speaker — who was not ethnic Lithuanian — spoke of what is behind some ethnic church closings. Remember, most parishes are territorial. If you live within the established boundaries of that church, that is the one you should belong to. Ethnic parishes, founded by a particular group of people with direct or ancestral ties to a certain country, are more open and not as limited as to who should be members. Actually, when you read some of the histories of the local ethnic churches, many had their start from other area ethnic parishes.

“Last year there was a wonderful speaker who told us how many ethnic churches are being closed, mainly because the ethnic churches are solvent and they can touch their money,” said Drumstas. “Our national organization is aware of this. They’re closing churches all over the place. How many will close in Saint Clair? What’s wrong with them? They’re nothing wrong with them.

“That St. George has to be resolved. They want it for real estate,” Drumstas said.

Speaking about the church was Jim and Dot Setcavage, who have been at the forefront in the struggle to preserve the church. Jim said the diocese has approved another engineering study of the steeples.

Again, there is a question about the results from the past study, noting that it was way to high and that there are engineers who would dispute the findings and the estimated cost for repairs.

“The problem is that our church is worth $10 million in parts and there is $1 million that can’t be accounted for,” said Jim Setcavage.

“Just remember this: Our Lady of Siluva message was, ‘Upon this ground my Son was adored,’ ” said Drumstas. “This isn’t our fault. Who’s going to pay? Let’s just pray that the ‘big deals’ figure it out for themselves and it’s on their conscience. ‘On this ground, my Son was adored.’ ”

The person who said this is not known, but the quote says a lot: “I’m thankful, Lord, that all the darkness in the world has never put out Thy light.”

It’s up to us to keep that light burning, even when the darkness seems overwhelming.

For anyone who would like to see the exterior of Vilnius Cathedral in Lithuania, go to