Samogitian Calvary (as it’s called in English) is a collection of 20 small chapels built by Dominican monks on the hills of a rural village, in 1639.
The chapels are stations of the cross and every year are visited by thousands of Catholic pilgrims who pray and sing their procession along the route, in the first two weeks of July.
Cycling to the site on the second Sunday of the month we had thought to see some of the celebrations, but the chapels were locked and bolted.
All was quiet in the village and its surrounding hillsides, which until the 1400s were sites of pagan worship and burial grounds.
Lithuania was the last European country to convert to Christianity and until 1413 people practised ancient ways of worshiping nature and the seasons. Emblems of their beliefs were carved into tall wooden poles which celebrate nature, fauna and gods.
At 1pm under a hot sun the great doors of the Basilica of the Holy Mother Mary’s Visitation opened, and the local congregation spilled out.
Sitting in the shade of a yew tree in the church’s garden we watched young families mingle and chat, old boys gather on benches and women retrieve their bikes from being hidden behind rose bushes and shrubs. Everyone was well dressed and it seemed the old ways of ‘Sunday best’ still held here.
Inside the church we peeked at the miraculous painting of the Madonna and child, worshiped for its special powers, and the reason for the church’s name. It is not generally on display but today took centre stage above the main altar where its gold and gilt dazzled in the cool dimness of the church’s vast interior.
During the Soviet years, Catholicism was persecuted by the authorities and became a hotbed of underground rebellion and nationalistic fervour. Churches were seized and given other secular uses, from warehouses to radio stations.
Many of Lithuania’s national heroes are Catholic priests and poets. After independence in 1991 the Church began to reacquire its old property and consecrate again places of worship.
Having tried for many years, that most famous of Catholic freedom fighters Pope John Paul II finally visited Lithuania in 1993. He held a service at the church of the Holy Mother Mary’s Visitation and vested the title of ‘Basilica’ to it.
In modern Lithuania around 80% of the population consider themselves to be Catholics.