Regina Juodeikiene of Fairport recalled how her Lithuanian mother taught her about her family’s Roman Catholic faith, including prayers and the sign of the cross.
But her lessons came with a warning: Her daughter could not tell anyone about what she had learned.
"When I was little, it was hard to understand for me," Juodeikiene said.
Growing up in Lithuania, Juodeikiene was surrounded by a culture where Russians had replaced the Lithuanian language, literature, radio, television, flag, anthem and historical facts with Russian creations. As a school teacher she was warned that she could lose her job and never find another if she continued to have magazines in her classroom that predated the Soviet Union’s occupation of the country in 1940.
When Juodeikiene moved permanently to the United States in 1993, following Lithuania’s 1990 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, she found her way to Rochester’s St. George Roman Catholic Lithuanian Church, where she was finally able to celebrate her faith freely.
The church is celebrating its 100th anniversary Oct. 11 with a 12:30 p.m. concert at Sacred Heart Cathedral featuring Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s youth choir from Lithuania. At 6 p.m. Oct. 11, a reception and banquet at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center will feature the Volunge Choir from Toronto. Tickets for the banquet are $75 each or $20 for children up to age 12. Reservations are required by Sept. 12. The celebration will continue Oct. 12 with a noon Mass at the parish, 545 Hudson Ave., featuring a Lithuanian bishop and brunch.
Organizers noted that the church’s ministries in the past century have promoted Lithuanian culture and traditions among local immigrants and their families, and more recently, supported the renaissance of the Lithuanian Catholic Church after 50 years of Soviet persecution.
"The purpose of our parish was not just to get together, but to keep that (persecution) in the forefront of everybody," said Janina Birute Litvinas, a St. George parishioner who is chairwoman of the centennial steering committee.
Although Lithuania was predominantly a Roman Catholic country prior to Soviet Union occupation during World War II, the occupiers outlawed participation in the Roman Catholic Church. Christmas trees and celebrations were forbidden. Faith-formation classes were banned. Those who went to church were barred from getting an education or a job.
Soviet occupiers did establish an official state church, but priests and seminarians in it were forced to serve as spies. Many churches were closed and/or destroyed by Soviet forces. Priests and men and women religious exposed for living out their faith were sent to forced labor camps in Siberia, Litvinas said.
Despite the risks, Lithuanians reacted with resistance whenever they could, including by supporting an underground religious movement, Litvinas said. Documentation of human-rights and religious abuses was smuggled out of the country and published around the world. Now that Lithuania is free, the church is trying to teach its parishioners and new transplants about what it means to be Lithuanian and Catholic, she said.
"People who came to Rochester never had a chance to practice their faith," Litvinas said. "Now we are trying to get them back in the faith: baptizing them in the church and marrying them in the church."
Litvinas noted that the church has offered a Lithuanian Mass daily for the past 100 years. In addition to the Lithuanian language, education and singing also are extremely important to Lithuanians, and the church offers both, she said.
The parish has a Lithuanian community choir named Putinas, which was organized in 1945; a Lithuanian language and culture school also is affiliated with the parish. Parishioners run the Lithuanian Heritage Society and the Lithuanian radio show "Dainos Aidas" that airs at 9 a.m. Sundays on WGMC (90.1 FM).
"As of now, five of us do the (radio) show in rotation," said Raimund Kirstein, parish historian and director of "Dainos Aidas." "Each one of us supplies our skills and knowledge and history of the records and discs."
That knowledge varies depending on when the show’s hosts emigrated to the Rochester area, he noted. When people talk about the arrival of Lithuanians in the Rochester area, they often refer to several waves of immigrants, Kirstein said.
The first groups of immigrants arrived in the late 1800s and just before World War I as they fled the occupation of czarist Russia. A second wave of immigrants arrived during and after WWII, as people fled the Soviet Union’s occupation of Lithuania. Kirstein said the third wave was the most recent, arriving in the 1990s and 2000s following Lithuania’s freedom from Soviet occupation.
Parishioners, who were initially organized by the St. Peter and Paul Society and several other Lithuanian American organizations, began celebrating Mass at Holy Redeemer Church’s Concordia Hall. St. George, which was the first and only Lithuanian church in the diocese, was incorporated in 1908. The original Hudson Avenue building was dedicated in 1910 by Bishop Thomas F. Hickey.
In 1929, the parish school began with four grades. It was initially staffed by parish laywomen, but in 1930, they were succeeded by the Lithuanian Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God. Due to a lack of qualified lay teachers to assist the sisters, the school closed in 1965, according to The Diocese of Rochester in America: 1868-1993 by Father Robert F. McNamara.
In 1935 parishioners built the present church, and it was blessed by Archbishop Edward Mooney. Most recently, Father Dominic Mockevicius, who grew up in the parish, came out of retirement in 1994 to become pastor of the parish. He is assisted by Father Gintaras Antanas Jonikas, a Lithuanian priest who is serving a three-year term at St. George.
Having priests who are able to speak in Lithuanian is a highlight of the parish, Kirstein said.
"I still find it gratifying to be able to hear a Lithuanian sermon," he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details and ticket reservations for St. George’s centennial events, contact Janina Birute Litvinas at 585-342-9468.