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Athol parish marks 100 years

Posted By November 4, 2013 | 1:01 pm | Featured Article #4

By Tanya Connor

ATHOL – An Apostolic Blessing from Pope Francis and the blessing of a picture of Our Lady of Vilna, patron of Lithuania, graced the 100th anniversary Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Parish Sunday.     Joining the procession were members of the Knights of Lithuania from the Athol-Gardner Council # 10, Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus from the Bishop Philip Garrigan Council #406, the women’s guild and the jubilee committee.
Several priests, some formerly stationed at the parish, concelebrated the Mass with Bishop McManus and Father Krzysztof Korcz, pastor of St. Francis and Our Lady Immaculate parishes in Athol and St. Peter Parish in Petersham. Permanent deacons assigned to the parishes assisted. Father Korcz also welcomed area ministers and state officials and other visitors.
The celebration continued after Mass with a dinner that included speeches, national anthems and Lithuanian dancers, Father Korcz said.
“In God’s providence you’re celebrating 100 years of faith in the Year of Faith,” Bishop McManus said at Mass. He challenged listeners to love the faith enough to hand it on – by example more than words – during these days when “a truce of silence has settled on our families.”
In his homily, Father Joseph J. Jurgelonis described parishioners as people of devotion and determination. St. Francis’ pastor during its 75th anniversary, he is now pastor of Holy Cross Parish and St. Martin Mission in Templeton.
He told of Lithuanians’ devotion to Our Lady of Siluva. The story, as told by Father Jurgelonis and the website, goes as follows.
In 1457 the first Catholic Church in the Siluva area was built. People flocked to it “to fall on their knees, as we sang at the beginning of Mass,” Father Jurgelonis said, in reference to the Lithuanian hymn “Pulkim Ant Keliu.”
In 1532, during the Protestant Reformation, the governor became Calvinist. The priest at the Siluva Catholic Church hid its picture of the Blessed Mother and Child Jesus, vestments, and documents proving the church’s ownership of the land, in an iron-clad box and buried it by a rock. Soon afterwards, the church was seized.
In 1608, children saw a weeping lady with a baby standing on a rock. They told their story, others gathered and the Calvinist clergyman asked the woman why she was crying. She said her Son had once been worshipped on this spot.
A blind man who helped the priest bury the box helped locate it and recovered his sight and Catholics once again worshipped at the site.
Father Jurgelonis also cited Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses as a sign of Lithuanians’ devotion and determination “not to let their faith dissolve.” Even when the communists tried to bulldoze that site, the people erected more crosses.
“The KGB … could not stop the faith of the people, as they paid homage to Jesus Christ crucified,” Father Jurgelonis said.
That’s the kind of devotion and determination that brought Lithuanians to Athol, he said, and told some of the parish’s history.     That history, given to The Catholic Free Press by Marie A. Shatos, noted the poverty – and faith – of Lithuanians who came here at the turn of the century.
They attended Mass at Our Lady Immaculate Parish. Finding the language barrier difficult, they began a fund drive for their own church.
Ms. Shatos said that in 1906 about eight men went to Bishop Thomas D. Beaven of Springfield to seek permission to found their own parish. As they did not speak English, they took her aunt, Magdalena Andreliunas, then 8, with them to do the talking. The bishop agreed to their request, but no priest was immediately available for them.
A few years later Father John J. Jakaitis came from Clinton to celebrate Mass in Lithuanian in Ausrine Society Hall, histories say. But the people still wanted a local priest and parish.
In 1911, Father Joseph Montvilas from Lithuania agreed to come found the parish. He booked passage on an ocean liner called “unsinkable,” on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. But on April, 14, 1912, that liner, the Titanic, struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sank the next day. Father Montvilas was one of about 1,500 passengers who lost their lives.
The next year Father Francis Meskauskas came to Athol and became the first pastor of the parish that was to be named for St. George. He changed the name, apparently to honor his patron saint.
He celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Vilna Hall on Jones Street until it was damaged by fire in 1918. So parishioners broke ground for a church on July 28, 1919. Bishop Thomas M. O’Leary dedicated it on Oct. 23, 1921.
The Knights of Lithuania and the American Roman Catholic Women’s Alliance kept alive the Lithuanian culture, Ms. Shatos’ history says. The Sisters of St. Casimir taught religious education and the Lithuanian language and culture to young people, and a youth council was formed. The women’s guild and the men’s club worked to provide necessities for the church.
“Today people of other nationalities and extractions including those of Ukrainian, Polish, German, French-Canadian, Irish, Filipino and Hispanic ancestry have joined to become an active, integral and valuable part of the St. Francis community,” Ms. Shatos’ history says.
“St. Francis parishioners continue to serve God and country through the Knights of Lithuania. The women’s guild works tirelessly for the parish and the community. St. Francis hosts Problem Pregnancy, an organization that helps young mothers, and Sharing Our Father’s Bread, a cluster program that feeds the needy once a week,” according to the history.
In a letter to parishioners, Father Korcz said a centennial celebration is important; parishioners rejoice in having received the sacraments at their parish, to which they have a loyalty.
They prepared for this celebration during the Year of Faith with a pilgrimage of the Divine Mercy image to their homes and with other activities emphasizing the importance of keeping faith alive, he said. He thanked them for doing that for the next generation.
“Please make this celebration a time of renewing your faith and recommitment to the Lord,” he said. “Let us give thanks to God for all that He has done for us during these years and offer Him our pledge that we shall live and serve as worthy servants for His glory.”

– William T. Clew contributed to this report .