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In the News: Feature
"A Dream for Lithuania"

by Patrick Novecosky

Help Cardinal create an international Shrine for first Divine Mercy Image.

When Cardinal Audrys Backis walks through Holy Trinity Church, he closes his eyes and dreams of what might be. He imagines hundreds of people gathering to adore Jesus Christ -- The Divine Mercy.

But when he opens his eyes, he's faced with a much different reality -- a church in ruins and a people who know very little about the Divine Mercy message or the roots that the Divine Mercy Image has in downtown Vilnius, Lithuania.

He looks around at the aged and cracked windows and a floor badly in need of being replaced. "My dream," he says, "is to convert this church, which is now in ruins, into a Divine Mercy Shrine where people of all nationalities can come to celebrate Mass in their own language and pray the Chaplet to Our Merciful Jesus."

First Image publicly displayed

As Archbishop of Vilnius for 10 years, Cardinal Backis is eager to bring Divine Mercy to the Lithuanian people. It was in Vilnius, more than 65 years ago that the public first caught a glimpse of the Divine Mercy Image.

It was 1935. Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska had been working as the gardener at her congregation's convent in Vilnius for two years. During that time, she began writing her "Diary" and confided in her new spiritual director, Fr. Michael Sopocko. Three years earlier, Jesus had instructed her in a vision to have a picture painted as she saw Him -- with His right hand raised in blessing and with red and pale rays streaming from His Heart.

After much hesitation about having a painting done, Fr. Sopocko found the artist Eugene Kazimirowski, who agreed to paint the first Divine Mercy Image and finished in 1934. But it wasn't until the Sunday after Easter in 1935 that the Image was publicly displayed for the first time.

"It was placed in a window facing the street at the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy," explains Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, who served as Vice-Postulator for St. Faustina's cause of canonization. "Sister Faustina, assisted by a few others, even decorated the Image in the window."

Following that first public display, Fr. Sopocko moved the painting to a convent next to the church where he was rector. Sister Faustina visited the painting there several times before she was transferred to Warsaw in 1936. The original Image remained in Vilnius until 1956. For several years, it hung in a small church in Belarus. When the church closed, it was rolled up and stored in an attic.

"It was stored under such poor conditions that some of the paint fell off and the Image had to be touched up," Fr. Michalenko explains. "Our Lord's face was changed from the way it originally looked."

Becoming "The City of Mercy"

Devotion to Our Lady of Mercy continues to be a popular devotion in Lithuania. But most Catholics there still do not know about Divine Mercy, says Cardinal Backis, even though this is where it started. And many of those who do know about the message of mercy given to St. Faustina regard it as a "Polish devotion."

"This city really should be known as 'The City of Mercy,'" Cardinal Backis explains. "We need so much mercy in our world. We have Our Lady of Mercy here, and the original Divine Mercy Image. It adds so much to the pastoral life of the Archdiocese. This Image is very popular in the small country churches, but not so much in Vilnius itself."

By renovating Holy Trinity Church, Cardinal Backis says he hopes Vilnius will truly become recognized for spreading mercy. The gothic-style 15th century church was chosen because of its central location and because it is not currently being used. The building has a fascinating history.

It was damaged by fire in 1748, converted to a Russian Orthodox church in the 1820s, returned to the Catholics a century later, then taken over by the communist government following the Second World War. It was used as a workshop to build and repair organs during the communist era. The government finally returned the deteriorated church to the Archdiocese in 1998.

"During this time, the government neglected the building terribly," Cardinal Backis says. "They didn't do any maintenance at all."

Lithuania struggles to rebuild

Very Rev. Walter Dziordz, MIC -- Superior of the Province of Marians based in Stockbridge, MA -- discussed with Fr. Joseph, MIC, the urgent need for help with the church's restoration after visiting it and meeting with the Cardinal last fall.

Like many former communist nations, Lithuania is still struggling to make the transition to democracy. Most Lithuanians -- especially those who live outside the major cities -- survive on about $20 per week. So the thought of renovating churches like this one is a daunting task, Cardinal Backis admits.

"It's a lot of work for a small church," he says. "The whole church is in a state of extreme decay, so we have to repair and replace everything from the foundation to the roof."

The entire renovation will cost about $100,000, he says. "We will do it bit by bit," he says, examining gaping holes in the floor.

Just down the street, in the Church of the Holy Spirit, the original Divine Mercy Image is now on display. However, Cardinal Backis says that is not the best permanent home for it, because the parish only serves Polish speakers in Vilnius. He wants to stress the universality of the message and devotion, creating a Shrine for all peoples in Lithuania and from around the world. The Cardinal envisions the day the Image will be carried in a grand procession to its new home, only 500 yards away.

"It will be a great day," he says. "The Divine Mercy deserves a permanent home in this city, a home where all can come to worship and pray for God's mercy on our land and on our world."

How you can help

If you feel led to send a gift to help establish a permanent shrine to house the original Divine Mercy image, please send your offering to us quoting code WV.

Association of Marian Helpers
Eden Hill
Stockbridge MA 01263

To arrange a special gift for Vilnius, please call Mrs. Ellen Volkman at 1-800-462-7426.

©2001 Marians of the Immaculate Conception. All rights reserved.