Czarist Russia understood well that as long as the Catholic Faith in Lithuania was not destroyed, and the national consciousness was not weakened among the people, uprisings and opposition to the Czarist occupation would constantly occur. To that end, it began suppressing religious orders and churches which had fostered the deep faith of the Lithuanian people and their love for their country. In the Diocese of the Lowlands (Žemaitija), forty-six monasteries and twenty-three chapels and churches were suppressed.
What to do in such circumstances was clearly indicated by Bishop Motiejus Valančius in pamphlets published in Tilže (Tilsit): "When Muscovites take away our churches, Catholics must not only ask the government not to do so, but also the people of the entire parish, male and female, must gather together quickly, bringing provisions. They must fill and surround the church and not allow the Muscovites near the House of God. In the church itself, they must keep watch by night and singing hymns from the soul, they must pray the Lord to help His holy church...
'If the Muscovites beat, hack or flog anyone, he must nevertheless put up with it. This is what the parishioners of Tytuvėnai did, and this is what the Catholics of the Province of Minsk did when their churches were being seized. For several days and nights, they slept in the church and churchyard; this is why I say that nightwatch is necessary.
"Your souls are worth suffering a little bit for their salvation. So, my children, spare neither your homes, nor your possessions nor your lives... Keep the faith, my children, keep the faith, even though they kill you all! If the Muscovites take anyone, if they beat, torment or kill you, nevertheless, let the Catholic bear it! The Lord our God will supply strength and perseverence for the one suffering for the Faith..."
The persecuted Lithuanians took Bishop Valančius' instructions to heart and in time of danger, they knew how to act.
Here we present the history of the defense of the Kęstaičiai church as narrated in Petras Veblaitis' book, Government Over the Church of Kęstaičiai (Kova su caro valdžia už Kęstaičių bažnyčią).
The Russian government began preparations back in the spring of 1886 for closing down the church and the nursing home for priests in Kęstaičiai. Meantime, at high government levels, they were preparing the order for abolishing the mission of Kęstaičiai, attached to the parish of Alsėdžiai. The Russian Czar, Alexander III (1881-1894), signed the order for its supression with no qualms. This method of russifying Lithuania and making it Orthodox by supressing churches and monasteries he inherited from his father, Alexander II (1855-1881), and his Grandfather, Michael I (1825-1855).
It was clear to Alexander III as it had been clear to his predecessors that Lithuanian "troublemakers" must be "strung up".
During the summer of 1886, Ivan Kochanov, Governor General of Vilnius and Kaunas, received an announcement from Prince Gagarin, Vice Minister of Internal Affairs, that on July 10 of that year, "The Lord's Emperor has deigned to command from on high that the nursing home of Kęstaičiai be evacuated and that... the church, attached to that home, should be closed."
The position of the bishop of the Lowlanders was difficult. The Czar's order to close the church was a command from the highest authorities. The order was backed by the physical might of Russia, which the bishop lacked the weapons to resist. In such cases, the bishop had to defer to the physical force of the government. A struggle was possible only by the Church's moral authority and appropriate methods of passive resistance.
In accord with such a strategy, the bishop, having received the order to close down the church of Kęstaičiai, forwarded it for implementation to the diocesan consistory, which acted according to his directions. The consistory, after procrastinating for more than two weeks, instructed the Dean of Alsėdžiai, the pastor of Seda, Father Pranciškus Mažeika, in September to carry out the governor's order. It is possible that the consistory was in no hurry to send out the letters so that those living in the area of Kęstaičiai, upon learning that their church was to be closed down, should have time to agree on how to defend it.
The days, unsettling for those living in the area, slipped by. The people, understanding well the situation which had developed, decided to send a delegation of five men to the Czar in Petersburg with a request not to close the church of Kęstaičiai. A petition was signed by 300 lowlanders.
September 24 was the date appointed for closing the church. Well before that day, the police had stationed armed men along all the roads to see that Father Juknevičius, director of the nursing home in Kęstaičiai, would not take the nursing home's valuables anywhere. Residents of the area, effected by news of the church's closing, came to the Kęstaičiai church in groups. Fearing lest government representatives arriving after they had left the church would not lock them up, the faithful, by turns, kept an uninterrupted vigil in the church, sang hymns and prayed.
By September 23, crowds of people had already arrived at the church in Kęstaičiai, and a full church waited through the night for the arrival of the commission. The commission arrived September 24, and found the church full of people. In order that the commission should not be able to close down the church, the women removed the church doors and hid them. Coming to the church, representatives of the government and the clergy found it wide open, without doors. The people who had gathered allowed the commission to come only as far as the church doors, and would allow them to come no further, shouting, "We won't allow you! We won't give it to you!"
In order to close the church, the Blessed Sacrament had first of all to be removed. To remove it, the Sheriff of Telšiai had ordered the pastor of Seda, Father Pranciškus Mažeika, to remove it. The pastor, carrying the order, approached the altar. The women surrounded him, asking him not to remove the Blessed Sacrament. When the priest tried to take a few steps nearer to the altar, the women clung to him and, kissing his hands, again begged him not to approach the altar and not to take the Blessed Sacrament away. Father Mažeika, affected by the women's entreaties, or perhaps simply prevented from reaching the altar, turned around and left the church.
Sheriff Popov was unable to set foot in church. As soon as he tried to enter, the people, embracing his feet, begged him in tears to use his influence with the government not to close their church. They promised to leave the church and disperse if the sheriff, after sealing the church, would not remove its effects, but leave everything just the way it was till the Czar's favor could be obtained to leave them their church. Should they not obtain this favor, they intended to commend themselves to the Will of the Most High and to leave church without resisting. When the commission failed to close the church, Father Juknevičius was summoned and told to calm down and to convince the tumultuous crowd, otherwise he would be responsible.
The police were already accusing Father Juknevičius of inciting the people to disobey the authorities. Father Juknevičius tried to address the people, but they would not listen. Seeing with what zeal the people were prepared to defend their church, Father Juknevičius departed, shaken. The Dean of Alsėdžiai, Father Tamašauskas, tried to convince the people to give in to the government directives, explaining the responsibility which would fall on them if they continued to resist. The crowd began to shout, "Why do the police not do anything against us, but only watch when we pray?"
The people responded correctly, 'The government authorities themselves took no measures and demanded that the clergy carry out their instructions. They acted so in the desire to create the impression that the church was being closed down not so much by the government, but by the priests themselves."
Unable to close down the church, the sheriff took over the nursing home for priests with all its assets, including the building, which had been constructed at the personal expense of Father Juknevičius, building material assembled for the construction of the farm, firewood and threshed and unthreshed grain.
After September 24, the people did not leave the church, guarding it day and night. Lowlanders flocked to Kęstaičiai from every direction. In a few weeks, the numbers of those visiting the church grew so that they could no longer fit, not just in church but even in the chuchyard. There were as many of them as at the Calvary of the Lowlanders during religious festivals. Some of them would remain on guard in church, others provided them with food and a third group, after visiting the church and praying, would return home. In the surrounding parishes, there was not a single farmer who did not provide something to help those guarding the church.
All the residents of the area were fired up to defend the house of God and to fight for their religion. About the Tightness of their cause, they had not the least doubt, convinced that the government, intent on destroying their church, was performing an atheistic and godless sacrilegious act and those who fought for it would merit eternal salvation. In the defense of the church, therefore, all the lowlanders were bound by complete agreement and unity, especially since it was from the Orthodox government that they suffered persecution of the Lithuanian press and every other form of oppression.
The leader of those guarding the church was a resident of the Village of Žvirblaičiai, Domininkas Daračius, a tall man like Saul in the bible, taller and heavier-set than anyone else, about forty years of age. He knew all the people of the area well, and was well-known to them as a good, one might say a professional, matchmaker, who knew his way around, eloquent, ingenious, experienced and popular. As the leader of those guarding the church, he used to lead the prayers and hymn-singing even during the night. Everyone listened to Daračius and followed his instructions. When he ran out of time himself, he would send his assistants.
At the suggestion of Daračius, barricades were set up in church so that through the walk-through sacristy government agents and the clergy could not approach the main altar where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved. In order that the priests might not be able to remove it from church, they barricaded the sacristy with stones and across the church they placed benches on which they sat the whole time, preventing anyone from approaching the altar.
At first, food for the guardians of the church was prepared in the monastery kitchen. However the stoves, kept lit day and night, became so hot that the police, claiming to take measures against the outbreak of fire, forced them to extinguish the flames.
The cooks, however, were not daunted. They moved to the edge of the woods and there in a depression next to the yard of villager Antanas Počius and in a similar depression of neighbor Vierkietis, they set up field kitchens, hung kettles donated by the Forest Ranger Razmas, and, the fires blazing day and night, prepared stew and other dishes.
The food prepared was brought in trenchers to Počius' house, and piled on tables where the guards would come and eat free-of-charge. It was a beautiful fall so the diners, unable to fit into Počius' house, ate outside at newly constructed tables.
The Lowlanders were accustomed to bringing offerings, mostly sheep, to the priests and religious of Kęstaičiai. So now, while the church was being guarded, such donations poured in from the whole surrounding area. Everyone who wished could eat his fill. During the two months of vigil, the cooks slaughtered more than 200 sheep, not including other meat and other kinds of food.
The police became even more incensed over the field kitchens at the edge of the woods, and more than once they tried to dump the kettles and extinguish the fire. But the women in the kitchen, brandishing firebrands, would disperse them. In this way, the police, without accomplishing anything, would be forced to retreat.
At one point a priest was riding through Kęstaičiai, and stopping in the village, went into church desiring to pray. In church, some people were reciting the rosary, some were making the Way of the Cross, still others sang hymns. The priest, wishing to adore the Blessed Sacrament, approached the altar rail. The people, seeing the priest, were confused and engulfed him. The women surrounded the priest and kissing his hands, begged him not to go near the main altar and not to remove the Blessed Sacrament: 'Spiritual father, don't go near the main altar, or they might remove the Blessed Sacrament on us. Please celebrate Mass at the side altar, where we will come to hear the Holy Sacrifice."
The Lowlanders, under Daračius' leadership, would not allow a single stranger to enter the church. They would allow them to observe what was happening in church only from the vestibule while they sang "God is our protector and our strength." (Psalm 45)
Emissaries from Kęstaičiai to Petersburg were not allowed to see the Czar, because 300 signatures were not enough. A meeting of the people in Kęstaičiai, learning from the emissaries on their return that were too few signatures, immediately dispatched messengers to the villages of neighboring districts to summon men to Kęstaičiai in order to sign the petition. A crowd of men assembled from the surrounding districts and several thousand of the faithful signed the petition.
Bearing the documents, the five emissaries departed once more for Petersburg, now expecting surely to get to the Czar himself. That was October 25.
On October 26, the sheriff came to Kęstaičiai again. Finding the church full of people and therefore unable to do anything, he ordered the dean to "take immediate steps to turn over all the church appurtenances from Kęstaičiai to the pastor of Alsėdžiai". The dean, carrying out the order came to Kęstaičiai November 4, and found the church as usual full of people. They refused to disperse from church until the emissaries' return from Petersburg and announced the "king's" favor of leaving them their church, for they firmly believed that the church would not be closed.
On November 11, Bishop Paliulionis received from the Governor General a letter of firm exhortation.
The bishop, seeing the necessity of defending the priests blamed for the people's disobedience and for not removing the Blessed Sacrament, sent the Governor General a letter in which he explained that the pastor and priests had done what they could: That the closing and sealing of a church, since it was an act incompatible with the vocation of a priest, could not be imposed as a duty.
Meanwhile, the faithful of Alsėdžiai and the surrounding parishes: Telšiai, Lieplaukė, Gadunavą, Seda, Plungė, etc., did everything they could to prevent the church from being closed. Besides the emissaries who were not given an audience with the Czar, they also sent two requests in writing by mail, and one other request to one General Richter, but not receiving any reply, they sent one telegram to Baron Kantekuzen and Prince Speransky. Moreover, the delegation in Petersburg visited on November 6, Prince Mikhail Oginski of Plungė, who had some influence at the Czar's court, but he could not help the delegation in anyway either. To all these great and, at the time, for our peasant people very bold, efforts, the Russian government did not deign to respond.
Finally, the government, disregarding the people's opposition, decided to have done with the church in Kęstaičiai.
First of all, the governor of Kaunas wanted to find out about the morale of the people of Kęstaičiai, and whether it would be necessary to make use of military force. So not contenting himself with local police reports, he sent in addition, Grigori Shchirovsky, Administrator for Special Affairs, to sound out the situation, at the same time authorizing him to close the church if the people could be reasoned with. That same day, Shchirovsky, the sheriff, several policemen and the dean went to Kęstaičiai to try closing the church. They found it full of people who knelt singing hymns. The government representatives demanded that the dean stop the people's hymn singing. Standing the in doorway, he tried several times to silence the worshippers, but they would not listen, and sang on. Then the sheriff and the Director of Special Affairs decided to address the people themselves. The people continued to sing. The government officials began to shout louder, but the singers, paying them no heed, drowned everything out with their hymn-singing.
When the government officials understood that all of their efforts to silence the singers and convince the people to leave church were in vain, they withdrew from the church. Shchirovsky, seeing for the first time in his life with what zeal the people guarded their church, said to the sheriff in an accusing tone without concealing his surprise, "You must consider it a great sin in your heart to kill so many innocent people."
The sheriff responded glumly, 'It's not I who am to blame, but the priests!"
He apparently meant that the priests were to blame for the people's resistance, and the people whom they had incited would have to answer.
When the government officials returned to Telšiai, Shchirovsky sent a telegram to the governor, reporting on the situation in Kęstaičiai. The governor replied that he would soon be in Telšiai himself, and he ordered the sheriff to inform the Cossacks that three squadrons of cavalry (300 men) should prepare to leave the next day for Kęstaičiai, they should send their police and that the ecclesiastical Dean of Alsėdžiai, one priest from Telšiai and Father Juknevičius, the former moderator of the Priests' Home, should be present that day.
On November 19, squadrons of Cossacks rode out from Telšiai to Kęstaičiai; rattling along behind them were several wagons filled with axes, saws, shovels, ladders, ropes, crowbars for tearing down walls and other tools and, bringing up the rear were a crew of firefighters. The Cossacks rode quickly and the wagons trundled along behind them with a great clatter. On the way, they met a Jew driving to Telšiai with a load of milk cans. The Cossacks dumped him, together with the wagon, into a ditch. Other travellers met along the way ended up in ditches also. The Cossacks, arriving at the Village of Kęstaičiai, drew their swords and as fast as their horses could carry them, charged with great hue and cry toward the main church doors where a crowd of people were standing.
The Cossacks reached the mass of people, sheathed their swords and, seizing leather whips, rode their horses into the crowd and began thrashing the people on their backs. Under the attack, the crowd scattered far and wide, giving the Cossacks a wide passage to the church doors. Then the Cossacks dismounted, formed into two lines up to the main doors of the church, clicked their heels and stood frozen like fence pickets.
It would be wrong to say that the crowd was ready to capitulate to the Cossacks. Far from it! If the Cossacks had tried to force their way into church, the Lowlanders would have met them with rocks, but the Cossacks stood in formation, quietly. The people calmed down and continued singing hymns. Gathered in the churchyard and even beyond, on their knees, they kept singing. The Lowlanders, infuriated, were prepared to act in a not altogether
Christian manner. But at the request of the priests not to do anything to the Cossacks, they refrained.
Finally, to the accompaniment of trumpets, the governor himself arrived in a carriage drawn by four horses, accompanied by a dozen Cossacks seated on greys. The governor inspected the exterior of the church and saw the crowd of people inside. All the altars were lighted with candles, and the people were singing. The governor ordered the dean to silence the people, but the latter, paying no heed, went on singing.
The governor and the police, thinking that it would be easier to effect the crowd from the organ loft, climbed up and demanded that the dean try to silence the singers. After the dean, the Administrator for Special Affairs shouted, and the sheriff and finally, the governor himself, tried to out-shout the people. But the determined Lowlanders would not listen to any of them, drowning them out with their singing.
Going outside, the governor ordered the police and Cossacks to enter the church and to push the people out. Seeing the attempt to push them out of church, the faithful, without pausing in their singing, knelt linking arms and held on firmly to each other. The police, realizing that they would thus accomplish nothing, took different measures. A few forest wardens would seize one person at a time: brace themselves and tear him away from the others. Carrying him out, they would turn him over to the Cossacks standing by.
In church, an uproar and screaming arose. Muffled blows could be heard. The unarmed men, not wishing to surrender, struggled with forest wardens and the police. The police, in an attempt to subdue the resistance, took to whips, and immediately there were injuries. There were many who, being led from church resisted with all their might, and once escorted out, not wishing to fall into the clutches of the Cossacks, would slip from the grasp of the police and tumble back into church. All such individuals the Cossacks, working in groups, would sieze; wishing to isolate them from the crowd, they would take them to the monastery building, threatening that they would not be leaving there in a hurry.
When at last they ejected the bravest from church, the Cossacks would take them under "protection", beating them with whips wherever they could: over the head, the face, the back, the shoulders. Whenever they drew the whip over the head or face, the individual would be bloodied all over. When they struck the back or shoulders, sheepskin coats were torn.
After inflicting the punishment, the Cossacks tied them up; hauled them off with kicks to the "chimney" and locked them up under arrest. Altogether, there were 43 such individuals bound, among them some badly bloodied and wounded. The police would have bound up more, but the governor kept restraining them, shouting, 'Tie up as few as possible!"
The high altar was barricaded along the altar rail and guarded by women. Having ejected the men from church, the police and Cossacks fell upon the women, pulling them by the hair, striking them with whips and shoving them about. The women began to cry out as loudly as possible, screaming and weeping. All those left in church raised the greatest clamor, for the high altar was the greatest and most important defense position. If the Blessed Sacrament were to be removed, the struggle for the church would be lost.
The women, of course, were quickly overcome and ejected from church, the barricade overturned and the approach to the high altar was cleared.
Klara Drobaitė, a serving girl at the monastery, terribly disturbed by the struggle, ran right up to the governor and grasped his red beard. The Cossacks, seeing the governor's tragic plight, quickly ran up and cursing in Russian, tore her away from the governor and shoved her into the "chimney" with those arrested. When they tore the girl away from the governor, there were tufts of his beard in her hands.
In church, only one defender was left, the leader himself, Domininkas Daračius. Leaning over the front of the altar with all his great height, he held in his enormous grasp the tabernacle in which was the Blessed Sacrament, and shouted at the Cossacks assailing him: "I won't give it to you! I won't give it to you!"
Then one Cossack, seizing a thick candlestick from the altar, struck Daračius smartly across the hands and he released the tabernacle...
The Cossacks arrested him on the spot and kicking and pummeling him, hauled him off to the "chimney".
How strenuously the people struggled with the police and Cossacks is indicated by the fact that during the fight, the church was terribly spattered with blood. Here is what one eyewitness writes:
'It would be difficult to believe it all and to describe to everyone if I had not seen with my own eyes... how the vestibule, walls and floor of that church were so badly spattered with the people's blood that only a heavy autumn rain and winter snow, melting in the spring, could cleanse it."
When the people were finally dispersed from the church and the Blessed Sacrament had been removed, the Cossacks extinguished all the lights and candles which had been burning for a month without interruption, and upon orders from the governor, began demolishing the church.
The Cossacks destroyed everything. They dismantled the altars, chopped up the crucifixes, demolished the organ, broke up statues and kicked them about. Very quickly, there was left in church only piles of rubble. Having destroyed the interior of the church, they tore away the roof, knocked down the walls; only the belfry was left which the cossacks were somehow unable to topple. They also destroyed the convalescent home.
Father Juknevičius was punished very severely: for inciting the people he was exiled for five years to the Province of Vologna, City of Jerensk.
All those arrested were confined in the prison of Telšiai. Rumors spread that they were to be shot. However, after a considerable time, they were released. Released togther with them was Klara Drobaitė. It was said that Prince Oginski and Baron Chapski interceded for the prisoners.
How much suffering the Lowlanders experienced during that battle, they testified themselves, writing to the bishop:
"Most illustrious Bishop, we humbly thank you, first of all, for the great and holy favor you did us poor insects and common people by talking to us and being gracious to us. For two months, we did not know the difference between day and night. Most illustrious Bishop, you could take comfort in your sheep who have chosen to suffer patiently to the end. It was a sad day when the governor fell on us with his army but we did not run away. Your Excellency, the saints of old never underwent greater suffering than we..."
Today, the site of the church in Kęstaičiai is marked by a pile of stones.