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Xavier Magazine | May 27, 2017

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After the Fall

By France Griggs Sloat

Psychology professor David Hellkamp was shivering. It was October on his first trip to Lithuania. Snow had fallen, and the Baltic state was settling into winter. The living quarters of the 350-year-old school where he was staying had no heat, and his room in a wing where the Jesuits had lived for centuries was 54 stair steps from the bathroom. Cold showers were the rule. 

Hellkamp learned to wash quickly and dress warmly. But the significance of experiencing the medieval remnants of Cold War Europe didn’t escape him. That was in 1997, six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It was also five years after the University began a relationship with the country’s two Jesuit high schools. In 1992, University vice president for mission and ministry Leo Klein, S.J., first traveled to the Baltic country, which sits just west of the Russian border along the Baltic Sea, at the request of a close friend from the Jesuits’ Chicago province. While that first visit was just an informational session, in the intervening years, the University has taken a proactive role in laying the foundation for the rebuilding of the country’s religious schools and educating its students to become its future leaders.

“The progress they’ve made has been phenomenal,” says Hellkamp, who has made three more trips to the schools. “They are a Second World country, no doubt, but their energy and aggressiveness to develop their infrastructure and other issues is really developing.”
What kept Klein interested and led him back four times since was twofold: The effort, first of all, is a natural sideline to the University’s mission of education and service to others, no matter where the need. “From the beginning of the Society of Jesus,” says Klein, “our whole scope is to go anywhere in the world where the need is expressed, where the greater glory of God calls us to go. That’s significantly different from the orders before us who had monasteries and prayer. And Ignatius wanted us to go at the sound of the bell.”

But his interest was more than just the desire to serve. It was also the implausible revival of the schools in spite of the sad political history of the country itself. Both schools were among the first created by the Jesuits-Vilnius in the nation’s capital in 1570 and Kaunas in the country’s center in 1649-not long after the founding of the order 450 years ago. But in the last two centuries, the country has enjoyed only a brief 22-year period of freedom between Russian domination that ended in 1918 and the Soviet occupation that began in 1940, interrupted by Hitler’s brief invasion. The Soviets took the Baltics after World War II, and Lithuania-along with its Jesuits -disappeared behind the Iron Curtain for nearly 50 years. Reviving that history would be a major challenge.

The Soviet domination of Lithuania meant immediate suppression of the Jesuit order. Religion went underground. The schools were taken over. The Vilnius school was closed and used for storage, falling into ruins by 1990. Its neighboring church, St. Casimir, became a Soviet museum of atheism. The Kaunas school became a state school. Over the decades, Jesuits were exiled to Siberia for conducting banned activities, such as teaching the catechism to children. Some never returned.

But when Lithuania declared its independence in 1990, and the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, the Jesuits reclaimed their schools and churches. The Kaunas Jesuit High School reopened quickly in 1991 and now has about 600 students. The Vilnius Jesuit High School reopened in 1995, after many costly repairs, for 400 students. Both schools are coeducational and serve students in grades five through 12. With applications already outpacing admissions, they’re now considered the country’s best high schools, with more than 95 percent of graduates going on to college.

But the task of remaking these religious schools is gargantuan-and far from over. Just the financial burden of upgrading antiquated buildings and constructing new facilities is daunting enough and can’t be realized without outside assistance. Even more elusive is the ability to harness the hearts and minds of the next generation, educationally and morally, to secure the country’s political and religious future, Jesuit leaders say.

“I think they’re trying to become models for Catholic education in a country that doesn’t know what Catholic education is,” says Tadas Kulbis, executive director of the Baltic Jesuit Advancement Project in Chicago. The project is one of many institutions outside Lithuania-including Germany and the United States-that together have contributed millions of dollars to the Lithuanian Jesuits to help repair and modernize the buildings and grounds. More than $1 million in donations was spent from 1991 to 1997 on vital facility repairs that allowed the schools and churches to reopen. Another $1 million was secured. A goal of yet another $1 million more is set for repairs and improvements to the schools, Jesuit residences and churches. The need, though exceeds $6 million, according to the project’s web site at www.balticjesuits.org.

The revival of Catholic schooling is in itself a phenomenon in a country where, after 50 years of supression, the majority of the people claim to be Catholic, but only about 20 percent attend church regularly. The Soviets were successful in squelching religion and the need for it. Their weapon was fear. Older students, for example, told Hellkamp they remember their first grade teachers asking students whose parents practiced religion. “They knew not to raise their hands,” Hellkamp says, “because it would be disaster for their families. The teachers would turn them in.”

When the schools reopened, there were so few religious teachers available that Jesuit institutions outside Lithuania sent in teachers to educate the Lithuanian Jesuits about Catholic schooling. The Kaunas school had to purge itself of Soviet-era teachers who resented the new Catholic curriculum and moral instruction, while the Vilnius school was starting new and so was able to hire fresh teachers.

Xavier’s contribution has been primarily in the form of Hellkamp and Klein, plus several graduate students, who have provided support and education in their visits to the schools. Klein has found himself re-educating Jesuit leaders in basic religious doctrine, including Vatican II, which was held in 1964 during Soviet occupation. Hellkamp first lectured teachers, parents and students about the dangers of drugs and sexual freedom that arrived with the new Western culture. Now he’s working directly with Kaunas school officials to develop a long-range strategic plan for the school, which needs upgraded facilities including gymnasiums, cafeterias, libraries and laboratories. Just learning how to plan has been a hurdle, Hellkamp says.

“For 50 years they were occupied by the Soviets,” Hellkamp says, “so personal initiative would be ignored or punished, and here we were encouraging them to show initiative in planning. People over age 40 are very suspicious and are struggling now with breaking the walls down and learning to trust.”

Now that the Soviets are gone, the new enemy in the eyes of some conservative Catholics is consumerism. Vytautas Bielauskas, retired chair of Xavier’s department of psychology, says it’s important for the Jesuit school administrators to come out of Lithuania to see how the capitalist world really lives. The notion of sharing wealth, for example, is one that has eluded Lithuanians so far. To that end,the University is bringing eight administrators from the two schools to campus next summer to take graduate level educational administration courses for a month. Klein began raising funds to pay for the program. Not only will that help with the schools’ planning and their future, but it will be very important for the social education of the visitors, says Bielauskas. “They have to get away from the Soviet system, which was characterized by tremendous bureaucracy and prohibited creativity.”

Bielauskas, a native of Lithuania, is a vital link for the University’s efforts there. In 1940, he left Lithuania for Germany the day after the Soviet army marched into his home town. He was 19 and had just returned home from college, but he would not see his family again for 37 years. The 81-year-old Roman Catholic educator visits family now while lecturing at universities in Vilnius and Kaunas and makes contacts that help Klein and Hellkamp.

“We are helping to develop an organization that has no experience in administration,” says Bielauskas. “This is where Xavier has an impact.” He believes this kind of outreach is vital to the country, which suffered an almost complete purge of religious leadership. What the schools are doing, he says, is preparing the country’s future intelligentsia and the next leaders of the Catholic church, which is in the process of regeneration. “What we need in Lithuania is to educate our young clergy. Until they take over, the church will not make progress.”

Klein says the progress he’s seen in 10 years is mind-boggling. “The Jesuit institutions in these countries are coming back to life, and we’re going to help them. They need all sorts of updating because they’ve been living under a blanket all these years.”

Hellkamp says he could still use that blanket when he visits. On his last trip in October, hot water had been hooked up in the schools, though it was only tepid-which shows how far they’ve come, yet how far they have to go. Klein says the University will stick by the Jesuits as their schools mature, hopefully establishing some type of student exchange program and continuing education for administrators.

Obviously, it won’t be easy, says Kulbis. “The problem in Lithuania is that freedom came, and they accepted it with open arms, but very few accepted the responsibility that comes with it.”

UNIVERSITY TO HONOR LITHUANIAN PRIEST

As a Jesuit priest, Sigitas Tamkevicius was familiar with the persecutions that early Christians faced for spreading the word. In the mid-1980s, though, he got a firsthand account of such treatment when he was sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet prison in Siberia. His crime: editing an underground newspaper, The Chronicle of the Catholic Church, that documented human rights violations, oppression of religious practices and other atrocities during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

Tamkevicius survived the ordeal and was released five years early, in 1988, three years before the Soviet Union’s collapse. In December, Tamkevicius, who is now the archbishop of Kaunas, will receive the St. Francis Xavier medal for his heroism in defending and preserving the Catholic church through personal sacrifice.

“I nominated him because I think he is an outstanding example of modern Jesuit heroism,” says Leo Klein, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry. “He really risked his life and freedom to do something he felt was very important for the Roman Catholic Church and the people of Lithuania. He really put his life on the line.”

The medal is awarded to people who exemplify the virtues of St. Francis Xavier. The medal will be presented on Dec. 5 by retired psychology professor Vytautas Bieliauskas, a Lithuania native, in the presence of Antanas Saulaitis, S.J., provincial superior of the Jesuit province of Lithuania and Latvia.

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