True Lithuania

Churches of the Vilnius Old Town

Some of the more impressive or important churches of Vilnius Old Town are described here. Unfortunately only several among them survived the Soviet occupation without getting closed (Saint Nicholas, Saint Theresa, Holy Spirit and Saint Ann Roman Catholic churches and all the Russian Orthodox churches except for Paraskeviya). The closures meant not only a cease on celebrating the Holy Mass, but also massive desecrations, ransackings, and remodeling as the buildings were put to other uses (sports halls, warehouses, museums). As such the interiors of these once closed churches were heavily hit and many are not yet completely restored. That said, the exteriors are now largely restored.

In total, there are 28 churches in Vilnius Old Town elderate (one church per every 700 inhabitants). Of them, 21 are Roman Catholic and 4 are Russian Orthodox. Lutheran, Reformed and Eastern Rite Catholic communities have one church each. All non-catholic churches are working, but 6 of the Catholic churches have not yet reopened after the Soviet occupation.

Part of the Vilnius Old Town skyline with its houses of worship marked by denominations. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Katedros Square and the Castle hill area

*Vilnius Cathedral is the seat of the Vilnius archdiocese. The cathedral's orderly white Neo-Classical interior dating to 1801 makes it hard to believe that this is the earliest established church in Vilnius. The earlier centuries are visible in side chapels that come in every architectural style that was once popular in Lithuania. The bottom half of Cathedral belfry is, in fact, a former defensive tower of the Vilnius lower castle. Tiles of different color mark the places in the square where the defensive wall used to stand. Additionally, you may visit the Cathedral cellar with its crypts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania luminaries.
*Saint Ann church (1500) is a gothic masterpiece. Its extremely elaborate facade is small by medieval church standards and is out-flanked by nearby gothic Saint Francis Church (1516) that is larger but lacking interesting facade and with its interior damaged by the Soviet desecration. Saint Francis church includes a monastery notable for owning an internet news website. It also celebrates Roman Catholic mass in English every Sunday.

Flamboyant facade of the Saint Ann church. The belfry on the right was constructed later (1802). The Saint Francis of Assisi church is in the background. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Saint Michael church (1594) is a late Renaissance church that once served the local nunnery. Soviets turned the church into a museum of architecture. While not reopened the church now houses a more appropriate museum of religious art.
*Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Ascension is the most important Russian Orthodox religious building in Lithuania. Originally built in 1348 under Grand Duke Algirdas, it saw mixed fortunes, including abandonment and non-religious usage after the 1748 fire of Vilnius. It was returned to the Church by Russian Imperial government in 1868 (which also commissioned a major reconstruction work).

Rotušės Square and the Gate of Dawn area

*Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox church once looked much more western until Russian Empire rebuilt it in its showcase neo-Byzantine style (mid-19th century). Today it is probably the most beautiful among Russian Orthodox churches of Vilnius.
*Saint Casimir Jesuit church completed in 1616 is early baroque. Its large dome is well visible from the City Hall (Rotušės) square.

Baroque Saint Casimir church (1616) in the Rotušės square.

*Graceful Virgin Mary church is the only single-towered Baroque church in Lithuania. Constructed in 1768 it is now abandoned as the Soviets completely destroyed the interior which makes any possible renovation extremely costly.
*Following Rūdninkų street south from Rotušės square will lead you to the Church of All Saints and a former Carmelite monastery (1630, early baroque).
*The Gate of Dawn is the only remaining historical gate to Vilnius city. It is also a chapel notable for its miraculous painting of Virgin Mary that is visible to everybody passing the gate. Some people makes the sign of the cross when passing the gate. Back to the years before the Soviet occupation, it was common to kneel a pray here right in the street. Religious goods are still sold in the surrounding areas. Many Lithuanian emigrant churches have been dedicated to Our Lady of Vilnius (Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn) as this is one of Lithuania's most important religious places.

*A monumental gate to the right when you come towards the Gate of Dawn from the Old Town side leads to the Eastern Rite Catholic church of Holy Trinity (1516, Baroque). The gate is perhaps the most impressive part of its edifices that once housed a large monastery. The church itself is still used but quite derelict.
*A small gate to the left when you come the Gate of Dawn from the Old Town side leads to the Russian Orthodox church of Holy Spirit. Here is the only Russian Orthodox monastery in Lithuania. Three saints are interred in front of the iconostasis.
*In the Aušros vartų (Gate of Dawn) street itself a Baroque (1650) Roman Catholic Saint Theresa church proudly stands.
*Following the Subačiaus street that branches east from the Aušros Vartų street you will reach the crumbling beauty of two Baroque churches in the former monasteries, both closed and not reopened: the Lord Ascension church (1730) as well as the Jesus Heart church (1765).

Lord Ascension (towered) and Jesus Heart (domed) churches as they are visible from Saint John church tower.

Pilies, Šv. Jono, Dominikonų and Trakų streets

*Church of Saints Johns (1426 - 1610, Pilies Street) belongs to Vilnius University rather than the Roman Catholic archdiocese. Mass is celebrated here but it is also the place where students eventually receive their diplomas. The front rows are reserved to the academia. The tower of the Church of Saints Johns is the tallest spire in Vilnius at 68 meters. You can ascend in a newly installed elevator and see the best views of Vilnius Old Town.
*Shrine of the Divine Mercy (Dominikonų street) is dedicated to a single miraculous painting that adorns its altar. This work of art represents Divine Mercy and it was inspired by visions received by nun Faustina Kowalska in 1931. This is a bit of Vilnius history that has spread to all Catholic nations of the world and beyond as copies of the Divine Mercy painting be found in churches as far as the Marshall Islands in Polynesia. Vatican dedicated the year 2011 to Divine Mercy (the veneration of which started in Vilnius).
*Holy Spirit church is the home of the Polish community. While Polish mass is celebrated in many churches of Vilnius only in this church there is no mass celebrated in any other language than Polish. Its interior is very elaborate Baroque one and dates to 1776. The church survived without major closures or desecrations. The nearby monastery is, unfortunately, derelict and closed. In the crypts bellow the church mummified bodies lay buried giving rise to many legends (closed to visiting).

Interior of the Holy Spirit church. A copy of the Divine Mercy painting in the center. The original used to hang here before it was transferred to a devoted shrine nearby. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Lutheran church is hidden in a courtyard of Vokiečių (German) street. Originally serving German traders it took centuries to establish a Lithuanian congregation. Today the church also serve tourist and expatriate protestants with English mass.
*Standing in a narrow Mikalojaus street Saint Nicholas Roman Catholic church is the oldest church in Vilnius. Built for a community of German Hanseatic merchants in 1320 this Gothic church is so small because Lithuanians were still Pagan at the time. The interior vault decor showing human-faced Sun and Moon reminds that the artists who painted it were most likely Pagan. This church always had Lithuanian language mass celebrated even under the Polish rule (1922 - 1939) when only several percents of Vilnius inhabitants spoke Lithuanian as their native language. It was among the few churches not closed down by the Soviets. Hence its interior includes patriotic motives such as a statue of Grand Duke Vytautas the Great.
*Saint Catherine church (1743) is a Baroque pearl in Vilniaus street. Closed and desecrated by the Soviets it was never reopened and currently serves as a concert hall. Damaged sculptures of the saints provide a unique atmosphere for what are mostly alternative music concerts (ethnic, religious, sung poetry, a capella, and other genres).
*Gothic Church of Virgin Mary Ascension (1421) in Trakų street is slowly coming up from Soviet desecration; its massive interior still quite plain. The extensive nearby building once housed a Franciscan monastery but is now painstakingly restored as offices.

Church of Virgin Mary Ascension interior. The Soviet-looted churches such as Virgin Mary Ascension still have a lot of scars in their interiors as massive costs slow down their rejuvenation. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*In Pylimo street beyond the former (demolished) city gate at Trakų street stands the neoclassical Reformed Christian church of Vilnius (1835). Having lost its roof statues to Soviet atheist fervor the church still boasts a grand ceiling.

See article on the Old Town for a map of all the church locations.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. Useful information about churches of the vilnius old town. The Old Town of Vilnius is the largest on in Eastern Europe and one of the largest surviving medieval Old Towns in Northern Europe. The Old Town of Vilnius was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List (No. 541) in recognition of its universal value and originality in 1994. Thanks for posting.

  2. Is there a mass with music in any of these churches? Dekoju

    • In most of these churches the mass is accompanied by organ music and Lithuanian language church hymns. In some churches other instruments may be used instead (e.g. guitar), but this is rare. A lot also depends on the circumstances: perhaps the musician will be unavailable at that time so then the mass will be without music. But if you go to Sunday mass there are great chances of hymns and organ music.

      Here you can find mass times in all churches if you need (the list is in Lithuanian): http://vilnius.lcn.lt/parapijos/pamtvarka/

  3. I had the opportunity to visit Vilnius two weeks ago and see some of the churches mentioned in this article , they are beautiful , every one has its own ” flavor ” , its own history making Vilnius an always interesting place to visit

  4. I love Vilnius been here for the past one month. I am an Anglican please is there any Anglican Church here in Vilnius? thank you

    • No, there are no Anglican churches in the entire Lithuania. There was never an Anglican community in Vilnius. Historic Christian churches of Vilnius are Roman Catholic (the majority), Russian Orthodox (second in number), Lutheran, Eastern Rite Catholic, Reformed Christian, Russian Old Believer (one church each). The closest Anglican church is in Riga, Latvia.

  5. When I was watching the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and Basilian Gate (Greek Catholic, Ausros Vartu g. 7b, Vilnius) photos, I realized that church’s central tower dome was missing from the old photos.

    Would you explain the reason why central tower dome of the Orthodox church of the Holy Trinity in Vilnius is missing?

    I wonder if missing reason of the central tower dome is a neglect of the Soviet regime or a destruction of the World War 2.

    Although the Basilian Gate is very beautiful and impressive, the church is a complete mess inside and almost completely empty.

    Thank you for your time.

    • The church is not Orthodox. In fact, it belongs to the Uniates, now a very small community that follows Orthodox liturgy yet is part of the Catholic church. More information about them: http://www.truelithuania.com/eastern-rite-catholicism-uniate-christianity-490.

      Much of the church history is related to that. During 1795-1915 Vilnius was under the Russian Imperial rule. Imperial Russia promoted the Russian Orthodox church and persecuted Catholics, especially the Uniates. They would often nationalize non-Orthodox churches and put them to Orthodox use. Furthermore, they would also alter the facades to make the churches seem more Orthodox (see for one example at the History of Vilnius article: http://www.truelithuania.com/history-of-vilnius-634).

      Therefore, in 1839 the Russian Imperial regime made the Holy Trinty church Russian Orthodox and in 1869 they have added the “Orthodox” dome on the top.

      After World War 1, however, the Russian Empire was forced out of Vilnius. Catholic Poland took over the city and the Uniate church was allowed to operate once again, even if it never regained the might it had before the Russian Imperial rule. Still, in 1923 the dome was removed.

      During the Soviet occupation, the church was closed and neglected, leading to great damage to its interior and further erosion of the Uniate community, which had no churches left open in Lithuania at the time.

      While the church was again returned to the Uniates after 1990, the community is now too small to repair a massive church.

      • To Mr. Zemaitis,

        Thank you for your information why central tower dome of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity in Vilnius is missing.

        I am surprised that the missing reason of the central tower dome of the Holy Trinity Church in Vilnius was a Polish authorities decision in 1923.  Wow, I’m speechless.

        I think that there were many Greek Catholic Churches with tower domes in Eastern Europe that time. 

        It seems that there is a little possibility the central tower dome of the church will be restored in the future.

        By the internet, I saw a good composition photo of the Holy Trinity Church’s tower domes and Basilian Gate somewhere from the old photos.

        I thought the composition of the photo was perfect for the poster for the sightseeing of Vilnius.

        I like the street where buildings of a lot of domes and spires are seen.
        So, I was curious about missing central tower dome of the Holy Trinity Church in Vilnius.

        Anyway, my question is solved now.

        Thank you very much.

        P. S.: I thought the “Uniates” was a part of the Eastern Rite Christianity, so I wrote the “Orthodox” Church of the Holy Trinity in Vilnius, but it was not correct word.
        Thank you for teaching me the correct word.

        • Correction: for the first sentence

          the correct church’s name: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity in Vilnius.
          an error in writing: Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity in Vilnius.

          It seems the term of “Uniate” is no longer use due to its perceived negative overtones. That is why I avoided to use the word “Uniate”, but I made an error in writing.

          Thank you Mr. Zamaitis.

          • Here is a photo of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity with central tower dome in Vilnius.

            Blog- Vilnius, Lithuania: Back Then and Now
            by guinev Feb. 13, 2015

            https://www.imgur.com/gallery/nAEPS

            This is a good ensemble of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity with central tower dome & Basilian Gate in Vilnius.
            I hope the central tower dome of the Holy Trinity Uniates Church in Vilnius will be restored in the future.


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