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Old Believers in Lithuania

Perhaps the most secretive traditional religious community in Lithuania, the Old Believers came as refugees from Russia in late 17th century. They settled in small villages away from the main roads. Some of these are so well hidden that even today they can only be reached by minor dirt roads, and only with a good paper atlas instead of a GPS system.

Many such villages have since died out and their houses are crumbling but perhaps more frequently than not the church of such village is still offering rare celebrations of the Holy Mass for the Old Believers who are periodically returning there from larger cities (outside these rare dates the churches are locked). Today the cemetery is often the liveliest place in such localities as the relatives come to visit the graves of their forefathers.

Some of the Old Believer village churches are true masterpieces of wooden architecture, such as the one in forest-clad Perelozai (Jonava District Municipality) or the one in Jurgėliškė (Švenčionys District Municipality) with its tower unfortunately collapsed.

Two Old Believer village churches in Aukštaitija region with two different fates. The elaborate tower in Jurgėliškė, Švenčionys district (left picture, 1935) leaned more and more every year until it finally collapsed in 2008 (the picture was made after collapse). The church in Perelozai, Jonava district (right picture, 1905) stood decrepit for decades but was refurbished recently. All this despite of Perelozai being completely abandoned in 1970s and all the wooden homes crumbled since. Both churches are still used for rare masses. Both of them may only be accessed by gravel or dirt roads. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Old Believer community (and its church with a shiny dome) in Vilnius is also away both from the city center and main thoroughfares, in the southern district of Naujininkai. This community however is livelier, and the 3-hour long masses led by ordinary people rather than priests are still frequent there.

Old Believers think that after the Nikon reforms of the Russian Orthodoxy (17th century) no priest ordination is valid. So they have no hierarchy and even no altars, the iconostasis making the back wall in their churches. Traditional Old Believers even used to refuse to eat from the same dishes as people from other faiths and so they had separate plates and cups for non-Old Believer guests.

There are 43 Old Believer churches in Lithuania. Most of them are located in the Aukštaitija region and some in Dzūkija. 0,9% of total population follow the faith.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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