Few countries could surpass Lithuania in size and lavishness of its churches if you take local population numbers into account. Furthermore, Lithuanian art of making elaborate crosses is inscribed in the UNESCO list of immaterial world heritage.
Nowhere this is felt more than in the Hill of Crosses (a unique-in-the-world site where millions of pilgrims have erected hundreds of thousands of crosses over more than a century). Arguably it is the most famous sight in Lithuania. A symbol of religion, anti-Soviet resistance and a powerful work of art all at once the Hill of Crosses impresses Christians and non-Christians alike.
Religiously however the center of Catholic life in Lithuania is in Šiluva. In this Samogitian village the Europe's first church-recognised apparition of Virgin Mary took place in 1608. The yearly celebrations (September 8th-16th) attract many thousands.
Almost every Lithuanian town and larger village have a Catholic church that feels far too massive for the settlement's population. This is because Catholicism always dominated the religious landscape (80%+ follows it) and there was no serious religious fragmentation for centuries. The older town and village churches (pre-1860) are typically smaller and wooden while the early 20th-century revivalist ones easily dwarf their surroundings in size. There is even a separate Lithuanian word meaning "Village with a Catholic church" (bažnytkaimis).
The most impressive collection of churches is in Vilnius Old Town where there are almost 30 such pearls of Gothic and Baroque. Most famous are St. Anne (for its exterior), Divine Mercy and the Gate of Dawn (both for miraculous paintings with worldwide following). Other boroughs of Vilnius also have a fair share of imposing churches (St. Peter and Paul being the most famous). So does the city of Kaunas.
In cities and towns one may also find Russian Orthodox churches. The largest and most important ones are once again in Vilnius where Holy Spirit church includes bodies of three Orthodox saints. Old Believer, Lutheran, Reformed Christian, Eastern Rite Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Karaite religious buildings also exist, many of them predating the 20th century.
There is a long tradition in Lithuania of erecting crosses, chapels and chapel-posts (miniature chapels) at roadsides, cemeteries and courtyards. Countless of them were destroyed by the Soviet occupational power but many still remain. Some locations known as the holy places (šventvietė) became minor replicas of the Hill of Crosses.
The most important place of interest in the area is the Hill of Crosses north of Šiauliai. Visited both by pilgrims and irreligious tourists this place is a remarkable symbol of Lithuanian peaceful resistance to the Soviet occupation. People used to bring crosses to a hill once crowned by a medieval castle. The atheist Soviet government used to tear all the crosses down and persecute the pilgrims, but very soon the crosses would spring up again, restoring the number to hundreds and thousands.
In 1990 when Lithuanian independence was restored 14 387 large crosses and 40 944 small crosses were counted, covering an area of 4602 square meters. By 2007 the number surpassed 200 000. In 1997 a Franciscan monastery was built next to the hill. The monastery chapel (open for visiting) has a large window with the hill visible in the background instead of altar paintings.
The atmosphere in the Hill of Crosses may be surreal. Thousands of large wooden crosses are used as platforms for many times that number of small ones, all of which beautifully chime in the wind. Most of them bear inscriptions with names of the people and their reasons for erecting the cross. There are crosses built by biker clubs, political parties, ordinary families, pilgrims from far away lands, priests and every other category of people you may imagine. They thank God or ask for his guidance, remember life-changing events, seek help for some particular groups of the population. The inscriptions are largely Lithuanian, but you may find those in countless other languages representing different Christian denominations. The crosses are eagerly erected up to this day as you can see in the recent dates inscribed on some of the crosses.
The tradition of erecting crosses here might have started under Imperial Russian rule in the mid-19th century. A legend tells that one person from Jurgaičiai promised God that he would build a cross on this hill in case his disease would pass. The disease passed and the man kept his promise - later to be followed by others. There are other stories, such as the one about a person whose daughter was ill and who received a vision that he should build a cross there. Whatever the reasons for its inception the place became an important pilgrimage site and erecting a cross here became a popular way to thank God.
The Lithuanian art of cross-crafting (kryždirbystė) is inscribed into the UNESCO list of immaterial world heritage. Not long ago most of Lithuania's roads were adorned by many large wooden crosses. Today there are few roadside crosses left but the Hill of Crosses is an important monument to this art. 50 of its crosses are regarded to be of major cultural significance.
World’s second earliest Church-recognised apparition of Mary (after the Virgin of Guadalupe) took place in Lithuania, in the Samogitian village of Šiluva. In 1608 the Virgin appeared to various local people protesting the destruction of a local church.
The church has been more than rebuilt: a long rectangular Christian-themed plaza now dominates the village. At its northern end stands the 1786 Baroque minor basilica of Our Lady of Šiluva with its miraculous altar painting. At the opposite end, the 1924 chapel by Antoni Wiwulski (a genius of monolith architecture) marks the exact place of the apparition. It is surrounded by graves of notable Samogitians. 40 m tall and much less wide the obelisk-like square chapel is unusual in Christian architecture. The centerpoint of its interior is appropriately left for a statue of the Virgin (surrounded by the faithful from every side during the daily Holy Mass).
Each September 8th-16th the square itself becomes a large open-air church as tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive here from all over the world. Prior to the World War 2, massive processions used to depart from every Lithuanian town for a tiresome walk to Šiluva. Soviets persecuted this tradition, arrested local priests and blocked roads, yet Šiluva remained the religious heart of Lithuania to this day.
Tytuvėnai town, 8 km north of Šiluva, is home to a 17th-18th century Bernardine monastery. Closed in 1863 by the Russian Empire it has been long abandoned, retaining the original atmosphere. In the cloister, you may easily imagine monks praying at the centuries-old murals and reliefs that adorn massive arcaded walls which hide the modern-era life outside. The monastery also includes a still-used lavish church, a partly repaired former monk dormitory, and the Holy Stairs chapel (1775) with stairs that should be both ascended and descended kneeling.
Šiluva and Tytuvėnai may be explored as a detour while traversing the Vilnius/Kaunas-Klapėda highway. It may also be easily combined with a visit to the former centers of Samogitia Kražiai, Varniai and Rietavas, with Kražiai being some 30 km west of Tytuvėnai and others further on.
In three small towns of central Samogitia several out-of-scale buildings divulge their past importance. These are Kražiai, Varniai, and Rietavas, the political, religious, cultural and educational centers of western Lithuania in 15th-19th centuries.
Kražiai, the original capital of Samogitia (1416-1464). The 1762 Late Baroque church here became notable again in 1893 when a mass of people protested the Russian Imperial decision to close it down. This led to a Cossack massacre of the armless Lithuanian peasants (9 killed, 53 injured, 150 arrested) which triggered an outrage in the religious 19th century Christian world that in turn saved the church from demolition (but not closure). Only a belfry remains from a much older wooden church (established in 1416). Kražiai’s third church was at the former Jesuit college. Today’s sleepy village hardly reminds an education center but it attracted many students from afar in 1614-1844. Recently restored former dormitory (bursa) is a witness of this era.
In 1464 the center of Samogitian diocese was moved 28 kilometers west to Varniai. Two churches (one brick, one wooden) remind of that town former importance, as does the recently rebuilt 53 m tall tower of former priest seminary (1770), now home to the diocesan museum.
Rietavas, 33 km further west, is centered around a large neo-Romanesque church built in 1873. This was the golden age of the Oginskis family. Technology-loving dukes of Rietavas also constructed the Lithuania’s first telephone line (1882) and power station (1892), established a famous musical school in what were the last years when manors rather than cities were the source of progress and culture in Lithuania. The towered Oginskis Palace did not survive the trials of history, but other buildings of the manor did. Today Rietavas is also known for its bustling bazaar-like market which occupies a disused airfield every Sunday morning, attracting buyers and sellers from all over Samogitia and beyond.
Kražiai-Varniai-Rietavas route may be explored as a detour while traversing the Vilnius/Kaunas-Klapėda highway. It may also be easily combined with a visit to Šiluva Virgin Mary Shrine and Tytuvėnai Monastery, both some 30 km east of Kražiai.
The Pažaislis monastery dating to the 17th-18th centuries is a wonderful example of late baroque. The central domed church is surrounded by additional buildings forming several courtyards. Pažaislis monastery grand courtyard is the place for closing concerts of the annual Pažaislis festival of classical music.
The monastery may be visited for a fee every day except for the "Days of silence" that are declared by local nuns. It is to the east of Kaunas city center.
The monastery now stands next to the Kaunas Reservoir (Kauno marios) made after the Kaunas Hydroelectric Plant dammed the Nemunas river in the 1960s. The reservoir submerged many villages yet it created a popular place for recreation. North of the monastery Kaunas yacht club stands with many affluent people of Kaunas owning yachts in the Kauno marios. Others may be sunbathing or swimming in its beaches available on all shores of the Reservoir, including near Pažaislis Monastery.
Petrašiūnai cemetery (2 km walk from Pažaislis monastery) is the burial place for the famous people of Kaunas (previously of whole Lithuania). The pantheon is in northeast divided into sections by occupation (scientists, priests, sportsmen, artists, Soviet political prisoners...). Alpinist section styled as a hill is interesting. World-famous burials include archeologist Marija Gimbutienė (Gimbutas) and semiotic Algirdas Greimas.
Pažaislis may be reached by trolleybuses (Kauno marios stop).
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.
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.
*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.
*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 small gate to the left when you come to 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).
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).
*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.
*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.
The following are several of the most iconic Christian churches outside the Vilnius Old Town.
*Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (Antakalnis borough, 1675) has the prettiest interior in Vilnius. It includes over 2000 white statues and bas-reliefs made to reflect the idea that life is a theater. Many Biblical scenes are depicted here in this uniform way.
*Church of the Finding of the Holy Cross(Verkiai borough, 1772, Baroque) was once built outside the city limits. It is famous for its Via Dolorosa, an 18th-century system of forest paths with chapels reminding of various events during the passion of the Christ. Unfortunately, Soviets destroyed 31 out of 35 stations in 1962. However, now the chapels are rebuilt and the several kilometers long route through local woods makes a good hike.
*Church of Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis (Karoliniškės borough, see “Soviet districts“) was started in 1991 and frankly never completed. It is consecrated now and the Holy Mass is celebrated, but without the envisioned tower this brutalist building looks blunt. It is a good reminder of the early independence era when the Roman Catholic church used the newly gained religious freedom to build new churches in formerly „atheist“ Soviet boroughs and towns. Construction and real estate was unbelievably cheap at the time, but not for long. Therefore many early 1990s church designs had to be simplified or canceled altogether. Other 1990s Catholic churches in Vilnius (St. John Bosco in Lazdynai and St. Joseph in Pilaitė) are smaller. Contemporary LDS (Mormon) ward in Baltupiai, New Apostle Church in Rasos, and Tikėjimo žodis in Pilaitė signifies that 1990s religious freedom also brought in new denominations.
*The Russian Orthodox churches were built in every new borough of Vilnius in the 19th century under the rule of the Russian Empire. The Constantine and Michael Church (commonly known as Romanov church as it was constructed for the 300 years jubilee of the Romanov dynasty in 1909) is in Naujamiestis, the Znamenskaya Church (1903) in Žvėrynas and the beautiful Saint Alexander Nevsky church (1865) in Naujininkai . Šnipiškės has the Saint Michael Russian Orthodox church (1895) at the main Kalvarijų street, surrounded by single floored buildings once meant for teaching purposes. All these are built on Neobyzanthic style. There are more Orthodox churches and chapels dating to this era but the aforementioned four are the largest.
For the locations of the churches see the maps of particular districts.