Unbroken Spirit

A School Rises from the Rubble

by Fr. Edward Schmidt, SJ

of men in the rubble Crumbled masonry, smashed windows, collapsed roof beams. Catastrophe or opportunity? Setback or challenge? End or beginning? It depends on who you are and what you are trying to accomplish. The Jesuits in Vilnius, Lithuania, wanted to rebuild a school, and they have done it.

In 1989, even before communism collapsed, St. Casimir's Church, built in 1604 in the center of Vilnius, was given back to the Jesuits. They cleaned out the museum of atheism the Soviets had installed there and went to work. But the old Jesuit school that wraps around St. Casimir's was not returned at the same time, nor with Lithuania's independence in 1991.

Built in 1751 as the Collegium Nobilium (School for Nobles), the facilities became military property when the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1773. Jesuits reopened the school in 1921, only to have the Communist authorities confiscate it in 1940 for the Soviet army. In the intervening years, the Soviets used parts of the building as a school, but it later collapsed through neglect.

The new government offered the Jesuits a challenge: the property would be returned if a school were opened by September 1995. Fr. Jonas Boruta, SJ, provincial of the Jesuits in Lithuania and Latvia, saw these buildings as an opportunity and accepted the challenge.

One reason for accepting it is tradition. Jesuit education in Lithuania dates back to 1569, when Jesuits opened the University of Vilnius, the oldest in the former Soviet Union.

Another reason is pragmatic. Jesuits in Vilnius are expanding their work in Lithuania and need office and living space. Antireligious groups are growing vocal in opposing the return of Church property, so getting this school functional is urgent.

The driving reason, though, is ministry. Vilnius, a city of 600,000, needs a Catholic high school immediately. The need comes from the current lack of young leadership. Although the Soviet Union no longer exists, the Communist mindset continues. Many people in their late twenties and early thirties have been described as a drifting generation, generally unexposed to the new free world and unprepared to adapt to today's economic and social demands. The Jesuits have a unique opportunity to help the next generation to learn authentic Christian values, traditional and modern, in the context of education. Fr. Tony Saulaitis, SJ, who has been working with the Lithuanian community abroad (see "Wherever I Am Needed," Company, Spring '91), says, "With Lithuania's freedom came responsibility. It's exciting to help Lithuania's youth to understand this responsibility through Christian values and education."

The drive to open the school has created notable challenges for the Lithuanian Jesuits. Dozens of ministries occupy every Jesuit. Time disappears into conferences, liturgies, youth camps, among many other demands, and available money has a hundred claims.

But even scarce resources can work wonders. In Kaunas, 60 miles west of Vilnius, the Jesuits accepted a school complete with students and faculty in 1991. The Kaunas school, run by the Jesuits from 1924 to 1940, had a useable building, but furnishings showed decades of Soviet make-do. The office equipment consisted of one telephone and one manual typewriter, and the music department had only a couple of recorders, two pianos, and a guitar. But the basic faculty was good, and the British Jesuit education office adopted the school and began helping it. British Jesuit Fr. Charles Edwards moved to Kaunas to teach full time. And in the summer of 1994, the school's president, Fr. Gintaras Vitkus, SJ, announced that in only three years the school had been brought up to grade as gymnasium--a college prep school. It now has seven times more applicants than spaces and is considered the premier secondary school in Kaunas.

The school in Vilnius has a long way to go before it achieves the same success. But after three years of digging and scraping, plastering and fitting, painting and paving, it has emerged from the rubble. Twelve classrooms have undergone remarkable renovation, and the Vilnius Jesuit School opens its scarred doors this September with four coeducational grades, a new, energetic faculty, and Fr. Antanas Grazulis, SJ. Fr. Grazulis has overseen this reconstruction effort and is now serving as president of the school, and will be joined in January of '96 by Fr. Algis Gudaitis, SJ, now finishing an MA in religious education at Boston College.

Jesuit education in Vilnius has survived suppression, persecution, and tyrants of every persuasion. Although acquiring supplies takes ingenuity, politics, major capital, and a reserve of humor, crumbled masonry and collapsed roof beams are a lesser challenge. Harder to come by is the time to prepare Lithuania's youth for a confusing and changing world. The job is far from finished, but enough is done to ring the bell and start the schoolday.

The Vilnius Jesuit School opens its doors with prayers, speeches, good wishes, and high hopes . . . a new school built on an old foundation of stubborn vision and unbroken spirit.

Fr. Edward Schmidt, SJ, Company's business manager, has journeyed to Lithuania, teaching German to Jesuit novices there.