Origins of the Friars Minor

The Order of the Friars Minor (lat. Ordo fratrum minorum – OFM) was founded by St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) after pope Innocent III had verbally recognized the friars’ way of life in 1209 (1210). The final rule was confirmed by pope Gregory IX in his bull „Solet Annuere“ of 29 November 1223.

The Friars Minor in Lithuania

The first friars minor came to Lithuania from Riga where they had settled already in 1238. It is assumed that they, together with Dominicans, prepared the Lithuanian king Mindaugas for christening. But this was not the only way in which they took part in the political „game“ for influence in Lithuania. In any case their very presence in Riga was related to their connections with archbishop Albrecht who wanted to gain more independence from the Livonian order (e.g. the Franciscans had to cooperate with the Teutonic Knights in Old Prussia). Therefore, the first bishop to be installed in the territory of today’s Lithuania was a Franciscan – Heinrich von Lützelburg, appointed in 1247 by pope Innocent IV and consecrated as bishop of Zemgale by the archbishop of Riga. His territory nominally comprised the land between the rivers Daugava, Venta, Nemunas and Neris on which the Livonian order had claims. Four years later, in 1251, Zemgale was merged with Riga, Heinrich became bishop of Courland and in the same year, on 17 July, he and the bishop of Oesel/Saaremaa, the Dominican Heinrich, were nominated by the pope as protectors of the newly christened king Mindaugas and they both took part in the coronation ceremonies. Heinrich von Lützelburg remained bishop of Courland until the murder of king Mindaugas in 1263.

Bishop Heinrich von Lützelburg built the churches of St. Michael and St. John in Klaipeda and twelve more churches in the Couronian region, but after the christening of King Mindaugas a new bishop was installed in Lithuania – the priest Christian of the Teutonic Order; he was sworn in by the archbishop of Riga.

The Franciscan bishop Heinrich, together with the friars Heinrich (guardian), Thomas, Adolf and Andreas, also took part in the signing of land endowments to the Livonian Order by king Mindaugas in 1253 and 1260.

In the course of the further cooperation between the archbishop of Riga and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania a proposal was made to christianise Lithuania. In 1298 the archbishop got a positive answer and again assigned Franciscans and Dominicans as missionaries. Under the reign of Grand Duke Vytenis the Franciscans settled in Vilnius in 1312. At that time the Franciscan Friedrich von Pernstein (1304 – 1340) was archbishop of Riga. Probably because of this the Franciscans also became scribes to the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas and settled in Novgorod, too.

After the Lithuanians had officially received baptism (1387), the first two bishops of Vilnius were also Franciscans: Andreas I. Vasila (1388 – 1398) and Jakob Plichta (1398 – 1407), the latter being of Lithuanian origin. It was probably around his second year as a bishop when the first Franciscan shrine in Kaunas – the church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (or church of Vytautas the Great) – was built.

The Friars Minor (Bernardines) in Lithuania

Members of the branch of Friars Minor, Franciscan Observants, came to Lithuania in 1468 – mainly from Poland. There, in 1453, they had founded a friary dedicated to St. Bernardin of Siena who had only just been canonised; he had been one of the Observants’ most famous preachers. With reference to the name of that friary the friars of this branch of the Order came to be called Bernardines in Poland and in Lithuania. We know that Observants first came to Kaunas and only one year later (1460) to Vilnius, where they also settled for the very first time. In Warshaw, on the feast of Epiphany in 1468, the provincial chapter of the newly founded Polish Observants (Bernardines) elected a group of friars who were to be led in Lithuania by the Franciscan Andrius Rey, the first superior of the Observants in Lithuania.

The Friars Minor Observants (Bernardines) in Kaunas

In about 1492 work began in Kaunas to build a church and friary of stone which were completed around 1504 (with guardian Alman having organized the works). In the 17th century the church and friary suffered three conflagrations (1603, 1624 and 1668).

After the break-up of the Polish-Lithuanian state in 1795 Kaunas found itself under the rule of the Russian tsars. In 1842 the Lithuanian Bernardine province of St. Casimir was banned for having supported the revolt of 1831 against the tsars and the ban also put an end to the work of provincial superior F. Dominikus Šukevičius. Finally, the province was completely liquidated when in 1864 all other friaries were closed, with only the one in Kretinga being left.

In 1842 the church of the Franciscan friary of Kaunas was handed over to the chaplain of the Kaunas gymnasium and the friary buildings to the city authorities. But documents have been recovered whereby even in 1843 the friary still housed 9 priests and 3 friars, but in 1851 there remained only 8 Franciscans. It is unknown when the last friar left the friary. We only know that in 1864-1865 the episcopal seminary of the diocese of Samogitia moved into the friary.

The church of St. George the Martyr in Kaunas without Friars

After Lithuanians had regained independence in 1920 – which was to be the first, but not the last time in the 20th century – an archdiocese was established in Kaunas in 1926. It was also running the seminary until 12 January 1941 when the Red Army invaded Lithuania. During the Nazi occupation the seminary could continue working until the second Soviet invasion when the Bernardine friary was nationalized (1945) and later also the church (1950). On the back of the High altar of the church of St. George a Latin inscription has been preserved that testifies: „On 5th March 1950 the Lord left this shrine.“

Revival of the Friary and the Church

After Lithuania had regained independence (1990), the church was taken over by the city of Kaunas in 1992. In 1993 steps were taken to give the friary back to the Lithuanian Friars Minor who after the end of Soviet rule they had resumed their activities and returned to the friary in 1995. A semi-private chapel was installed on the first upper floor of the renovated friary, in the place of the earliest gothic sacristy. Only after 2005 the Friars Minor of the Order’s Lithuanian Province of St. Casimir again took over the church of St. George. In 2008, on the feast of St. George, patron of the church and second patron of Lithuania, a temporary altar was consecrated and since then the friars have held their Sunday service in this church.


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