LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 44, No.4 - Winter 1998
Editor of this issue: Dalia Kučėnas
Copyright © 1998 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Jonas A. Kučinskas-Kučingis, Mano gyvenimo takais (Logos Press, Vilnius, 1997), hard cover, 232 pages, illustrated, unindexed but with detailed Table of Contents, no price given.
On the eve of his ninetieth birthday, the pastor emeritus of the sole Lithuanian parish on the west coast has published his noteworthy memoirs that merge with the history of St. Casimir Church in Los Angeles. It is tribute to his stamina that he has survived for nine decades, since at birth he was regarded as too small to allow any delay in his baptism. Later, in the throes of pneumonia, his First Holy Communion was hastened in an impromptu ceremony, accompanied with the Anointing of the Sick.
As one of seven children in the Kučinskas family, the native of Šnypšliai village in the region of Šilutė managed schooling with borrowed books, while earning some pocket money by fishing and tutoring. During adolescence, he flirted with the idea of becoming a Salesian, and even spent a white in Italy under the Don Bosco priests. A year after ordination in parish work at Šilalė, he matriculated at the Catholic University in Milan. On return/ he became a chaplain in the Lithuanian army.
The gripping narrative spans his detailed recollections of the 1940s under the Soviets, Nazis, and again the Soviets. Like most inhabitants, he judged that the two enemies would destroy each other, and then the Western allies would stride in unimpeded to repair the damage. During his escape, along with hundreds of fellow countrymen, he several times rescued laymen by outfitting them as clergy, shown a modicum of deference by the Nazis.
The drama continues as the young priest meanders about Germany by train or wagon from village to city, finding lodging in unexpected places, and offering Mass in convents of compassionate local nuns who won his unforgettable gratitude. Much of his makeshift apostolate centered around Nasgenstadt and the gradually growing number of Lithuanian refugees. Meanwhile, he and his companions kept listening for news of the shifting military fronts, the oncoming Soviet forces, and the final outcome of the dreadful war.
Kučinskas' adventures no doubt parallel the plight of unrecorded countless others. From that angle, this is perhaps the most valuable segment of the book (pp. 37-82), adding to the genre of Displaced Person testimonials.
In faraway California, the aging Monsignor J. Maciejauskas of St. Casimir, Los Angeles, learning of Kučinskas' whereabouts, took steps to recruit him as a very much needed assistant. Soon by way of brief visits in Philadelphia and Chicago, the exiled clergyman was on his way to the west coast. From page 89 on, parish history blends with biography.
It was bad enough to discover a strong leftist colony of the older immigration, characterized by their support of the two communist newspapers Laisvė and Vilnis. He encountered resistance from within. Accordingly, he offers little praise for some church officials of Irish background whom he bluntly accuses of impeding his efforts to preserve the Lithuanian community. These obstacles made him more determined than ever to shape a viable religious and cultural community. Meanwhile, he did encounter widespread compassion when granted permission in 1945 to conduct an archdiocesan clothing drive (p. 96) to aid Lithuanians in the camps of Germany.
Under the guidance of this new pastor, St. Casimir became the haven for a sizable number of displaced persons, building up an oasis of ethnicity. During his fleeting stay in Pennsylvania, he had witnessed the statewide annual Lithuanian Day. Using this model, he inaugurated a similar celebration for his state, drawing governors, mayors, bishops, and even a few Hollywood celebrities, especially Rūta Kilmonytė Lee.
It is no surprise that the government of Lithuania awarded Monsignor Kučingis with the Order of Gediminas in July, 1997 for his lifetime of devotion to his Lithuanian heritage.
The memoirist shares the stage with many vignettes of his long line of assistant priests, and the leading members of his parish. He graciously lends space to Fathers Lionginas Jankauskas-Jankus, Vaclovas Šiliauskas, Antanas (later the Franciscan Kornelius) Bučmys, Antanas Valiuška, Romanas Kasponis, Petras Celiešius, Antanas Steponaitis, Vytautas Palubinskas, Vincas Bartuška, and the present incumbent - Algirdas Olšauskas. Laity singled out include: Ona Razutienė, Mykolas Biržiška, Stanislovas Žymantas, Pranas Lembertas, Bernardas Bradžionis, Jurgis Gliauda, Antanas Skirius, Edmundas Arbas and his wife Alė, Kazimieras Lukšys, and three generals: Pranas Tamašauskas, Ignas Černius, and Stasys Raštikis. These sketches supplement and update encyclopedia articles. For instance, the author is careful to point out that Lithuania's Declaration of Independence signatory Biržiška became a practicing Catholic. Kučingis, as he became known on acquiring citizenship, sprinkles his pages with a dozen sermon texts and funeral eulogies.
Though often lacking in this type of literature, an index would notably enhance the value of such a publication for researchers eager to find traces of the refugees.