The stone mosaic of Jesus Christ created by Juozas Mikėnas and Boleslovas Adomas Motūzas, hanging on the facade of the church of the Blessed Sacrament, is probably familiar to all Kaunas residents. However, until recently, only a very few believers would open the door of this baroque church. The history of this church located in the old town is genuinely complex. In the 19th century, it was ravaged by the French army on their way to Moscow, and later it served as a jail and a school. In Tsarist Russia, the church was converted into an Eastern Orthodox church, during the Soviet Period it served as a book warehouse, and in 1963 cinema Santaka was opened there. Finally, after the restoration of independence, the church was returned to Catholics, and a chapel was set up.
In May, a new cultural organization called Sakramentas was established on the premises. Thousands of people can fit inside during events. Gytis Petras Stumbras, Rector of the Church, and Indrė Grikšaitė, Project Manager at Sakramentas, explained how a secular cultural organization and a religious community came together under one roof, how they imagine the church in the future and how this space will be useful to Kaunas.
How did the idea of opening the space of Sakramentas come about?
Indrė Grikšaitė: It all started with the desire of Kaunas Old Town Society’s board to bring this building to life again. Minvydas and Liuda Znaidauskas were the people who formed the team and initiated the dialogue between the church and Kaunas Old Town residents. At the end of March, a charity evening was held to raise the initial amount of money needed to make the place functional. People started to gather around M. and L. Znaidauskas - talented Kaunas residents who volunteered to do something useful for this project. Those who could - contributed financially, others gave their time, donated things, and so on. This project would not have been possible without such people as journalist Brigita Sabaliauskaitė, the head of Kaunas Old Town Society Ona Peičiūtė and the cultural activity manager of the concert organization Kauno santaka Daiva Morkūnaitė. We want this initiative to develop communally, voluntarily and without any defined responsibilities.
Why did the church decide to allow a cultural, artistic project into sacred spaces?
Father Gytis Petras Stumbras: First of all, the church as an institution is open to every person, to his different vocations and various talents. When you see a building in deplorable condition decaying in the heart of the city, you start thinking about where you can ask for help. The first inspiration for such projects came from the former Kaunas Metropolitan bishop Lionginas Virbalas SJ. A few weeks later, I met other initiators: Minvydas and Liuda Znaidauskas, representatives of Kaunas Old Town Society who were enthusiastic about similar ideas, showing concern and wishing for the church to be renovated. Cultural and artistic activities are a few of many ways to attract many different people, who, according to their capabilities, could become sponsors.
This church in Kaunas open to secular culture and art is truly unique. However, we can find more examples of similar activities in the world and in Lithuania. One of them is St. Catherine’s Church in Vilnius, were both sacred and other types of concerts take place. Do you see spaces that work on a similar principle as a source of inspiration? Do you gain knowledge when developing your activities?
I. G. Church around the world has a lot of property that it can’t handle by itself, and at the same time, it does not want to keep the property only for the churchgoers. I am actively interested in what is happening in Germany and England, where there are many similar spaces. There are also some great examples of open churches in Lithuania. However, there is often a difference in how we operate. Usually, the religious community itself is looking for ways to reach a wider public, which is very encouraging but in Sakramentas things happened in the opposite direction: the public came to the church and suggested the events that could take place here. This project will be different than examples in Berlin or Vilnius, but it will take some time for Sakramentas to develop its trademark. I think it is essential to believe in the project and allow it to develop organically, then it will grow as a living organism or personality does.
This space is still brand new. Sakramentas opened its doors in May during Kaunas’ birthday. What have you managed to do since then?
I.G. The activity can be divided into two parts: technical and cultural. The first includes all the works that are necessary to maintain this space. We raised funds needed in half a year, most of which were donated during a charity event. With this money, we were able to install a pavement, stage, we fixed the stairs, fixed and secured the walls, and installed electricity. There was no way to raise enough money for a total restoration, so we did everything we could to make the exterior of the building recover and started our cultural activities. We hope that it will attract the attention of potential sponsors and supporters.
Perhaps the key attraction of our opening event was a concert by Vilhelmas Čepinskis and a chamber orchestra. There was also an exhibition r e m i n i s c e n t i a curated by Jūratė Tutlytė. With it, we wanted to encourage the public to discover art outside the white gallery walls and also to draw people’s attention to the condition of the building. Within three days, we were visited by as many as 20,000 people.
After that, we calmed down a little and devoted our time for developing a more concentrated, more comprehensive and better-quality program. A few weeks later, we invited Kaunas residents and guests to new events: concerts, plays, performances, discussions, and exhibitions. We have already hosted an impressive play Homo by Tadas Almantas, Zan Hoffman’s live sound and light performance, and a grand concert by the bands Flash Voyage and Abudu. We wanted young people not to be afraid to come into this building and realize that church space can be fun, attractive and open to them. During these events, young people have been trusted, and they proved that they can come together and have fun but remain respectful and orderly.
How does sacred space determine the program of events?
Father G. P. S. When you hear such a question, the words of Bishop Algirdas Jurevičius, Apostolic Administrator of the Kaunas Archdiocese, uttered in the Sakramentas space come to mind, “So far, this is an experiment!” And that is true. Currently, the events are not screened too carefully, but, in the future, we expect to have only a high-level program.
I.G. Common sense is what you need most to avoid straying from the path. The place cannot turn into a nightclub, and we must prove that a concert is not a messy thing. Mass leaves one with a feeling of elevation and happiness - art can have such an effect as well. I think that religion and art, spirituality and creativity are very strongly linked.
What does the religious community think of the events that take place here?
Father G. P. S. As far as the religious community is concerned, one should start with bishops, priests and representatives of various religious institutions. Of course, Bishop A. Jurevičius, as a shepherd, will always encourage paying particular attention to ensure that the sacred would not be violated or profaned. My position as a priest is the same, but that does not mean that only religious events should take place here. Other religious institutions representatives’ opinions are as diverse as of the churchgoers who visit the church of the Blessed Sacrament.
How do religious and cultural activities currently fit with the church?
Father G. P. S. These activities do not interfere with each other. Of course, once in a while, there is resentment from the churchgoers, but everything is adequately explained to them to avoid misunderstanding.
I. G. Mass is held daily in the church chapel and events are held on the second floor on the stage at a time that does not interfere with religious ceremonies.
Priest G. P. S. Today, everything is coordinated with the church rector and the administrator appointed by the Old Town Society. In the future, according to the Bishop’s request, more members should be elected from the religious side to maintain a balance between the ecclesiastical and the secular.
We keep coming back to the idea that this space should be open to secular culture. But how important it is for you to involve the religious community in this activity and offer a program that would be interesting to the religious people?
I. G. Of course, this is extremely important to us. We seek to reduce fear; the secular people’s fear of the church and the church’s concern for what is considered ungodly. Many disagreements and misunderstandings stem from ignorance and misunderstanding. I believe that a non-religious person can make an open, humane and warm contact with any priest - the old invisible walls and barriers would then quickly crumble. We strive to make this space a place for such dialogue and connection.
From my own experience, I can say that in just a few months, father G. P. Stumbras has radically changed my attitude towards the church. I realized that a priest is not only that, he is also a person with a normal life and often a creative personality. I think that many clergymen have a hidden artist inside themselves and they need to be given more opportunities to self-actualize and not only during the Mass. Perhaps Sakramentas could become a place facilitating that.
What are the future plans for Sakramentas?
I. G. I really want this project to move naturally. I think cultural activities such as theatre, concerts, cinema, and educational activities will fit under this roof. As the weather cools down, we will revive the idea of a wonderful cinema Santaka. Kaunas should regain it at least in the form of a recurring event. We plan on showing good classic movies that are no longer shown in modern cinemas. Also, there are many discussions on faith planned. We want Kaunas to learn how to talk, so we could find the best ways on how not to distance ourselves and be open with one another.
I can’t tell when this building will turn solely into a church, but there will definitely be cultural activities in the next five years. The main goal is to invite people to interact.
Father G. P. S. The future is always in the hands of God and well-meaning people. I hope that this building will remain open not only to Catholic but also to public activities. It is my dream to have a never-ending Eucharistic adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, to hold the Mass in the church every day because that is the only way to preserve the identity of this building and the title of the Blessed Sacrament.
Interview by Justė Vyšniauskaitė for the August 2019 edition of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine. Browse the full issue here.