The Pažaislis monastery is one of the most mesmerising examples of late baroque in North-Eastern Europe, contributing to the history of Kaunas for over 350 years. People have been praying here for peace and the prosperity of Lithuania since 1664 when the chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – Kristupas Žygimantas Pacas – gave the Pažaislis manor to the Camaldolese monks.
Now the location is among the most popular destinations of cultural tourism in Kaunas: pilgrims, artists and other visitors are welcome here, festivals take place in summer along with religious celebrations. We’re talking to sister Juta (Edita Kunickaitė) about how the Christian communities living under one roof interact with guests from all over the world.
You live and work surrounded by impressive architecture and nature. Obviously, the Pažaislis complex is one of the leading spots of cultural tourism in Kaunas, so tell us about the activities of your culture and tourism centre.
It ’s right that this is one of the most visited cultural objects in Kaunas, and we’re pleased and proud of it. The Pažaislis Culture and Tourism Centre celebrated its 20th birthday in 2017: in 2014 we were visited by 35,000 people, while the number has grown to 40,000 by 2016. We’ve opened a museum exposition and an educational area in 2011, where many classes take place for various age groups and families, for example, “The lazy days of the family”. We’ve also prepared educational programmes on the history of this monastery, yet we want the visitors to get to know those who reside here right now too. People often are interested what this mystical place is about, who are the sisters of the Lithuanian convent of St Casimir and what do we do here.
What are the educational classes like?
Specific dolls were made for the class “Heritage of St Casimir”, they’re dressed in copies of the exact clothes of the past (which are still worn today). We tell guests about what each detail of the clothing is for, why do we need scallop shells and why do monks have rosaries, why and how did the headgear change over time, what’s the difference between the clothes of sisters in different phases of their service – let’s say you meet a woman with a white veil here and you know she’s a candidate to become a nun, whereas if the veil looks like this [shows her own ], you know she’s a nun of St Casimir that’s been serving for a longer time [laughs].
We also have an educational class about medicinal herbs led by sister Renata. She talks about the old traditions of the Camaldolese monks and the recipes they’ve created. We found the original books at the regional state archive in Kaunas: they include many useful hints, advice and insights, for example, how to treat erysipelas, scabies and other diseases with oils.
Do those recipes work?
We haven’t tried them [laughs]! In modern days, a person typically goes to the doctor if he or she has severe troubles. Catching a cold is common in Lithuania, and one recipe (apparently, written in Latin) to treat it is quite impressive as it involves beer: the Camaldolese brothers had a brewery in Pažaislis, heating the dark beer, adding honey and various spices. This was then given to a person with a cold or a cough. It’s a great recipe – we’ve tried it ourselves. We’re not heating the beer during our educational programmes, but we let people know about a few herbs and tinctures. Some problems with using old recipes are that several critical medicinal herbs that grew here in the 17th century are merely extinct, while others are tough to get or to recognise following the Latin descriptions.
Many tours take place here as well, and the sisters used to give those themselves, but then gradually they turned to their true calling and started spending more time in prayer. Let the sisters pray for every guest and the professionals who are giving the tours. Even now we get a lot of visitors that want to meet some of the sisters because they remember a friendly tour or have heard good things about us.
Pažaislis was given back to the Catholic church in 1992, after being a part of the M. K. Čiurlionis art museum for a few decades. How did the place change throughout the years and where is it going?
As an institution, a monastery is a place to worship God; therefore it should be a place of prayer. We need to remind people at times that tourism is not our primary activity. Even Kristupas Zigmundas Pacas, while building Pažaislis, couldn’t imagine that it would ever become a heritage object. The notes he left here said clearly that this is a place of prayer, dedicated to monks who want to sacrifice their lives to praying for peace and the prosperity of Lithuania. The monastery lost its real function during the Soviet years, so we want as many people as possible to be able to come here to pray, we also welcome everyone coming to the mass on Sundays or visiting the famous painting of St Mary with her baby here. So that’s basically where we’re going.
How do you combine the life of a tourism destination with the one of a monastery?
There are words in a psalm that say: “If God isn’t building it, the builder’s work is in vain”. So if the sisters won’t be looking for compromises, both them and the visitors will suffer. We’re lucky that the architectural complex of Pažaislis is so large and it’s divided into four clear areas. We’re now in the western part. However, the eastern one is reserved just for the sisters – no one else is allowed in there. The northern area is for tourism – visitors can get to the church through it, while the sisters use the southern one to go to pray. There is a recollection centre up north, and people with various missions stay there – an art therapy camp is taking place right as we speak. So the northern areas are dedicated to the cultural needs of the society, while the southern ones have signs on doors to keep quiet and not to enter. We had a hard time convincing visitors to obey these rules at first, but a decade went by, and they started respecting the personal space of the sisters.
What are foreign tourists or Lithuanian visitors most interested in?
Well, I can say for sure that tourists from abroad love the fact that there once was a hospital of psychoneurology here, they also find it interesting to hear about the Soviet period, about the time the sisters were forced to leave the monastery after World War II because Pažaislis was turned into a hospital and then later into an archive institution. Finally, it became a part of the M. K. Čiurlionis museum. People are also fascinated by the harmony between visitors, tourism activities, guests and sisters living here. Tourists are always happy to meet a sister and talk to her; others even want to take selfies with them, however, you know, some people like taking photographs and some not that much…
What should one know before visiting Pažaislis for the first time?
As I’ve mentioned before, keep in mind that this is an active monastery, so sisters residing here are mostly praying and they care deeply about Pažaislis. It wouldn’t be the same place without them, at least I’d like to think so. It’s interesting that throughout the 350 years – wars and other troubled times – it was always run by monks as a monastery. Sure, a few episodes like the Soviet years or World War I (when the monastery was empty for a while) don’t fit the statement, but it was only 50 years that Pažaislis didn’t belong to the church. Some Lithuanians still remember the place like a hospital or museum; however, most people don’t know about the Camaldolese brothers, Orthodox monks who lived here during Tsar times or the St Casimir sisters that moved here at the beginning of the 20th century.
Which story about Pažaislis do you like the most?
There are many stories like that! I’d probably choose the arrival of the sisters of St Casimir in 1920 as it’s the dearest fact for me. Our congregation mother, founder Marija Kaupaitė came to Kaunas from America and was looking for a monastery location. After World War I, Pažaislis had no windows, doors and frankly was in terrible shape overall. This nun, along with three other sisters, wasn’t afraid to take this project on.
The St Casimir sisters were invited to Lithuania by the archbishop at the time Juozapas Jonas Skvireckas and his colleagues. There was a lack of Lithuanian school in the post-Tsar country, and someone had to run them. The sisters had already founded many Lithuanian schools in Chicago, they were all teachers and had enough experience to revive the pedagogy culture in Lithuania. I’m terrified even by the thought of how much work those four sisters had in 1920. Imagine using a carriage to come to a vast abandoned monastery in autumn, with mud all around. We still have a note written by those sisters about the state of the buildings upon their arrival. People were very precise in those days – they wrote how many doors were left, how many windows, chairs, tables and so forth. In 1924, the nuns were already working in Saulės gymnasium, they had a primary school, while the number of the sisters was over 60. We wish we could achieve that much in four years.
Pažaislis is not just about the buildings; it also has a vast, well-kept garden. What do you like to do there?
Everything! We go to the garden if we’re needed there, or we stay in the kitchen to marinate pickles if we have to. We don’t separate the chores into pleasant and unpleasant ones; we do what has to be done. For instance, today the sisters were picking berries in the northern garden. There are three gardens – the eastern one has a lot of apple trees, the southern one has a lot of cherry trees, and it’s great to see those blossom. I’d choose apple picking in autumn as a favourite activity if I had to. For some reason, I like those apples!
The original article by Julija Račiūnaitė was published in the August’2017 edition of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine.