This Sunday, Sept. 13, Our Lady of Sorrows Church, at Davis and Bergen Aves., will mark its 100th anniversary with a special, concelebrated High Mass at noon, followed by a banquet at the Lithuanian Catholic Community Center.
The banquet is sold out, but you can still share in the congregation’s joy by attending the Mass. No tickets required for that.
We know what you’re thinking: “That church doesn’t look 100 years old.” And you’re right. It is the parish of Our Lady of Sorrows that dates to 1915.
The other day, we met with parish administrator, the Rev. John Wassell — who also serves as pastor of St. Cecilia’s in Kearny — and John Sarnas, who along with Len Mackesy, serves as deacon.
Our intent was to get a history lesson, and we learned much.
When we thought of yesteryear West Hudson, we always thought in terms of the Scots and the Irish. But Sarnas enlightened us. “Just before World War I, there was a huge influx of Lithuanians here, and in Newark and Elizabeth,” he said.
The immigrants, fleeing the poverty and political turmoil in Europe, found a haven here, and, in West Hudson, ready employment in the factories that abounded in Harrison and Kearny.
A parish history, written for the 50th anniversary in 1965, noted that “when the parish was formally established in 1915, it was designed to serve the needs of approximately 700 Lithuanians in Harrison and 400 in Kearny.”
The congregation’s first Mass in 1915 was celebrated by the founding pastor, the Rev. Francis Jakstys, in St. Cecilia’s Parish hall. According to the ‘65 history booklet, the Lithuanian communicants later moved to “a small, dilapidated building on the property of Holy Cross Parish in Harrison.”
And they began to raise funds for their own church.
In 1916, the congregation purchased a plot of land at Davis Ave. and Fifth St. in Harrison and constructed a rectory and small church, with a lot of help from volunteer labor. It served the parish well, but a few decades later, the need for a larger, newer church was evident.
Another building fund was launched in 1952, and groundbreaking for the current church — the lovely brick, modern Gothic structure — was held in 1953.
It was dedicated on March 20, 1954. In the years that followed, Our Lady of Sorrows School was built off Schuyler Ave. It closed in the ‘80s, and is now home to Pathways to Independence.
The parish, though, continues to thrive. “Most of the Lithuanians have now moved away,” Father Wassell told us, “but there’s still a lot of life here.”
Proof of that is evident in the enthusiasm and teamwork that have gone into preparing for the 100th anniversary. “We’re excited about it,” Wassell said, expressing thanks to “the team, the committee, that worked so hard to organize the celebration, the Mass, and the party at the L.C.C.C.”
While we were researching Lithuania in preparation for this story, we talked to a friend who was born in the neighboring Baltic State of Latvia. Latvia has an entirely different culture, of course, and is predominantly Lutheran, but it shares Lithuania’s experiences as a land that had been held in captivity by the Soviet Union.
In the continuing resistance against the Communists, “it was the Lithuanians who were the gritty ones,” she said. “They were the ones who threw themselves in front of the tanks.”
That grittiness paid off. In 1990, a year before the USSR self-destructed, Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare its independence.
Our friend also commented on the “staunch faith” of the Lithuanian Catholics and told us about the Hill of Crosses. Located in northern Lithuania, it is a site of pilgrimage on which thousands of crosses have been placed by the faithful.
We had never heard of it, but Sarnas had. Every so often during the Soviet occupation, he said, “the Russians would come in and clear it out, and a couple of weeks later, the crosses would be back.”
One recent estimate puts the number at 100,000.
It’s a testimony to Lithuanian history and the Catholic faith. Just as is Our Lady of Sorrows.
Father Wassell gave us a copy of the introduction to the parish’s 40th anniversary (1955) booklet. It’s a short essay entitled “Memories” and one eloquent quote calls to mind the founding congregants of 1915:
“Poor, often distraught, beset by an intense longing for the scenes of our childhood, lonely, terribly lonely, for our loved ones far across the sea, we had several things in our favor: love of unity, singleness of purpose, and a strong determination to bring unto ourselves a brighter tomorrow.”
We would say they succeeded.