Lithuanian Friendship Day held in Putnam

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Putnam - posted Mon., Jul. 22, 2013
These boys were about to participate in traditional Lithuanian dances. Photos by D. Coffey.
These boys were about to participate in traditional Lithuanian dances. Photos by D. Coffey.

More than 1,000 Lithuanians gathered in Putnam on July 21, for the 67th Annual Lithuanian Friendship Day, sponsored by the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. The eight nuns who hosted the event are the remnants of a dedicated religious group who came to the area in 1936 when Lithuanian Catholics were being persecuted by the German authorities.

Today, their outreach extends to a community which has dispersed across the state and across the country. Busloads of people came from Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Hundreds of cars filled the grass lots on the 17-acre property on Route 21.

They celebrated with Lithuanian foods like duona (black rye  bread) and pyragas (raisin bread), kugelis (a potato dish), and gira (a beverage made from lemons, raisins, yeast and sugars). Vendors sold jewelry made of amber, linens, sakotis (Lithuanian cake), and clothing that sported Lithuanian sayings. The sounds of Lithuanian music filled the air. The reason for the gathering centered on a faith tested by trials and suffering.

“Lithuanian Catholics have a doleful history,” said Sr. Ann, the convent's sacristan. She stood in the 200-seat Romanesque chapel pointing out the artwork representative of her home country - the agriculturally-based symbols, the thin, suffering faces of Christ and his mother, the intricately carved wooden sculptures and crosses. Part of that history included oppression by both Russian czars and German forces over the years. But it was Nazism that led two nuns on a circuitous route through Spain and Argentina before they reached the United States.

How those nuns ended up in Putnam, and the story of their ministry to the region, is full of miracles, according to Sr. Mary Paul. Drawn to the Putnam area by what is now Marianapolis Preparatory School, the nuns worked in the kitchen while building a home base. Over the years, the sisters' missions have included caring for orphans, creating a summer camp and establishing a nursing home. Today spiritual retreats are held on the grounds. The nuns have evolved with the needs of the community said Paul. “Everything is built on miracles,” she said.

Their hard work earned them the respect of Gov. John Dempsey, who served as Putnam's mayor from 1948 to 1960. When they approached Dempsey for permission to build a church, he readily agreed. “The story is that when someone asked him why he was so respectful towards them, he said, 'Those sisters showed Putnam how we should work,'” Paul recounted.

The grounds include a museum, cemetery and small castle. A gallery with wooden and amber carvings that reflect Lithuanian history and culture lies inside the administration building. What will happen to the order isn't clear. What is clear is the strong connection a wide community has to the order and the small group of nuns who made their home in the area.

Paul, who has been a nun for 62 years, believes the mission of the order will continue to change to meet the needs of the region. “Faith helps,” she said.

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