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Rome, Italy

Rome has been the center of Catholic world for 2000 years. In the Middle Ages, this also meant a political heart of Europe. With the Christianization of Lithuania (13th-15th centuries) the Grand Dukes of Lithuania participated in many then-important deliberations: possible Catholic-Orthodox union, wars against Ottomans. Rome's importance continued throughout the 20th century when Vatican refused to recognize the Soviet occupation of Lithuania (1940-1990) and the church supported Lithuanians' plight for freedom.

In 1970 when the Soviet military might and human rights abuses made it hard to even dream about free Lithuania the Vatican opened a Lithuanian chapel in its famous St. Peter Basilica (the most important Catholic church in the world). Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn proudly hangs behind its altar (a copy of a sacred painting that is the religious heart of Vilnius), giving its name to the chapel (which is also known as Lithuanian Martyrs chapel). Walls are decorated in bas-reliefs of Lithuanian rulers, bishops, martyrs, saints, first Lithuanian churches and patriotic symbols, all created by Lithuanian-American sculptor V. Jonynas. Large Rūpintojėlis (a traditional Lithuanian figure of a sad God) by Italian Alcide Ticò fails to fully adhere to the convention. Travertine stone is used for all decor akin to the Roman catacombs where early Christians used to hide from Imperial persecutions (events that were a 1700-year-old history in Rome but a modern truth in Lithuania where Soviets led a major anti-Christian drive which included murdering the religious).

Consecration of the chapel was attended by 500 Lithuanians - all of them emigrants (from North and South America, Western Europe, Australia and Africa) as the Soviet occupational regime forbade most Lithuanians from traveling to the Western world. The idea of Lithuanian chapel was therefore developed by the emigrants and they were a prime source of pilgrimages to the chapel for the upcoming 20 years. After Lithuanian independence (1990) Lithuanian citizens were quick to discover the Eternal City and this chapel (~1995 the first Lithuanian language guidebook to be published about a Western location had Rome as its topic). Popes pray at the Lithuanian chapel as well - it was one of the first locations where the Polish pope John Paul II prayed after being elected.

Beautiful Villa Lituania is another building in Rome that is closely related to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. It is commonly referred to as the "Final occupied territory of Lithuania". This estate at Via Nomentana 116 which includes a 90 are park has been bought by Lithuania in 1937 (for 3 million liras) to serve as an embassy. However in 1945 Italy illegally transferred the building to the Soviets under Soviet pressure. Russian diplomats still use the building. Italian government recognize the illegality of its predecessor's actions but could not offer a restitution instead suggesting some alternative proposals (a cheap lease of a derelict building further away from downtown) that were not acceptable to the Lithuanian side.

Diplomats at Villa Lituania. The building, surrounded by a park, still exists although trees largely cover it from the street. Historical image.

Villa Lituania is also a name of a Catholic guest house (Piazza Asti 25). Its impressive historical towered facade is crowned by the Lithuanian coat of arms, its balustrades by crosses of Vytis. Administered by St. Casimir nuns, the institution helps Lithuanians to see the Pope while a local chapel celebrates the Lithuanian holy mass. The building also houses the Lithuanian St. Casimir College, the home to Lithuanian priests in Rome.

Villa Lituania palatial guest house in Rome. Google Street View.

Lithuanians work in other Catholic institutions as well. Radio Vatican offers some programming in the Lithuanian language.

Through the centuries of Christian Lithuania, the burial grounds of Eternal City had many famous Lithuanians interred. St. Lawrence (Verano) cemetery includes a chapel of St. Casimir Lithuanian College where these people lie: bishop Vincentas Podolskis, signatory of Lithuanian independence declaration priest Kazimieras Šaulys, leader of Lithuanian-Italian community priest Vincas Mincevičius, Lithuanian ambassador to the Holy See Stasys Girdvainis, chairman of the American Lithuanian charity fund Juozas Končius, Lithuanian Brazilian general vicar and vicerector of the St. Casimir Lithuanian college Zenonas Ignatavičius, priest Jonas Buikus, diacon Augustinas Lišauskas and nun Eulalia.

One of the most visited churches of Rome Chiesa del Gesù (the heart of the Jesuits) is also the final resting place of the first Lithuanian cardinal and a bishop of Vilnius Jurgis Radvila (epitaphy on the floor: "Cardinalis Radzivili Episcopi Cravoviensis Ducis Olicae Et Niesvisii" - "Cardinal Radvila, the Bishop of Cracow and Duke of Olyka and Nesvyžius"). In the peak of his career, he was one of the Europe's important elite and he died in the Eternal City in 1600. It is symbolic that this church is considered to be the first Baroque church in the world and Baroque would later have a major architectural impact over Vilnius. By the way, the second Baroque church in the world was built in Nesvyžius (modern-day Belarus), in a manor owned by Radvila family.

From these times until some 1930s nobles and priests used to be the Lithuanians who explored Rome the most. The first sizeable gentile community was formed in the 1940s when post-war refugees arrived at Rome. It soon established ties not just with Vatican but also with Italian Christian Democrats. Disregarding the protests of local far left activists the Christian Democrats supported Lithuanian independence. A relic of these times is a square in Rome named Piazza Lituania.

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