St. John’s Lithuanian Cemetery – 60th Anniversary

Introduction

Cemeteries are enduring places of memory, history and biography.  St. John’s Lithuanian Cemetery is unique in Canada.  It is dedicated to people of Lithuanian origin or heritage as their final resting place.  The threads of Lithuanian culture can be found in the symbols and motifs on the gravestones, way crosses, memorials and metal ornamentation throughout the cemetery.

Prior to 1959, people of Lithuanian heritage were buried in local cemeteries throughout Canada.  Those whose final resting place is St. John’s are remembered in the traditional Lithuanian manner to this day.  Every spring and most importantly in November on All Souls Day, friends and family gather at the cemetery to say prayers for the deceased and to lay flowers and candles on the graves.  The candle light illuminates the entire cemetery well into the night.

We present highlights of the 60 year history of St. John’s Cemetery: from apple orchard purchased in 1959, to the established cemetery dotted with sculptural tombstones, a hill of way crosses, an indoor/outdoor chapel, sculptures and ironwork.  Many of them are designed by renowned Lithuanian Canadian artists.

 

Father Petras Ažubalis, pastor of St. John the Baptist Lithuanian parish, purchased 10 acres of land on the outskirts of Toronto in 1959.  At that time many Lithuanian Canadians were buried in their local cemeteries. There was a need to have a Lithuanian cemetery where cultural and religious practices would endure.  The first step was to clear the apple orchard which covered the land.

In the spring of 1960, the land was ready. Msgr. Rev. Mykolas Krupavičius presided over the consecration ceremony which was held on June 8th.  The first burial was held three days later.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of St. John's Cemetery, architecht V. Liačas led a special project for the erection of a chapel dedicated to Lithuanian Martyrs, a monument to Lithuania’s freedom and an amphitheatre.  The creative team included architect V. Petrulis and artists T. Valius, J. Backis and R. Astrauskas.

Construction began in 1968.  The ferroconcrete structures were half finished by June, 1969.  The chapel and freedom monument were consecrated on June 1st following a celebratory concert May 31st at the Ryerson Institute auditorium.

Renowned graphic artist, Telesforas Valius  designed the wrought iron gates for the front of the chapel. Six graphic panels, each one ten feet high and twelve feet wide, represented Lithuania’s path to Christianity.  The ironwork was done by metalwork artist Juozas Bakis who completed the project in August of 1970.

Graphic designs on the first two panels represent Lithuania in pagan times.  The middle panels show the Teutonic Knight crusades and the pivotal moment in 1251 when Grand Duke Mindaugas is crowned King of Lithuania and is baptized into the Christian faith.  The final two panels represent Lithuania as a Christian country.

Original design of the gates

In 1980, Msgr. Jonas Staškevičius was appointed pastor after the untimely death of Fr. P. Ažubalis.  Over the next two decades, the new pastor spearheaded a number of projects to improve the cemetery.  A fence was built around the perimeter of the cemetery and in 1984 the main gate to the cemetery, designed by artist Rimas Paulionis, was completed. The gate is decorated with traditional Lithuanian motifs.

During the summer of 1991 Msgr. Jonas Staškevičius made a fiber glass sculpture of the Lithuanian icon of the "Solicitous Christ" or "Rūpintojėlis".  It was put in place the same year by Jurgis Ramanauskas and his helpers into the niche of the Freedom monument and was the centrepiece of the cemetery.  It was consecrated by Msgr. Pranas Gaida the same year during the annual parish celebration in the fall.

To commemorate the cemetery’s 15th anniversary, the Lithuanian National Guard in Canada or ‘Šauliai’ erected a War memorial dedicated to the heroes who fought for Lithuania’s freedom.  It is a replica of the memorial to Lithuania's unknown soldier which is located in Kaunas, Lithuania.  The monument was consecrated in 1988.

In order to give more prominence to the chapel gates designed by T. Valius, Msgr. Staškevičius and Jurgis Ramanauskas transferred them to the roof of the chapel as decorative accents.  However, they could not keep the same order of the panels – in order to keep the two panels of the centre gate together, the original order of the panels was revised.

New order of the gates

One of the most important symbols of religious freedom in Lithuania is the Hill of Crosses located just outside of Šiauliai.  To mark its symbolic importance, St. John’s established a smaller version near the Freedom monument.  The first crosses came from an installation at the Lithuanian Pavilion, Resurrection Parish, for Toronto's multicultural event, Caravan.  To this day, individuals and organizations build and donate crosses marking milestones, anniversaries, commemorations and memorials.

After a few years, the hollow fiber glass structure of the ‘Rūpintojėlis’ needed additional structural support.  Repairs were done by Jurgis Ramanauskas and a long metal rod reinforced the whole structure, especially the top.  Later repairs included a layer of spray foam to fill the hollow interior.

The cross atop the chapel tower provided additional ornamentation with Lithuanian motifs.  First it was made of wood by Msgr. Jonas Staškevičius and erected by Jurgis Ramanauskas.  After several years of exposure to the winds, it started to crack and an exact replica was cut out of metal at a metal shop and replaced by Jurgis Ramanauskas.

The completed Freedom monument.

A more recent view of St. John’s Lithuanian Cemetery.

Valius Family monument.  One of the first Lithuanian Canadian artists to design gravestones, Telesforas Valius was originally buried here.  Later, his body was exhumed, cremated and was ultimately buried in Telšiai, Lithuania.