Kretinga Bernardine Friary
It was Jan Karol Chodkiewicz’s idea to establish a friary for Friars Minor (popularly called the Bernardines) in Kretinga area. Actually, the Town of Kretinga, which was founded near the Friary later on, originally was called Karolstat to honour Chodkiewicz. The same Chodkiewicz who made a name for himself in the Battles of Salaspils and Khotyn, and who is often mentioned in history textbooks as one of the most prominent noblemen that were active in the Grand Duchy during the first half of the 17th c. The aforesaid arrival of the brothers boosted the growth of the Town. The reason why J. K. Chodkiewicz had decided to invite the Bernardine friars to his own patrimony was related to his desire to take action against the spread of the Evangelical Lutheran and the Reformed Faiths in the country, bolstered by the Reformation.
In 1602, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz’s call was answered by 10 Bernardines (8 priests and 2 brothers), who were entrusted with a mission to look after the Parish of the Lord’s Revelation to the Blessed Virgin Mary that had been founded by the sponsor. The friars wasted no time. They started visiting the villages in the Parish and strengthening the Catholic faith of the local folk. The diary of Kretinga Friary reveals that the friars’ efforts were not in vain, as entire families of Protestants and Reformed Believers converted into Catholicism the very first year. After seeing the diligent and honest work of the Bernardines, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz and his wife Sofia promised to build them a brick friary and a brick church. The foundations of the Friary were laid in 1605, but further construction processes were hindered by draining wars between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Kingdom of Sweden. It took five years for the brothers to move into their new home.
The architectural characteristics and arrangement of the building have maintained its original appearance until this day. It is a two-storey structure with a closed courtyard that used to be surrounded by a gallery at the ground level. Through the gallery, one could find their way to the guardian’s cell, the refectory, the kitchen and other ancillary facilities. The cells of the friars and the library were located on the second floor, on both sides of the corridor. After damming up the Dopultis (Dupultis) Stream, a wooden watermill was also built. At that time, the façade of the Friary exhibited a mixture of late Renaissance and early Baroque elements. Today, the Friary’s façade is characterised by the Neo-Renaissance style.
During the period from the second part of the 17th c. to the beginning of the 18th c., Kretinga Bernardine Friary did not escape the hard blows of war. It was robbed and ravaged by the Swedish army repeatedly. As the Kretinga line of the Chodkiewicz family was prematurely ruptured, the care of the Friary became the responsibility of the Sapieha family. They tried to assist the Bernardines in reconstructing the buildings and restoring their activities.
The period of the occupation of the Russian Empire brought no relief to the brothers. In order to diminish the influence of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, the Russian government firstly prohibited to accept new members to fraternities without the secular authority’s permission. After that, an order to close all Catholic monasteries followed. Kretinga Friary was the only one to survive, as it served as a refuge for priests and friars no longer able to commit to pastoral activities. Moreover, the Friary also took in priests, who had offended the Russian authorities by teaching children in Lithuanian or distributing prohibited Lithuanian print, for penance. During the times of the Russian Empire, the holdings of the Bernardines consisted of the Friary, the Church, as many as 19 ancillary residential and farm buildings, a school, a garden of fruit trees and some pastures. The Bernardine Parochial School (which operated near the Friary) was attended by many students, one of them being Simonas Daukantas – a writer, historian and one of the ideologists behind the Lithuanian national revival.
When World War I started, the friars were forced to evacuate, and thus the buildings were being plundered once again. However, soon enough the brothers returned and started restoring the Friary. The interwar period brought about the long-awaited thriving of the Friars Minor. On the threshold of the World War II, there were 130 brothers, ordinands, fathers and novices working actively in the province of the Friars Minor. Aside from their direct functions, the brothers engaged in agricultural activities, e.g. Brother Jerome Plečkaitis wrote the first beekeeping textbook in the country, and the pedigree heifers bred in his farm were awarded prizes in an agricultural exhibition. Before long, the ensemble of the buildings was supplemented with newly constructed St. Anthony Palace and College, also known as the Franciscan Gymnasium. In this famous interwar gymnasium, poor but hard-working students were given a possibility to acquire secondary education, and the ones who felt a missionary call – to become priests. Meanwhile, St. Anthony Palace was used to accommodate American benefactors, who wanted to spend their last days in the motherland.
Unfortunately, Bolshevik authorities closed Kretinga Friary down in 1940 and decided to house Red Army units and frontier force regiments in its premises. What is more, the buildings were also ravaged by a fire. Later on, the Friary became a refuge for families who had lost their homes during the war.
Soon enough the authorities decided to demolish what was left of the Friary, but thanks to the efforts of some active people, who were not apathetic to their region’s history and cultural heritage, the building was declared an architectural monument. After its restoration during the period from 1971 to 1977, the Friary housed a museum of regional studies, the administration of the district library and a book repository. 12 more years passed and finally, on 19 November 1989, the Franciscan brothers returned to Kretinga after a long period spent working underground. And so the procedures of giving new life to the Friary ensemble were started.
Currently, Kretinga Bernardine Friary is on its direct mission once again. After surviving various cataclysms of the country’s history, the journey on the “Bernardine Paths” in Kretinga continues…