Lithuanians celebrate ties to homeland and America


Ramanauskas Kastytis says that he is "an old man, but a young priest."

The Lithuanian native has been a Roman Catholic priest only for three years, yet he is 45 years old.

It took a while, Father Kastytis said yesterday after celebrating Mass at Baltimore's St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, to become ordained in a country where religion was outlawed and theological study often done in secret.

Now that Lithuania is free of Soviet oppression, seminaries will be teeming, said Father Kastytis, who is in the United States to study at Catholic University in Washington.

The morning service was one of thanksgiving by local Lithuanians for their homeland's March 11 declaration of independence and for new diplomatic ties between the United States and the Baltic republic.

Hundreds of worshipers filled the pews of St. Alphonsus, an aging, ornate church at the corner of Park Avenue and Saratoga Street that normally attracts a trickle of believers to its 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass recited in Lithuanian.

Yesterday's spiritual celebration, highlighted with folk songs and children dressed in native costumes, followed a more raucous dance party held on Labor Day for 500 people at the Lithuanian Hall at Hollins and Parkin Streets in West Baltimore.

"Drop by drop we have worn the rock away," said Onile Sestokas, a local physician who formed a "Free Lithuania" group to lobby the Bush administration to exchange diplomats with the republic after it declared its independence.

"Hope lingers on even when you feel that things won't ever come to pass. If the groups who have been working for this for years had given up hope, I don't think independence would ever have been declared," said Aldona Vanderlain, who has been waiting since the 1940 Soviet occupation of Lithuania for her parents' homeland to be liberated.

"This is a joy, a deep joy," Ms. Vanderlain said. "When people greet you today, you feel almost a vibrant tremor."

On Ms. Vanderlain's blouse, beneath her necklace of amber -- from stone that washes up on the Baltic shores like seashells -- she wore a pin depicting the U.S. and Lithuanian flags side by side.

Born in Chicago, she spoke Lithuanian before English and is devoted to both countries. "I feel both heritages," she said. "It is entwined and you don't separate it."

Kristijonas Kaikaris knows one country and has been exposed to the other for about two months as a student at Catonsville Community College.

The 19-year-old Lithuanian medical student stood on the steps at St. Alphonsus yesterday and recalled what the Soviets tried to teach him about America.

"Every ten days they made us watch films about the United States showing how the capitalists were abusing regular people; they had footage of the homeless and the unemployed and blacks being oppressed by whites," he said.

"They would [juxtapose] pictures of black homeless people with white people gambling in Atlantic City. The Voice of America would say it wasn'tlike that and the Soviets would tell us that Voice of America was an organ of the American government, so we were always in doubt which side was telling the truth."

Mr. Kaikaris said that his conclusion after two months of life in and around Baltimore is that the Soviet propaganda was farther from the truth than VOA radio broadcasts. "America is a free country with good and bad," he said. "Good and bad as there is everywhere."

One of the last songs the congregation sang before filing out of the church yesterday was "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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