Žemaičių Kalvarija (Samogitian Calvary) has been famous for the devotion days especially since the 17th century. People come here attracted by the Stations of the Cross as well as the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the main altar of the town church. The Dominican, 20 station Stations of the Cross in Žemaičių Kalvarija is the place where a believer can experience the act of Salvation and Jesus way to Golgotha not only spiritually but also at least a little bit physically too, climbing from one hill to another.
The town is situated in the northwestern Lithuania, 24 km from Telšiai. The highest place is about 195 meters above the sea level. The church and the town square are in the lowland and the Stations of the Cross are erected on the hills.
The town is first mentioned in the acts of the king Mindaugas in 1253. There used to be a castle and a pagan shrine. The town became famous throughout the country after 1637 when bishop Tiškevičius erected the Stations of the Cross with nineteen little chapels. He built the Dominican monastery and asked the brothers to take care of the Stations of the Cross. This is how the bishop wanted to revive Catholicism, which had been weakening due to the influence of the Reformation. His plan was successful the wish to think over the sufferings of Jesus and Mary used to bring together tens of thousands of people, especially after 1742 when one could receive indulgence during the devotion days of Žemaičių Kalvarija.
In 1886 Dominicans were turned out of the town by the tsarist Russian government and the parish priest had to take care of the way of the cross. In 1928 Marian fathers came to serve in the parish.
In 1940 the town had about one thousand inhabitants. Now it is about half that size. During Soviet times the name of the town (Samogitian Calvary) was changed. It was restored again in 1989.
Every year devotions on July 2-10 in Žemaičių Kalvarija attract crowds of pilgrims who follow the singers and visit chapels of the Stations of the Cross in the course of the day or two.
Original songs, the way of singing and especially the instrumental accompany of drums, trumpets and national stringed instrument attract pilgrims as well as ethnographers, fans of national art and other curious people.
The images of both the Stations of the Cross and the picture of Mary of Žemaičių Kalvarija are found in many Lithuanian churches in the USA: in Marquette Park (Chicago), East St. Luis, in the convent of the sisters of Immaculate Conception in Putnam and other places.
Erection of the way of the cross
Bishop Tiškevičius, who erected the Stations of the Cross in Žemaičių Kalvarija, chose the places for the chapels and counted the steps so that everything would correspond to the original way of Christs sufferings in Jerusalem.
The bishop received indulgences for some of the chapels from the pope Urbane VIII. He also brought a relic of the St. Cross from the Dominican monastery in Lublin. He placed the relic to the newly rebuilt church and forbade dividing it into pieces or taking to other places. This relic is 3.2 cm in length and 0.6 cm in width and is the biggest one can see in the Baltic states.
The picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary
As a miraculous picture it was already mentioned in a historic book in 1650.
Pugačewski, a future prior of the monastery brought the picture from Rome. It depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary with the baby and is decorated by a gilded silver garment. On ordinary days it is covered by another picture of the Appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Songs of Žemaičių Kalvarija
While visiting the Stations of the Cross in Žemaičių Kalvarija, people sing special songs, called The Hills of Žemaičių Kalvarija. Most of these are translated from Latin and Polish but the last two are original.
Chronicles, dated in 1644 tell that Dominicans used to visit the chapels singing and playing. Different sources from the 17-19th centuries witness about Samogitians singing Catholic songs very loudly and playing old-fashioned musical instruments. In 1845 a historian wrote that the sound of the trumpets is moving and more plaintive than joyful, rising bitterness and pity.
In the 19th century old wooden musical instruments were changed by copper wind instruments, but the tradition of the way of playing as well as melodies of songs and accompaniment were preserved.