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BY ALBERT AMATEAU | On Easter Sunday, parishioners of the Church of Our Lady of Vilnius gathered at the church steps, which they draped in a white altar cloth on which they spread baskets of colored eggs and traditional Lithuanian bread.
The gold, green and red flag of Lithuania fluttered in the afternoon breeze next to the Stars and Stripes. There were joyful greetings, solemn prayer and hymns.
A hand-lettered sign, “God never closes his doors,” was affixed to the door of the 100-year-old Hudson Square church, which the Catholic Archdiocese of New York closed five years ago after deciding that the building was in dire condition and the Lithuanian-American parish was dwindling.
But the remnant of the parish that was celebrating Easter on April 8 is still clinging to hope. They remain faithful despite the decision by the Court of Appeals in Albany last December upholding the dismissal of their lawsuit to force the archdiocese to reactivate the parish and open the church.
“This season is all about hope,” said Rita Stelmokiene, who has been leading prayers in front of the church on Broome St. near the Holland Tunnel entrance on most Sundays since the church closed in 2007. “We believe God is higher than human justice,” she said.
Loretta Unikauskaite, a Brooklyn resident, came from her shift in a hospital where she works to read the scripture at the Easter celebration. She came to the U.S. from Lithuania 10 years ago and soon joined the lively parish at Our Lady of Vilnius.
Ilma Constantini, from Queens, came to the Easter ceremony with her two daughters, Nicoletta, 12, and, Anna, 13, who were both baptized at Our Lady of Vilnius.
“I wish we could share this church with another parish. It’s important to preserve it,” Constantini said, noting that the rectory, a Federal-style building on Dominick St. dating from 1826, was designated a landmark last month.
“A few years before the church closed, we shared the building with a Portuguese parish,” she recalled. “It was even better. We learned about each other’s culture.”
Both Lithuanian and Portuguese immigrants settled in the neighborhood at the turn of the last century. Those communities have mostly left the neighborhood, but Our Lady of Vilnius parishioners have been coming to the church from all over the metropolitan area.
Mindaugas Blaudziunas, who goes by the name of Gus and initiated the failed lawsuit to keep the church open, has been a member of Our Lady of Vilnius parish since he came to the U.S. from Lithuania 20 years ago.
“I remember Father Palubinskas, who was pastor then,” he recalled. “He was a walking encyclopedia, knew every building in the neighborhood. He was a food guru and loved the good life.”
Among the younger celebrants last week was Chris Merkelis, 8, who came with his mother from Brooklyn.
“I was the last person to be baptized here,” he said.