Traditions of Piety
The consecration ceremony of the new Stations of the Cross took place at Pentecost on 9 June 1669. With the bells of all Vilnius churches tolling, Bishop Sapieha, escorted by the clergy addressed the people at the first station (The Last Supper). He then led them along the Way of the Cross, scattering the soil brought from Jerusalem to strengthen the symbolic ties with the Holy Land. Everybody received a full bishop’s absolution, which was promised to everybody who would properly walk all the Stations of the Cross.
Since then, Vilnius Calvary has become a popular pilgrimage destination. Yet the closing of the convent did not break the tradition of visiting the Stations of the Cross. On the contrary, the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century saw the Calvary of Vilnius grow immensely in significance and popularity. This sacred place attracted no fewer pilgrims than the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn with the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The pilgrims arriving to Vilnius often merged the Dawn Gate and the Stations of the Cross into one single route, sometimes also visiting the Holy Steps nearby the Church of St Francis and St Bernardine. Thousands of believers flocked to this church on Good Friday, Pentecost, the Assumption, the Finding of the True Cross and other religious feasts. An extra service was introduced in the middle of the 19th century while every second Sunday High Mass at this special place commemorating Jesus’ suffering included the exposition of the Holy Host. Since 1854, on Pentecost and the Assumption’s Saturday, Sunday and Monday the so-called 40-hour service with a large procession following the route of the Stations of the Cross took place.
Adam Honory Kirkor in his “Roaming over Vilnius” captured vividly the Stations of the Cross of Verkiai in the middle of the 19th century:” Almost exclusively the country folk gather for the service on the first day of Pentecost. On the second day, especially after lunch, clouds of dust engulf the entire road from the Green Bridge. Besides pedestrians who keep to the sides of the road, numerous wagons keep rattling along. After the Mass, the groves of Calvary become a park of pageantry, teaming with the visitors in their Sunday best. Usually the bishop celebrates the Mass on that day, and using the opportunity of many people, sometimes from the most remote districts, coming to Verkiai, he administers the Confirmation sacrament. On the third day, city dwellers and craftsmen, mostly Catholics of German origin, join the country folk. Sermons in German and Lithuanian echo from the pulpits, yet within the next few days this busy and colourful life starts losing its momentum. The glamour and clamour fade. The crowds disperse, all the craftsmen return to their workshops, the tents of the traders are put away, and a solemn peace sets in around the groves of Calvary for the rest of the year”.
Not even the Soviet authorities, who tore down the chapels at Vilnius Calvary, managed to stop pious visits to the place. The tradition of visiting the Stations of the Cross persisted and the pilgrimage route was not forgotten; people marked the sites of the former chapels by crosses laid out with stones, planted flowers on the foundations, while groups and individual visitors kept treading the path leading from one station to another.