In 1926, Archbishop George Matulaitis is received at Our Lady of Vilnius Parish in Chicago, Ill. By that time, there were more than 20 Marian Fathers’ Auxiliaries in U.S. parishes.
By Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC
Freedom. Fruitfulness. The USA. These three things go together for the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. And now, 100 years after the establishment of the Marian Congregation in America, is a perfect time to reflect on an amazing story for the life of the Church.
Before the 100 years of freedom in the USA, the Marian Congregation suffered more than 100 years of persecution in Europe. From the pride of partitioning powers who wiped Poland-Lithuania off the map, to the devastation brought on by the tri-color troops of Napoleon, to the relentless harassment of the Czar of Russia, the Marian Congregation went from a high point of 147 members in 1781 to just one member by 1910.
One member. That’s all that was left of a once vibrant and thriving community — and he was dying. Of course, the Czar and his men were quite satisfied with themselves as they prepared to celebrate the long-awaited demise of another Catholic religious congregation. In fact, when Fr. Vincent Senkus, the last of the Marians who wore the white habit, finally did die in 1911, the enemies of the Church surely did rejoice. But theirs wasn’t the final word.
Little did the Czar and his anti-Catholic men know, but an intelligent, hard-working priest had given up the promise of prestigious positions in the Church to save the Marians in secret. Little did they know that Fr. George Matulaitis of Lithuania was re-establishing and renovating the old white Marians, refashioning them to be an exponentially greater force for Christ and the Church.
The only problem was that the new Marians had to lay low and keep quiet, even after Blessed George moved the training of his men to the free nation of Switzerland — for even in Switzerland, the Czar’s spies were on the lookout.
But George’s plans for the Marians were certainly not about laying low and keeping quiet. He wanted to bring the greatest possible glory to God; he wanted to work for the salvation of countless souls, and he wanted his men to be filled with a zeal that would set all afire. So, what did he do? He moved some of his men to America, where they would be free to be everything he wanted them to be.
Freedom in America
On July 9, 1913, Blessed George arrived in America with two other Marians, Frs. Felix Kudirka and Julian Kazakas, to establish the first Marian house of the renovated Congregation. He had been invited there by Fr. Anthony Staniukynas, who wanted to join the Marians and had offered them a place to stay in Chicago. Once in Chicago, Blessed George presented himself to the archbishop there, the Most Rev. Edward Quigley, who warmly welcomed the Marians to his archdiocese and even offered them a parish.
Then, only about a month after their arrival, on Aug. 18, 1913, the first house of the new Marian Congregation was formally established in Chicago — 100 years ago.
The importance of this event shouldn’t be overlooked. It was in America, with her freedom of religion, that the new Marians could finally be who they were meant to be. And who were they meant to be?
According to Blessed George, the Marians are called to serve the Church where the need is greatest. And in his opinion, “One of the most pressing needs of our time … is to involve larger groups of people from every segment of society in a more active apostolate for the faith and the growth and defense of the Church” (Journal, p. 46).
Indeed, he believed that by gathering laypeople around them, the Marians could give even greater glory to God and serve the Church better. But simply gathering people wasn’t what he had in mind. Rather, he said that the “special characteristic” of the Marians in their work with laypeople is “to organize, unite, and direct them toward the task of spreading the faith and defending the Church” (Ibid., p. 47).
And that’s exactly what the Marians have been doing in the USA for the last 100 years, thanks to the great gift of religious freedom found here. And this gift of freedom, allowing the Marians to be who they were meant to be, allowing the Marians to unite with the laity for the work of evangelization, has led to a tremendous amount of fruit for Christ and the Church.
100 Years of Fruitfulness
“The laity must come to the aid of the clergy,” said Blessed George, “so that both could work together in this most important task of spreading true Catholic teaching” (Ibid., p. 82). The laity have come; indeed, they have responded with amazing generosity to this call. In fact, it would be an understatement to say that they have been a major part of the work of the Marian Fathers in the USA for the past 100 years.
From the “Marian Fathers’ Auxiliaries” of yesteryear in Chicago area parishes, to our present-day “Association of Marian Helpers,” to our lay staff on Eden Hill, to lay cooperators in our Marian Congregation known as “vir aggregati,” laypeople have been part of the very heart and mission of the Marian Fathers from the beginning of our establishment in America.
Recognizing this contribution, in what follows, I’d like to briefly trace some of the high points of our collaborative efforts, so that, looking back on the last 100 years, we may give thanks to God for blessing our labors and sacrifices with so much fruitfulness.
We’ll start our review by looking at what was formerly called the St. Casmir Province, which grew up around the Chicago area. There, the Marians worked with the laity in establishing the Marian Fathers’ Auxiliaries and many other societies and groups of laypeople that supported the Marians in spreading the faith. Most notable among these is the publishing apostolate of a daily newspaper Draugas, which continues to serve the local Church in Chicago, and is staffed by a team of dedicated laypeople and overseen by the Marians. The Marians also founded and ran several Catholic schools that included many lay staff.
In the former St. Stanislaus Province headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass., where the promulgation of the Divine Mercy message and devotion was a top priority, millions of laypeople have stood with dozens of Marians to spread the word of Divine Mercy not just throughout the United States but to the entire world. It was predominantly laypeople who helped the Marians to purchase Eden Hill, build the Shrine, and establish the Mercy of God Apostolate, which became the Association of Marian Helpers.
These Marian Helpers, many of whom were also parish promoters, international promoters, Divine Mercy Sunday volunteers, and supporters of the Divine Mercy Apostolates (also composed of laypeople) were all part of a Marian army that has helped set the world on fire with the message of God’s merciful love.
Today and Tomorrow
Now today, with the former St. Casimir and St. Stanislaus Kostka Provinces joined as one in the Mother of Mercy Province, the Marians continue their labors for Christ and the Church in the USA, surrounded by the assistance of countless laypeople who have been inspired by the Marian spirit.
This new province, which was established in 2007, also includes the vicariate of Argentina, where the Marian spirit likewise inspires a growing number of laity there to serve Christ with the Marian Fathers. And from Eden Hill in Stockbridge, which is the headquarters of the new province, the Marians continue to forge bonds of friendship and collaboration with laypeople.
You can read about some of these newest relationships in other articles in this issue of Marian Helper: One of them details collaboration for ministry between Lighthouse Catholic Media and our Hearts Afire Program. Another describes an exciting partnership between the Marians and Divine Mercy Team. These two organizations, Lighthouse Catholic Media and Divine Mercy Team, are composed entirely of laypeople. They will now be helping the Marians, potentially, to reach even more people with the message of Divine Mercy.
Moreover, the Hearts Afire Program continues a “most important work” of the Marians, namely, the work of gathering, forming, and sending out laypeople for the work of evangelization. In fact, Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy, one of our apostolates, has a cenacle formation program that also gathers and forms the laity.
I want to thank all the Marian Helpers who are reading this article. Without you, we couldn’t do what we do. With you, it’s become clear that Blessed George was absolutely right. He wanted to give the greatest possible glory to God, and he knew that while one priest alone could only do so much, one priest with an army of laypeople could change the world.
By the grace of God, through Mary’s intercession, and from the USA, that’s what has happened in the last 100 years. May the next 100 years bear even more fruit for Christ and the Church.
Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, is director of the Association of Marian Helpers, based in Stockbridge, Mass. Learn how you can become a Marian Helper — helping the Marians to spread the message of Divine Mercy and devotion to Mary Immaculate.