Fr. Benedict Skrinda (1868-1947)

Born on March 7, 1868, in the village of Liepas Mukani, the parish of Liksna in Latvia, of Donat and Apolonia (neé Aizbaltis) Skrinda. He attended the local elementary school, and later, after completing an internship, passed an examination to become a pharmacist’s  apprentice. Following the death of his parents, Benedikts interrupted his studies even though he longed to become a priest, and took care of his younger brothers: Kazimierz and Antoni. To provide for upkeep and education of his siblings, he worked on the farm, but mostly hired himself out as a [stone and brick] mason. He sent his younger brothers to the gymnasium at St. Catherine’s Church in St. Petersburg. Antoni later studied medicine and became a doctor; while Kazimierz entered the seminary in 1893 at St. Petersburg, and continued his education at the Theological Academy in 1897, being ordained to the priesthood in 1901. Later both younger brothers taught in the gymnasium at St. Catherine’s Church: Kazimierz taught religion, and Antoni taught the Latvian language while also acting as the students’ physician.

Having realized his younger brothers’ educational goals, Benedikts also entered the seminary in St. Petersburg in 1899, at age 31. On March 9, 1903, he was ordained a priest and was sent as an assistant priest to Omsk. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1905, and took the position of assistant pastor at St. Stanislaus Church, and then – at St. Catherine’s.

In 1907 he became pastor in Jozefovas, transferring two years later to Bukmuiz. In 1911 he became pastor at the parish in Andrupien, and finally, in 1914, he went to Balva, where he served as a pastor until 1923. While ministering at parishes, he wrote articles and books, signing them by his penname “Farmer’s son.” Together with his brothers, he greatly contributed towards reuniting Latgale with other Latvian territories.

From his youth Benedikts wanted to be a religious order priest, but it was impossible since all orders were forbidden. He thought about the Capuchins, and finally became third-order Franciscan. When he became a priest, he told Bishop Springowicz about his desire. This same wish was expressed to the Bishop by Fr. Bronisław Valpitrs, whose thoughts were directed towards the Redemptorists or Salisians. When the countries of Eastern Europe regained their freedom in 1918, Bishop Springowicz decided to bring back to life the religious orders in the Riga Archdiocese. Thus, he summoned both priests and, making sure that they persevered in their vocation for consecrated life, advised them to join the Congregation of Marians, of which he had learned recently and which had been renovated by the Bishop of Vilnius, George Matulewicz. The Marians agreed that Archbishop Springowicz would send his candidates to Mariampole.

In February of 1923, Fr. Skrinda left his parish in Balva, and Fr. Valpitrs – the religious education classes that he ran in Kraslav, and both went to Mariampole. There, on February 19th, they began the novitiate, which they completed on February 24th of 1924, when they professed their religious vows. They were supposed to become renovators of consecrated life in Latvia, starting with a former Bernardine monastery in Vilani. Nothing remained of this monastery except its walls. The floor boards were ripped out, furnaces removed, and windows were either filled with bricks or covered up with boards or rags. Cells were used as storerooms for potatoes, firewood, hay, or as pigsties and chicken coops. The pastor’s living quarters were in a wooden shack near the monastery ruins.

When Fr. Skrinda returned from Mariampole, he brought his belongings from Balva to Vilani. On March 2, 1924, the Archbishop named him the pastor, and Bishop Matulewicz – the monastery superior. On behalf of the Archbishop Fr. Joseph Rancans, Bishop delegate, arrived at Vilani along with the Curia Chancellor, the Dean, the former Pastor, and Fr. J. Karkle from Rezekne, the Editor of “Latgolas Vords”. The Bishop celebrated the installation of the new pastor and entrusted the monastery to the Marians. At once Fr. Skrinda began restoration works on the building. In the fall of the same year Fr. Valpitrs went to study in Kaunas, and two years later he moved to Rome, to attend the Angelicum University there.

Father Benedikts Skrinda made his perpetual vows in Vilani on February 25, 1927, before Fr. F. Buczys.  In 1927-1933 Fr. Skrinda held the office of the IV General Councilor. In 1933, he stepped down from the office of the Vilani Superior and became the Vicar superior, Treasurer, and Novice Master there. In 1936, he was made Vice-Superior in Rezekne. When Fr. Valpitrs, the Vilani Superior, was transferred to the Riga seminary, Fr. Skrinda returned to the office of Superior, and in 1943 his stay in the office was prolonged for a third term.

Father Skrinda was an energetic and conscientious priest. All third-order members in Latgale were under his authority as the Superior, and he ran retreats for them. He organized an anti-alcoholic movement, with good results. He greatly activated the sacramental life, as well. More faithful began to attend Sunday Masses. Small nearby parishes in Nagli, Rikovas, and Ostrones were embraced through pastoral services. The Marians preached missions and retreats in all of Latvia, but particularly for Latgale and Zemgale.

Numerous candidates applied for the Congregation, but many also left. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Marian candidates to the priesthood studied at the Catholic gymnasium in Aglona under the direction of Fr. Stanislaus Skutans. In 1939, about 50 Marians resided in Vilani and Rezekne.

On June 17, 1940, the Red Army invaded Latvia and the country was then annexed to the USSR through a parody of an election. On February 3, 1941, the Bolsheviks threw the Marians out of their monastery. Father Benedikts Skrinda was left alone to continue the pastoral work in the parish, because two other priests had to go into hiding.  They were able to come back to the monastery after the German troops entered Latvia on July 4, 1941. However, Hitler’s soldiers also persecuted the Church and her servants. Retreating before the Bolshevik army on July 27, 1944, they burned and devastated the town, burned down parish buildings, the church’s roof, the choir loft and the tower. On July 28, 1944 they also blew up the monastery, which had been just previously wired up and where Brother Antoni Erdman perished. Later, during the bombing on September 14, 1944, the Germans also destroyed the service buildings that still remained undamaged by prior attacks. Maybe, the Nazis turned their vengeance against the Marians because the latter were hiding a Jewish boy in the monastery during the occupation.

After the Bolsheviks had come, Fr. Skrinda rebuilt the church to such a degree that it was possible to celebrate Mass there. In the remaining part of the monastery he arranged living quarters for the Religious. The Bolshevik authorities seemed to be waiting just for that because they started to expel the Religious and assigned the facilities to a Russian school. While moving their possessions to alternate locations, Fr. Benedikts Skrinda caught cold and got an acute sore throat. The then available treatment did not help: he was not able to eat. With great difficulty he could swallow a small part of the host during Holy Communion. Being well prepared for death, he passed away on December 10, 1947, at 9:30 am. He was buried next to the church. Bishop Kazimierz Dulbiński from Riga led the funeral solemnity in which a very great number of  faithful and priests participated.

A different version of Fr. B. Skrinda’s cause of death is also known. A signed and certified statement, kept in the General Archives of the Marians in Rome, states: “One of the militia men (a Catholic according to the certificate), who was also a parishioner, seized the priest by his throat and pushed him away so violently that the old man swayed on his feet. A cartilage was broken in his throat, which became very swollen. The priest was sick for three days and then died.”

Other people also remembered the above-mentioned fact. Some of the Marians – the Latvians – believe this story to be a “fairytale”, others think it’s true. A Latvian seminarian stated that he spoke with a person who was an eyewitness of the incident. In a German flyer with no date in the title, a letter from the seriously ill and hospitalized Archbishop Springowicz was published. In this letter he accused the Communist authorities of sharing the responsibility of the death of Fr. Skrinda – Father of Religious Life in Latvia.