Pair tracks last resting place of lost sect

Lithuanian group near Philadelphia died out in 1970s

June 29, 2000|By Matthew P. Blanchard | Matthew P. Blanchard,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BENSALEM, Pa. - There is a tiny patch of forest in suburban Bensalem where the ivy grows unusually thick. Its waxy leaves blanket the ground, concealing more than a dozen abandoned graves.

Petras Dumblawskas, 1926, Jonas Lukosius, 1927, Kasimiras Vebra, 1930, and at least 13 other ethnic Lithuanians are buried there, in the underbrush between an apartment complex and a day-care center on Galloway Road.

They were all members of a sect of Lithuanian Catholics in Philadelphia that vanished in the 1970s, largely disdained by the Roman Catholic community because of their anti-Pope, pro-socialist views.

For decades, they have lain silently as time dissolved their church, vandals destroyed their gravestones, and the people of Bensalem forgot about them.

Now two men - a Bensalem-born municipal worker and a Roman Catholic priest from Philadelphia - have teamed up to find the cemetery's rightful owner.

Years of neglect

They are working against 50 years of lost records and nearly a century of distrust between Lithuanian Roman Catholics and the sect. So far, it seems the cemetery might not belong to any Lithuanians at all, but to a Polish church in Scranton.

"It's just a shame," said Chris Schrier, a local man who stumbled upon the weather-beaten graveyard in 1993. "I'm going to die someday. Will I end up like this?"

Schrier, 42, a Roman Catholic, has spent seven years trying to protect the cemetery, lifting headstones back onto their bases and wrecking three lawn mowers until the township offered $500 a year to hire a landscaper to maintain the 1.8-acre plot.

Today the vandalism has mostly stopped, Schrier said, though the painted porcelain funeral portraits chipped off the headstones can never be replaced.

Faded red plastic poinsettias sit by each grave, left by a Girl Scout troop Schrier brought to the cemetery last winter.

Schrier also has been searching for ways to contact the cemetery's owner. A rusted sign on the gate reads: "Lithuanian Catholic St. Mary's Cemetery, Office-C.C. Reed Street Phila. Pa." No such church exists today.

County records from 1947 list the defunct St. Mary's as the only owner. The last known church trustee, John J. Plutch, is dead and buried in the cemetery next to his wife and son.

"If there were family members out there, you'd think they would have complained to someone about the condition of the cemetery in all these years," Schrier said. "They're all dead, or they've moved away."

Fifteen miles to the south is the gloomy Victorian rectory of St. Andrew's Lithuanian Church, on 19th Street in Philadelphia.

Its only inhabitant, the Rev. Peter Burkauskas, could be the answer to Schrier's prayers.

Burkauskas, a pale and thoughtful man in black clerical robes, said he believed Lithuanian Americans in the region would jump at the chance to save the cemetery - with one small caveat.

"The people buried there are looked upon as deserters, renegades," he said.

They were members of the Lithuanian National Catholic Church, he said, which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in America in 1902.

"They would not have been allowed to be buried in a Roman Catholic cemetery," he said, "so they had to find their own."

`Not our people'

According to the Encyclopedia Lituanica, Lithuanian National Catholics rejected the authority of the Pope, allowed their clergy to marry, and insisted that Mass be said not in Latin, as was then the rule, but in Lithuanian.

They were also a bit more sympathetic to socialism, Burkauskas said, and were especially resented by Lithuanian Catholics for that affinity after the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1941.

"The first thing the Soviets assaulted was the church," he explained, converting Vilnius' main Roman Catholic Church, St. Casimir, into a museum of atheism.

"Even now, to interest Lithuanian Catholics in something that was attached to socialism is difficult," he said. "I can easily see people saying `Phew! These are not our people.'"

Still, Burkauskas recently presented the idea of taking over the cemetery to the Philadelphia chapter of the Lithuanian American Community, a network of about 1,000 Lithuanian-American families with headquarters in Port Richmond.

Chapter president Vytautas Bagdonavicius said he was unsure how area Lithuanian-Americans would respond. "Now that we're aware of it, we'll probably try to make sure [the cemetery] is treated with respect," he said.

But a rightful owner of the cemetery may already exist, said Mark Goldberg, a lawyer for Bensalem Township who has dealt with the cemetery since Schrier approached him five years ago.

Goldberg said that if St. Mary's was truly extinct, ownership of the cemetery would go to "whoever can establish a closer relationship in the church hierarchy."

St. Mary's closest relative may not, in fact, be Burkauskas' Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church or any other church in the Philadelphia area.

Two parishes remain

It may be the Polish National Catholic Church, with headquarters in Scranton, Pa., which partially merged with the Lithuanian National Catholic Church in the 1920s.

Bishop Casimir Grotnik of the Polish National Catholic Church said he did not know about either St. Mary's or the cemetery when reached recently at St. Stanislaus Cathedral in Scranton. Only two Lithuanian National Catholic parishes still exist, Grotnik said, one in Scranton and another in Norwood, Mass.

Grotnik researched church records and found a reference to St. Mary's. As for the cemetery, he said, diocesan records make no mention of it.

"I will have to talk this over with my Diocesan Council," he said. "And eventually, we will talk to Father Burkauskas."

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