Lithuanian Franciscan Friars’ Extraordinary Expedition to Siberia

The Lithuanian Franciscans organized an extraordinary expedition to Siberia (Russian Federation) on August 13-25, 2017. A group of 12 people travelled to the land of tundra where thousands of Lithuanians were exiled and imprisoned during the Soviet regime. Crosses found on the graves were those which have best flourished in this land of eternal frost and snow during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The main aim of this journey was to honor and memorialize Fr. Augustinas Dirvele, OFM who was repressed by the Soviets after the occupation of Lithuania. Fr. Augustinas, with many intellectuals, scientists and priests, was convicted and taken to this land of Gulags, where he died as a martyr of faith.

Born in 1901, Fr. Augustinas was one of the most influential people in Kretinga during the interwar period. He established St. Anthony High School, constructed a grotto of Lourdes in honor of Our Lady in Kretinga, established a Franciscan printing office and served as Provincial Minister of St. Casimir Province in Lithuania from 1936 to 1939. Fr. Augustinas also founded the congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to help the friars in their missions. He was a famous preacher and missionary.

Fr. Augustinas was arrested on July 12, 1940 while trying to cross the USSR-Germany border. He was then sentenced to eight years of imprisonment and work in the Kosju Gulag (Pechora region). How he died isn’t clear. Some witnesses say that he escaped from the gulag and disappeared. It may also be that he died in Taiga or was mauled by bears. The August 2017 expedition travelled to that place in order to build a cross in remembrance of Fr. Augustinas Dirvele OFM.

The group consisted of Provincial Minister Fr. Algirdas Malakauskis, Provincial Vicar Fr. Andrius Nenenas, Director of the Franciscan Gymnasium, Fr. Alvydas Virbalis, other representatives from the gymnasium, Sr. Grazina Dapsauskyte from the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Monika Midveryte, Coordinator of Communications and several other lay people.

The travelers flew to Moscow and then took a train north from Moscow to Vorkuta. Their first stop was in the city Pechora, where a metal cross for Fr Augustinas Dirvele was made. The next day was the most important day of the expedition. The group travelled further north and reached the village of Kosju, where Fr. Augustinas had been exiled. They explored the surroundings of Kosju and eventually decided to build a cross in an old cemetery of prisoners. After building the cross the group celebrated Holy Mass and prayed for all the victims of the Soviet regime and for all people of Russia. During the homily, the Friars again remembered Fr. Augustinas, who remained faithful to his Franciscan vocation until the end:  he consoled and encouraged his fellow prisoners, heard confessions, and celebrated Mass. Fr. Augustinas accepted the suffering as an inseparable part of the Franciscan vocation and human life.