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Touch of home in Rome

  • Large bas-relief sculptures in the Chapel of Lithuanian Martyrs at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, are a match to ones found at Tamaqua's SS. Peter and Paul Church. The sculptures were created by the same world-class artist.
    Large bas-relief sculptures in the Chapel of Lithuanian Martyrs at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, are a match to ones found at Tamaqua's SS. Peter and Paul Church. The sculptures were created by the same world-class artist.
Published April 06. 2012 05:01PM

Sometimes we journey far away and learn more about our own backyard.

Such was the case recently when four Tamaqua friends traveled 4,400 miles to Rome, Italy, and made a surprising discovery about their church back home.

It happened unexpectedly and left the visitors dumbstruck.

For Bill Savage, it began with a special feeling.

Savage sensed something oddly familiar as he walked into a solemn sanctuary beneath the altar of legendary St. Peter's Basilica near the Vatican. There, Savage admired magnificent bas-relief sculptures adorning the walls of a visitors' chapel. Something called out to him. Something made Savage feel at home. Then suddenly, it struck him.

"I looked at the signature, and I knew," he says.

Turns out, the eight-foot high chapel sculptures inside what many regard as the greatest church of all Christendom are a perfect design match to the sculptures inside and outside of Tamaqua's SS. Peter and Paul Church, Savage's home parish.

And there's a good reason why they match - they were created by the same person, a Lithuanian artisan who passed away in 1997 and who is now famous for creative work.

"Look, these were done by the artist who did our church at home," said Savage to travel companions Diane Derr, Elaine Millet and Donna Soley.

All are long time members of the Tamaqua church, which features the original work of the world-famous artist just about everywhere one looks, including the oversized sculpture located above the altar.

"It's the Risen and Glorifed Christ," says the Rev. William Linkchorst, pastor, regarding the signed sculpture towering over the church nave.

In fact, the sculptures and stained glass windows of SS. Peter and Paul Church might be the ultimate showcase for the renowned artwork of Lithuanian-born Professor Vytautas Kazimieras Jonynas.

Jonynas has a background that parallels that of Louis Comfort Tiffany, with strong European influence and intensive study in Paris.

Jonynas was born in 1907 in Udrija, Lithuania, and trained at the Kaunas Art School. Traveling to Paris, he studied wood engraving and sculpture, book illustrating and furniture design.

From 1935 to 1950, Jonynas was a director and teacher at art schools in Lithuania and Germany and won awards for his widely exhibited engravings, posters and illustrations.

He moved to the U. S. in 1951 and took up residence in New York. There, he taught art at the Catan-Rose Institute of Fine Arts in the town of Jamaica, later doing the same at Fordham University in the Bronx.

Jonynas expanded his repertoire, dabbling in other media such as watercolors, oils, and stained glass, and began designing interiors of churches in the U. S., Europe and Australia.

In 1955 he co-founded the Jonynas & Shepherd Art Studio, New York, with Donald Shepherd. Then, in 1970, he was commissioned by the City of New York for a mural at Rikers Island. At the time, he had created a new technique that combined glass mosaic, fresco painting and bas-relief sculpture. He then tackled the Tamaqua project.

It was about 1975-76, that Jonynas created the magnificent works seen inside the Tamaqua church. Proud of his accomplishments, he signed virtually every stained glass window. His signature also appears at the base of the main altar sculpture. Savage owns a copy of a church anniversary booklet carrying a picture of Jonynas working at the Tamaqua site.

In addition to Jonynas' masterpieces in Rome's Chapel of Lithuanian Martyrs at St. Peter's Basilica, he is credited with designing the Lithuanian Franciscan monastery chapel in Kennebunkport, Maine. He also is known to have done Divine Providence Lithuanian Catholic Church, Southfield, Michigan.

Many of his works are a tribute to Lithuanian folk art.

Before his death in 1997, Jonynas returned to Lithuania. The largest collection of his work is at the museum named for him at Druskininkai. He is buried in the Antakalnis Cemetery at Vilnius.

Jonynas' notoriety and the discovery of the Tamaqua church's bond to St. Peter's Basilica was a pleasant surprise for Savage, Derr, Millet and Soley. They call it the icing on the cake of their September 25 - October 5 trip, which also included an audience with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, and tours of Old Rome.

"It made us feel very connected," says Derr, the former Diane Kenesky.

Millet says when they realized that Jonynas was the same man who did the interior of their church, they stood in awe. "We did a double-take. It made it special. Here was part of Pennsylvania there," says Millet. And not just anywhere in Pennsylvania, but her town of Tamaqua.

The four are friends Father Gary Ziuraitis, whom they met in 2002 while on another overseas trip sponsored by the Knights of Lithuania. The Rev. Ziuraitis is affiliated with The Redemptorists, Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, and is now assigned to the Vatican. A man who speaks several languages, Zuiraitis served as host for the Tamaqua group. He took the four under his wing and escorted them to the chapel where the discovery was made.

It was the trip of a lifetime, say Derr and Millet, who stayed at the monastery while in Rome. Savage and Soley stayed nearby."We may go back next year," says Savage, adding that Zuiratis extended an invitation to Father Linkchorst to come along if possible.

Coincidentally, SS. Peter and Paul Church is celebrating its centennial this year. For that reason, the Tamaqua foursome says the timing of the discovery is perfect.

They're humbled to play a role in uncovering a bond between their church and the famous papal basilica. The announcement of the discovery during the Tamaqua church's 100th anniversary and over the Easter holiday might just be a centennial gift from above.

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