April 25, 2020

The image of the Divine Mercy was exposed for the first time 85 years ago. In Vilnius

By Andrea Gagliarducci
The original image of the Divine Mercy in Vilnius / credit: Vilnius Pilgrim Center
The original image of the Divine Mercy in Vilnius / credit: Vilnius Pilgrim Center

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is situated at the geographic center of Europe. The Gate of Dawn is one of the entrance doors of the city, where there is a chapel  dedicated to our  Lady of Mercy. It was in that chapel that the image of Divine Mercy was exposed for the first time, 85 years ago.

Not many people know that it was in Vilnius St. Faustina Kowalska - the Polish nun to whom Jesus gave the work of spreading devotion to His Deivine Mercy – fulfilled the wish of Our Lord to paint the image that has become known the world over. Jesus had asked her to do that in Plock, according to Sr. Faustina diaries. 

The image was exposed for the first time at the Gate of Dawn from Apr. 26-28, 1935.

The image of Vilnius is slightly different from the picture we all got to know.

The famous image of the Divine Mercy is a replica by the Polish painter Adolf Hyla, an ex-voto he made to thank Jesus he was still alive after the Second World War.

Hyla's image has some characters slightly different from the original one. But spread because the original image was believed lost. The story of the image of the Divine Mercy is fascinating and full of turns of events.

Archbishop Grusas of Vilnius says: “For a long time, the Lithuanian people themselves did not know much about this picture. Because of the difficult geopolitical circumstances, the world has not known for a long time either of the first picture of the Divine Mercy.”

Since 2005, the painting has been in a chapel expressly dedicated to the Divine Mercy, with perpetual Eucharistic adoration. “Since the image was transferred there,” Archbishop Grusas adds, “more and more people are discovering and deeply understanding the Mercy of God, especially in Lithuania.”

Why was the image of the Divine Mercy painted in Vilnius?

Sr. Faustina joined the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Warsaw in 1926. In April 1929, her superiors sent her to a convent in Vilnius, which was then part of Poland. One year after her return from Vilnius, she was transferred to the convent in Plock, where she stayed from 1930 to 1933.

In 1933, after she took perpetual vows, she was again transferred to Vilnius. There she met Fr. Michael Sopocko, her confessor. She reported to him the visions and the conversations she had with Jesus. She told him that Jesus had asked her to craft an image of His Divine Mercy.

Fr. Sopocko took her to the studio of the painter Eugeniusz Kazimierowski. Although an Atheist, Kazimierowski accepted the commission.  It was 1934.

Kazimierowski's studio was not far from Sr. Faustina’s convent. She went  every day to his studio; she checked and oversaw every small detail of the painting. She wanted to make sure that the picture fully matched the indications Jesus gave her.

Kazimierowski finished the painting in 1935.

The first exposition took place at the  Gate of Dawn, whose chapel had been dedicated to Mary, Mother of Mercy, 400 years earlier. For three days, on Apr. 26, 27, and 28, the painting was hung on display in the chapel, and people venerated it. It was a crucial moment: the beginning of the Divine Mercy devotion as we know it today.

More importantly, it took place on the first Sunday after Easter, the very same liturgical moment of the year that St. John Paul II officially set as Divine Mercy Sunday.

In his memoirs, Fr. Sopocko shared a recollection: “During the Holy Week of 1935 Sr. Faustina said to me that the Lord Jesus demanded that I place the picture in the Gate of Dawn for three days where the triduum at the end of the jubilee of Redemption was to be held.”

“The triduum,” Fr. Sopocko continued, “was planned on the same days as the coveted feast of Mercy. Soon I learnt that the said triduum was going to be held indeed and the parish priest of the Gate of Dawn asked me to say the sermon. I agreed, on condition that the picture would be placed as a decoration in the window of the cloister where the picture looked impressive and attracted more attention than the picture of Our Lady.”

In her  Diary, Sr. Faustina wrote: “On Friday, when I was at the Gate of Dawn to attend the ceremony during which the image was displayed, I heard a sermon given by my confessor Father Sopocko. This sermon about divine Mercy was the first of the things that Jesus had asked for so very long ago. When he began to speak about the great mercy of the Lord, the image came alive, and the rays pierced the hearts of the people gathered there. Great joy filled my soul to see the grace of God.”

Things quickly became more difficult.

In 1936, Sr. Faustina had to return to Poland. At first, she went to Walendow, south-east of Warsaw. After she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she was sent to the sanatorium in Pradnik. Krakow. She died in 1938.

The image of the Divine Mercy stayed in Lithuania, hidden in the church of St. Michael, where Fr. Sopocko was pastor.

The outbreak of the Second World War battered Lithuania. In 1939, Soviet troops invaded the Baltic state and began the process of imposing official Atheism: shutdown of seminaries, the prohibition of teaching religion, seizing of ecclesiastical goods, and the abolition of the State – Church agreement all came in fairly short order.

Nazi Germany occupied Lithuania in 1941, and in 1944 the Soviet Union occupied the country again. After the war, Lithuania remained a Soviet satellite. In 1948, the communist authorities decided to turn the church of St. Michael into an architectural museum.

The church was closed then, and all the decorations and furnishings of the church sold, except the image of the Divine Mercy.

The painting remained hanging for three years on a wall of the former church of St. Michael, until two women in 1951 decided the picture was not safe, and carried it away.

They bribed the custodian with a little money and a bottle of vodka, and carried the painting off, leaving the frame. They  took only the canvas, wrapped with care, and they hid it in an old cellar at a friend’s house.

The women were eventually deported to Siberia, while the canvas, after some years – it’s not clear exactly how many - was brought to the church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius. When the women were given amnesty and allowed to return from their Siberian exile, they went back to Vilnius to recover the image.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk has been among those who worked to bring back the painting to Vilnius.

Speaking with Catholic News Agency, he recounts:, “In 1956, after five years of imprisonment, Fr. Jozef Grasewicz began searching for the image. He was a great worshiper of the Divine Mercy and a friend of Fr. Sopocko. One day, he visited his friend Fr. Jan Ellert in the church of the Holy Spirit. There, he saw the image, and he asked Fr. Ellert to give it to his parish of St. George  in Nowa Ruda, Belarus. Fr. Ellert agreed. The image was then transferred to Nowa Ruda, hanged very high.”

Fr. Grasewicz had to leave Nowa Ruda in 1957, and Fr. Feliks Soroko administered the parish for a while, until he was transferred to Odelsk. Nowa Ruda was then without a priest, though the people kept on going to church to pray.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz also explained what happened when the Soviets turned the church into a storage facility: “In 1970, the Soviet authorities closed the church of Nowa Ruda and turned it into a warehouse. All the furnishings of the church were moved to another church, but the image of the Merciful Jesus. It seems there was not a ladder long enough to get to it.”

The painting stayed then, abandoned in the church. Fr. Spocoko died in 1975, without knowing what had become of the picture.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz served as vicar of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius between 1981 and 1986. “Fr. Grasewicz was in the meantime appointed parish priest of St. Anthony and the Epiphany in Kamlonka, Belarus,” he recalled. “In 1982, [Fr Grasewicz] proposed to move the image of the merciful Jesus to the Gate of Dawn.”

The current archbishop of Minsk tells the he "gave the opinion that it was impossible to display the image in the chapel because the walls of the chapel are filled with votive offerings."

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz then suggested moving the image into the church of the Holy Spirit. Fr. Grasewicz agreed, and so did Fr. Alexander Kaszkiewicz, who was then pastor of Holy Spirit.

The image was moved back to Vilnius during the night – a night in November of 1986. A replica was set to replace the image in the parish in Nowa  Ruda. The image stayed in the church of the Holy Spirit until 2005, when it was moved to the church of the Holy Trinity, which is now the shrine of the Divine .

This year, therefore, also marks the 15th anniversary of the Divine Mercy’s translation to its home in Vilnius.

2020 can be considered a Year of Divine Mercy, then, since there are many important anniversaries to be celebrated.

The 20th anniversary of Sr. Faustina’s canonization will be celebrated on Apr. 30. Sr. Faustina Kowalska entered the Congregation of the Blessed Mary of Mercy 95 years ago, on Aug. 1. On Aug. 25, it will be the 115th anniversary of the birth of St. Faustina, and, on Aug. 27, the 115th anniversary of her baptism. The 85th anniversary of the revelation of the words of the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy will be celebrated Sept. 13-14.

The original image of the Divine Mercy has a particularity: its face matches the face of the man of the Shroud, but also with the Sudarium of Oviedo and the Holy Face in Manoppello.

All of these images are different, made differently, and still they match: a miracle within a miracle.

Through all these vicissitudes, one message comes through clearly: Europe will be saved only if Christ and his mercy will be at its center.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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