THE SAMOGITIAN DIOCESE
The Samogitian Roman Catholic Diocese has existed and shaped the nature of Samogitia for about 500 years.
A short history of the diocese should start in 1411 with the agreement of Torun, after which the Teutonic Order strengthened its claimed on Samogitia. In 1416 the Archbishop of Lvov and several Vilnius bishops traveled to Samogitia to preach. The official founding date of the diocese is considered to be 1417, confirmed by Pope Martin V in 1421. The size and boundaries of that first diocese are unclear. Perhaps the diocese covered all of the Samogitian territory of the time. In 1795 the supervision of the Samogitian diocese was moved from the Gniezno to the Mogiliov Archdiocese.
The Samogitian diocese was founded three decades after the Vilnius diocese for several historical reasons. For one, several rulers laid claim on the Samogitian territory. Even after the peace of Torun, the Teutonic Knights and two Lithuanian cousins (Vytautas and Jogaila) fought over the dominion of pagan Samogitia. The Samogitians were also more tied to their ancient religion than other Lithuanian tribes.
Additionally, the rule of the Lithuanian Grand Duke was weaker in Samogitia than in neighboring Aukstaitija. Nonetheless, the Samogitians understood that they might be completely subjugated by the Teutonic Knights and preferred to maintain closer ties to Lithuania. The Grand Duke Vytautas understood the political importance of Samogitia and gave Samogitia autonomous political status in the Grand Duchy in 1413. Four times, however, Vytautas made concessions to the Teutonic Knights in his struggle for power against his cousin Jogaila and signed over Samogitia to the control of the Order.
The majority of Samogitians confessed their pagan faith even after the official Christianization of Samogitia. The historian Zenonas Ivinskis shows this clearly in his book "Christianity in Lithuania," based on documents now kept in the Vatican. The Samogitian diocese was ever short of Catholic priests and the Catholic church's influence decreased significantly during the time of the Reformation. When the second bishop of Samogitia, Merkelis Giedraitis, arrived in Samogitia, he found only a few Catholic places of worship.
In 1646 Bishop Jurgis Tiskevicius announced to the pope that the Reformation had been successfully squelched in Samogitia and that the the diocese now included 80 churches and a number of smaller chapels. At this time, the church had already become the major source of popular education and had opened a number of parish schools.
Three bishops had particularly strong influence on the cultural life of Samogitia. These were Merkelis Giedraitis, Juozapas Arnulfas Giedraitis, and Motiejus Valancius. They introduced the Lithuanian language into official prayers and religious lessons, advocated temperance, published books, founded schools, and wrote a number books.
The political borders of Samogitia and the borders of the diocese did not always coincide. The administrative organization of the Catholic dioceses changed quite a bit in 1849. 8 districts with 93 parishes were reassigned from the Vilnius diocese to the Samogitian diocese (Kaunas, Panavezys, Ukmerge, Utena, Obeliai, Zarasai, Kursas, and Ziemgala). Thereafter the borders of the Samogitian diocese extended far beyond Samogitia's political borders. In 1860 the diocese counted 306 parishes.
At the dawn of Lithuanian independence the administrative leadership of the Samogitian diocese was in the hands of the Mogiliov archdiocese. Klaipedan Catholics were considered a part of the Varmija diocese. In 1925 the Samogitian diocese included 32 districts with 216 parishes.
In 1926 a separate Lithuanian church province was created. At that time the Samogitian diocese was dissolved and replaced by the Telsiai and Panevezys dioceses and the Kaunas archdiocese. The main reason for this reform was that Lithuanians had never been directly ruled by the Vatican. As the Telsiai bishop Justinas Staugaitis wrote in his memoirs, "now that Lithuania was an independent state, such a situation was not normal, since it meant that Lithuania was not yet its own independent party. The Lithuanian dioceses were ruled by metropolitans outside Lithuania's borders. [...] Two things were needed to solve this and other issues facing relations between Lithuania and the Vatican: the foundation of a Lithuanian church province (archdiocese) and a concordance between Lithuania and the Vatican.
© Samogitian Cultural
Association Editorial Board, 1998.