Travels in Lithuania—Part 2

It was my last day in Las Vegas, and I had time to see one more booth at the Couture show before wrapping up market week 2012. Although I’d never heard of the designer Gintar? before, the distinctive pendants and stacking rings in her showcase beckoned. With managing editor Melissa Bernardo by my side, I stopped to admire the jewelry and inquire about the designer behind the 18k gold jewels whose intriguing heraldic motifs hinted at a rich old world heritage.

The Illumined Messenger Luminous Shield pendant/pin in 18k green gold with blue sapphires; $4,030 for pendant, $4,160 for pendant with pin

Gintar? Marija Kižys. Such an unusual name, I thought, as we eagerly perused the merchandise. “Where are you from?” I asked, half-expecting the attractive blonde in front of me to say Poland; the Eastern European in me sensed a kindred spirit.

“Lithuania,” she said.

If this wasn’t a moment of serendipity—“an accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it”—I didn’t know what was. I was headed to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in six weeks’ time, I told her. Did she have any good suggestions for places to go and things to do in the city?

Oh boy, did she. Gintar? was born in Chicago and now lives and works in Santa Monica, Calif., but her Lithuanian roots run deep. Not only did she send me an exhaustive list of restaurants and places of interest in Vilnius, she also put me in touch with several of her friends in the city, all of whom went above and beyond to welcome me to their country and make sure I felt at ease during my two-week stay, which just concluded yesterday.

The week before I arrived in Vilnius, Gintar? emailed me with another incredible suggestion.

“I have farmland in Lithuania in a small town, on the outskirts of Vilkaviskis,” she wrote. “It is where my mother lived as a little girl but then during the War they left over night in a horse and carriage. After Lithuania became free the new government began returning land to the first generation of those that left. It is approx. 2 hours out of Vilnius. The land is considered a sacred site and my mother had rebuilt a small church on the land, which houses miraculous waters… Would you like to see some pictures, etc., and see if we could find a way to take you there?”

The small stone church on Gintar?’s ancestral farmland, c. 1995

Now here was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I replied with an affirmative YES, and Gintar? took it from there, arranging to have her friend, Aist? Diržyt?, a professor of clinical psychology in Vilnius, pick me up last Tuesday morning for the pilgrimage to Mažu?iai (pronounced “Mah-zhoo-chay”), the scared site Gintar? had written about. Aist? brought along her friend Vilija, and together, the three of us drove towards Lithuania’s western border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, to the bucolic farming community where Gintar?’s ancestors originated.

Aist? Diržyt? (right) and her friend Vilija, my escorts to Mažu?iai, the village that presides over the sacred waters beneath Gintar?’s family church

In order to gain access to the church, we first needed to pick up the keys at the home of the local priest. A kind, humble man with a boyish smile and portly frame, Antanas Kereisis welcomed Aist?, Vilija, and me into his home, where he served us cups of espresso and talked to us about his experiences since joining the parish. After excusing himself to peruse the history of the healing waters on the Internet, he returned to the sitting room with a detailed printout about the land’s tumultuous history.

Father Antanas Kereisis on the doorsteps of his home, after giving us the keys to access the church

“It is believed that the Virgin Mary appeared for one person who was going by and suddenly there appeared a river,” he said in Lithuanian. (Aist? provided the translation.) “The river wasn’t there before and it was impossible to have water. It was a real miracle.”

Gintar? filled in the backstory. “It is said that one day an elderly man saw a bright white light radiating from a very pretty girl as she was washing herself near the village,” she wrote in an email, translating from Lithuanian documents. “She offered, ‘This is for all to wash and use.’ Startled, the man ran to tell the townsfolk. The news flashed through the village like lightning, and the local people ran to the site. There they found a beautiful fragrance permeating the air. The pretty girl was gone, but in her place they found water flowing in a spring that did not exist before. Immediately, the local villagers knew the sacred waters were a gift from the Blessed Mother.”

“From everywhere, the ill came to draw the water, drink, and wash with it,” Gintar? continued her translation. “The first chapel was built by a miraculously cured Russian soldier who had been seriously injured while laying a nearby railroad. A testimonial book records scars being washed away, and numerous physical ailments healed. The water was considered by the people to have miraculous power, especially to heal the eyes.”

The well of miraculous water inside the church

In 1938, Gintar?’s grandmother Elena rebuilt the wooden chapel into a sturdier one made of stone. But World War II decimated the region; in 1944, the church was reduced to rubble. In the intervening years, Gintar?’s mother, Agne Jasaityte Kižys, had fled the country with her mother and brothers hidden in a carriage. They had received a warning that the Secret Soviet Police were transporting people by cattle cars to Siberia, a consequence of the Soviet regime’s new dominion over the Baltic states, established in the post-war power struggle.

Gintar?’s grandmother Elena and mother Agne Jasaitis Kižys

The church was not rebuilt until 1991, when Agne, with the help of a local priest, Antanas Lukosaitis, realized a lifelong vision to replace the chapel. In 1995, Agne traveled to Lithuania for the first time since the war. She suffered a heart attack on the return flight to Chicago (she recovered but passed away a year later).  

Gintar?’s own desire to retrace her family’s roots led her to Lithuania for the first time in 2003.  

With so much history weighing down on us, I wasn’t sure what to expect when we finally got the keys to the church and climbed in the car for the short drive there. We drove past fields of wheat dotted with purple and orange wildflowers. We might have been in Iowa—until, that is, we pulled up to the church and saw a family of four perched on the periphery of the simple stone building. The father, mother, and two young daughters had driven from Kaunas, about an hour away, to collect the healing waters that run beneath it in empty plastic bottles they’d propped up near the mouth of a drain pipe.

Pilgrims travel from all across Lithuania and Poland to avail themselves of the church’s healing waters; the drain pipe outside the church is often the only way to access the water.

Thanks to Aist?’s translation, I learned that people come from all across Lithuania and Poland to take advantage of the healing waters. The mother of the two girls claimed the waters “cure even cancer.” On Sundays, when Father Antanas delivers his mass at the church, the queue for people who have come to collect the sacred liquid can stretch for hours, she said.

This family from nearby Kaunas believed in the water’s healing powers.

“People believe it is energetically loaded,” she continued.

Aist? unlocked the doors and all seven of us stepped inside the single room church. To the right of the altar, a set of stone steps descended to a circular wooden floorboard affixed with a cross. The father from Kaunas lifted it to reveal a dark well underneath. Using buckets and a funnel stored in the corner, he got straight to work filling bottle after bottle with the holy water.

Soon enough, it was my turn to do the same. From Vilnius, I had brought two empty plastic water bottles and a small glass apple juice container, all of which Aist? filled with the mineral water. I took a sip from one of the bottles; the water seemed to be the Platonic ideal of water: cold, pure, and—apparently—a bonafide tonic.

After Aist? and Vilija filled their receptacles, we emerged into the sunshine and basked in the serenity of the place. The only sounds were the chirping of summertime bugs, the squawking of birds, and the crunch of grass beneath my feet. There amidst the pines and flowers and bumblebees, I felt the essence of the Lithuanian landscape and its simple majesty. A column of wooden sculptures carved in the likenesses of various saints led away from the church, and I followed the procession, taking in the scene so I could preserve its sanctity in my memory.

Carved columns bearing the likenesses of Catholic saints led away from the church into a field of wildflowers.

It was then that the connections behind Gintar?’s collection and the simple, beautiful land where she derives her greatest inspiration became clear to me: the Sacred Earth cross pendants bearing testament to the intersection between earth, fire and water; the Illumined Messenger pendants that evoke the shield of the Grand Duke of Lithuania; and the crown motif of her signature Karuna ring, whose name means “crown” in Lithuanian and “loving compassion” in Sanskrit, its closest linguistic companion (incidentally, the ring boasts an ingenious patented interlocking construction).

Gintar?’s Sacred Earth Fine Cross in 18k green gold with diamonds; $1,390


(Left) The center of the Karuna Crown ring in 18k green gold on its own set with 36 round brilliant diamonds, $2,220; (right) the three-part Karuna Crown ring in 18k green gold has two sides, shown here, that have 24 round brilliant diamonds total. All three pieces together comprise 60 diamonds and retail for $3,990.

The three-part Karuna Crown ring in 18k white gold with 84 diamonds, shown when all of the pieces are worn together, $4,550

We returned the keys to Father Antanas and soon enough, Mažu?iai was a memory. Its miraculous waters, however, were not. Those bottles I lugged back? I stuffed them into my checked luggage and they did not erupt during the Transatlantic flight. Let’s call it a small miracle.

I’m not quite sure what I will do with my cache of holy water, but the journey to its source was among the highlights of my trip to Lithuania. Many thanks to Gintar?—a?i? as they say—for the incredible opportunity!