Jonas Viktoras Kalvanas – Faithful Christian and Church Leader

Bishop Jonas Viktoras Kalvanas, sr. (1914-1995)


This year the Lutheran Church in Lithuania is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bishop Jonas Viktoras Kalvanas, sr., who served as bishop of the Lithuanian Church from 1976 until his death in 1995. Bishop Kalvanas, who was ordained to the Holy Minority in 1940, served his entire ministry as pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran parish in Tauragė, the Martynas Mažvydas Memorial Church.

Jonas Kalvanas, sr., served the Lithuanian Lutherans as both pastor and bishop during very trying times. When he was ordained, Soviet troops had already entered Lithuania, and within a short time, in 1941, the Lithuanian Lutheran Church would be decimated by the repatriation of a vast number of Lutherans to Germany in 1941 and the forced evacuation of Klaipeda region natives in 1944, most of whom were Lutherans. The reestablishment of Soviet rule at the end of WWII did nothing to relieve the plight of the Lithuanian Lutheran Church and Pastor Kalvanas, most of whose colleagues in the Holy Ministry had been forced to flee. It was his decision to stay and provide spiritual care not only in his own still large Tauragė congregation but in other Lithuanian parishes as well. He traveled tirelessly from parish to parish to preach, teach, baptize, administer the Sacrament of the Altar, and provide other necessary pastoral services. Early in the first Soviet occupation, on April 27, 1941, the young Pastor Kalvanas was arrested and interrogated for three days by NKVD agents in Kretinga who could not understand why a priest from Tauragė was in Kretinga, which had been declared a border region abutting the German Reich. The return of the Soviets in 1944 brought the pastor to the attention of the NKGB, the predecessor of the KGB. He was among the pastors who petitioned the Lithuanian Soviet government, insisting that the Lutherans who had been deported to Tajikistan in 1945 as “Germans,” should be returned to Lithuania, their homeland, since they were in fact not Germans but Lithuanians. The Communist government never saw fit to respond, but rather marked Kalvanas as a suspicious person who needed to be watched closely. The NKGB alleged that during the Nazi occupation Kalvanas had been said to have made anti-Soviet statements in the course of his sermons. According to its reports, he refused to properly accommodate himself to Lithuania’s new situation, but in the company of colleagues and cohorts he was said to have made derogatory statements about the establishment of collective farms. As a result of these accusations and his rejection of NKGB overtures inviting him to become a collaborator, on July 30, 1952 the NKGB reclassified his “surveillance file” to a “formulary file” in order to prepare for his eventual arrest and trial. He was kept under constant surveillance from 1945 until 1958. During this period as many as 24 agents and informers were assigned to uncover material which would make possible his indictment and conviction. It was only on August 28, 1958 that the “formulary” file against him was formally closed.

Because of the repatriation, the lack of clergy, and war time conditions Pastor Kalvanas was thrust into leadership roles in the Lithuanian Lutheran Church while still a young pastor. Soon after his ordination he was elected to the consistory, the highest ruling body in the Lithuanian Church after the synod. On April 28, 1942 the consistory was reconstituted and Pastor Kalvanas was made vice-chairman. When chairman Pastor Vilius Burkevicius died in 1971, Pastor Kalvanas was elected to succeed him as consistory chairman. In 1976 he was elected bishop and was consecrated in Tauragė by Estonian Lutheran Archbishop Alfred Tooming of Estonia. Earlier, when the Commissioner of Religious Affairs of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist government refused the pleas of Pastor Kalvanas and Consistory Chairman Pastor Erikas Leijeris that the church be permitted to organize and operate a theological seminary for the training of priests, Pastor Kalvanas took it upon himself to provide theological instruction for candidates - some older and some younger - to prepare them for ordination. Pastor Kalvanas himself had studied theology first in the Evangelical faculty of theology at the University of Vytautas the Great in Kaunas, 1933-1936, and then in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Latvia in Riga, where in 1939 he earned the theological licentiate degree, qualifying him as a teacher of theology. Almost all the pastors ordained in Lithuania in the Soviet period, including those who later were able to attend theological courses in Riga, received some or all of their theological training under his supervision.

Jonas Viktoras Kalvanas, sr., was born on April 24, 1914 in the village of Ruobežai in the district of Biržai. He was baptized in the Lutheran parish church at Biržai, a parish in which liturgies and sermons were occasionally in German, but most often in Latvian. He was himself well-versed in the Lithuanian, Latvian, and German languages. Because of the geographical region from which he came and his later studies in Riga, he was able to develop a wide acquaintanceship with Latvian Lutherans and was instrumental in establishing close relations between the Lithuanian and Latvian Churches. From the early days of his ministry he gave special attention to the needs of the Latvian-speaking congregations in northern Lithuania along the Latvian border. This led some super-patriotic Lithuanian Lutherans, former members of the Lithuanian Lutheran patriotic organization “Pagalba,” to regard him with some suspicion. In the course of time these suspicions were proved groundless.

During the Soviet period the Lithuanian Lutheran Church was isolated from almost any contact with its sister churches in Western Europe, Scandinavia, North America, and elsewhere. The only possibility of face-to-face meetings with Lutherans outside the Soviet Union at that time was provided by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which the Lithuanian Church joined in 1968. Bishop Kalvanas refused to use his position in the LWF as a platform for anti-Soviet rhetoric; he understood that to do so would have had only detrimental effects for his small church. He chose instead to highlight the determination of Baltic Lutherans to remain faithful Lutherans regardless the pressures put upon them by the secular state and world in which they lived.

Bishop Kalvanas also worked tirelessly to bring about a great improvement in relationships between the major Christian churches in Lithuania, which through much of the history of the previous four hundred years had been less than fortunate. The first obvious fruit of his efforts and that of others to open ecumenical relations became evident when the Lithuanian Lutherans celebrated the 80th birthday of Consistory Chairman Burkevicius in a special jubilee service in the parish church of Šilutė on December 5, 1965 with priests representing the Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Reformed Churches. Archbishop Gustavs Tūrs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and Archbishop Jaan Kiivit, sr., of Estonia represented sister Baltic Churches. This was the first ecumenical service in the Baltic States in which all four major confessions were represented. The Commissioner of Religious Affairs was somewhat suspicious of any developments in interchurch collaboration, fearing that the churches might develop a common front against Soviet atheism.

Almost all publishing by the Lithuanian Lutheran Church during the Soviet era was the result of the activity of Pastor Kalvanas. The government made the publishing of religious literature as difficult as possible. If often simply refused to give permission, and in other cases during the period from 1956 into 1970’s it insisted that everything to be published must first be translated into Russian and sent to Moscow for close scrutiny and careful review. The usual result was that one page of material came back as only four or five approved sentences. The first church calendar to be published in the Soviet years appeared in 1956. It was so heavily censored that no information concerning life in the church was permitted to be included. The calendar included only the “name days” and statutes of the church. The 1957 edition of the church calendar was also heavily censored, so that the space given to the demarcation of “name days” occupied far more space than was allotted to reports of church activities. Kalvanas was responsible for the production of twenty-nine annual church calendars. He was also responsible for the preparation and publication of a Lithuanian Lutheran hymnal in somewhat modernized speech. There editions of the hymnal appeared - in 1956, 1982, and 1988. In 1985 he published a new edition of the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther, the first catechism to be published during the Soviet years. The first Lithuanian Lutheran catechism appeared in 1547, edited by Pastor Martynas Mažvydas. It was the first book ever printed in the Lithuanian language.

Bishop Kalvanas led the Lithuanian Lutheran Church during turbulent and difficult times. Church members were repressed and the church suffered stringent administrative restrictions. The Communist press often vilified him in the Tauragė press. It was in the fiftieth year of his ordination that Lithuania finally declared its independence and a new era began for both state and church. Kalvanas was quick to act to sponsor the printing of catechisms and other religious materials, to begin immediately to work for the return of church properties, which had been confiscated during the previous half century, to establish an Evangelical Center and Department of Theology at the University of Klaipėda (1992/1994), and to win back those who had become estranged from the church during the years when faith was ridiculed and atheism was glorified. In 1990 he was instrumental in sponsoring commemorative services in the Tolminkiemis church, Kaliningrad region, restored in Soviet times as a museum, the parish church served by Pastor Kristijonas Donelaitis, the great Lithuanian preacher and writer.

Pastor Kalvanas was married in 1946 to Marta Račkauskaitė. They were the parents of six children: Kristina, Irena, Jonas, Julija, Viktorija, and Ana. In 1984 their son Jonas Viktoras Kalvanas, jr., who had left his medical practice to study theology and prepare for ordination, was received into the Holy Ministry. In 1995 he succeeded his father as both pastor of the Tauragė congregation and bishop of the Lithuanian Lutheran Church.

Bishop Jonas Kalvanas, sr., died on January 15, 1995 in the fifty-fifth year of his ministry in the church. After funeral services in the Tauragė Church, attended by clergy and friends from the Lutheran Church and many other Christian churches, he was buried in the Joniškės cemetery in Tauragė. His son, who succeeded him as both pastor and bishop, would be buried at his side after his death in April 2003.

Jonas Kalvanas senior left a lasting mark on the Lutheran Church in Lithuania and Lithuanian Christianity. He was well-known and highly respected not only in the Lutheran community, but also by political leaders and statesmen of independent Lithuania, distinguished educators and cultural figures, and the leaders of other churches. He provided the church with the model of a Christian pastor who was circumspect, temperate in character, and faithful unto death.


Darius Petkūnas