A. Father William Wolkovich-Valkavicius.
Father William Wolkovich first entered my life after he left his. In 2006, when Our Lady of Vilnius fell under the shadow of impending closure, an interested Bostonian sent me an article from Boston.com titled A farewell with laughter, tears: Father Bill's retirement adds to sadness at church slated to close. The article uses reportage of Father Bill's last Mass at St. George's as a point of departure for a brief bio of Father Bill, a portrait of the parish and an exploration of church closures and their aftermath in the Archdiocese of Boston.
In reading the article, I was struck by similarites between St. George and Our Lady of Vilnius, the most striking being the strong and vital presence of the Portuguese in a parish founded by and for Lithuanians. The other impressive feature was Father Bill's commentary on the impending closure. Elderly, in ill-health and with nothing to lose, he stepped into the pulpit and likened the Church to an alcoholic mother, saying the following:
"The people in the 65 parishes designated for closing don't agree with the behavior of our alcoholic mother," he said. "At present we are living through the worst plague of all in US Catholic history."
"How do you respond to an alcoholic mother?" he asked during his sermon. "Do you abandon her? Do you so focus on her weakness that you forget all the good she has done for you since your infancy? I can only plead with you not to abandon your alcoholic mother. Keep trying to love her, despite the hurt she has caused us. She is unique in our lives."
After reading this article I was so impressed with Father Bill that I trolled the Internet for more information about him. The first thing that I found was an article by him in Lituanus titled THE LITHUANIAN ANGLE IN A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE: AN ANALYSIS OF 'ONCE AROUND'. In this article Father Bill chronicles his role as a technical advisor on the film and his cameo as a priest performing a baptism. He reflects on how the film was true and not true to Lithuanian culture. As I read this article I got a stronger sense of Father Bill as a person, a Lithuanian-American and a priest.
I don't know why, but I finally saw the movie on VHS this weekend. The film features Richard Dreyfuss as Sam Sharpe, a hard driving and free wheeling first generation Lithuanian-American who marries into a close-knit Italian-American family and inadvertently causes strife and havoc. Richard Dreyfuss sings a song in Lithuanian in his wife's hospital room. In a later scene, Father Bill sings "Marija, Marija" after baptizing the baby.
This is the first time I have seen any Lithuanian content in a major-studio American film release.
Bluebirds were rarely seen in Westchester, where I live. People became concerned about this, researched the birds' nesting needs and built houses according to precise specifications, placing them in carefully prescribed locations at a specific height. Bluebirds came and built nests. I have seen them.
I prevail upon our beloved "alcoholic mother" to unboard our habitats so that we can repopulate her home. Father Bill was a rare bird, as was Aldona Kepalaite and Dalia Bulgaris. As are all of us who love Our Lady of Vilnius. I am honored to consider myself a fledgeling in this spiritual lineage, and I will continue to resist extinction.
William Lawrence Wolkovich-Valkavicius died on January 12, 2005, of Parkinson's and Crohn's diseases at the age of seventy-five. On June 14, 2004, he had retired as pastor of St. George's Church in Norwood, Massachusetts, which was then closed. The son of Lithuanian immigrants, he was born in Hudson, Massachusetts, attended St. John's Seminary, Brighton, and was ordained on September 29, 1953. He held various parochial positions in the Archdiocese of Boston before being appointed pastor of St. George's in 1982. Meanwhile he studied the history of Lithuanians in the United States. Five of his books were reviewed in the Catholic Historical Review: Lithuanian Pioneer Priest of New England: The Life, Struggles and Tragic Death of Reverend Joseph Zebris, 1860–1915 (1980); Immigrants and Yankees in Nashoba Valley, Massachusetts. Interethnic and Interreligious Conflict and Accommodation of Irish, French-Canadians, Poles, Lithuanians and Italians (1981); Lithuanians of Norwood, Massachusetts. A Social Portrait in a Multiethnic Town (1988); Lithuanian Fraternalism: Seventy-Five Years of U.S. Knights of Lithuania (1988); and Lithuanian Religious Life in America: A Compendium of 150 Roman Catholic Parishes and Institutions (3 vols., 1991 ff.). Besides his books he wrote more than fifty articles. Father Wolkovich was also a talented musician and renowned violinist who played in many public performances. In 1997 in execution of a decree of the President of the Republic of Lithuania he was inducted into the Order of Gediminas at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., being cited "for his lifetime historical and musical activities." He had been a member of the American Catholic Historical Association since 1977.