WILLIAMSBURG — Parishioners of a church that has been home to Lithuanian Catholics in the Diocese of Brooklyn for more than 100 years rolled out the red carpet for the president of their homeland on Sept. 20.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda visited the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Williamsburg Tuesday evening, telling a group of Lithuanian-Americans that his country stands strongly on the side of Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia.
Like Ukraine, Lithuania was formerly a part of the old Soviet Union. Nausėda said his message to the people of Ukraine was simple. “We are with you all the way. Your fight is our fight,” he said.
Nausėda stressed this point again after Father Ivan Tyhovich, pastor of Holy Ghost Ukrainian Church in Williamsburg, stood up and publicly thanked him for his country’s support of Ukraine. Father Tyhovich also thanked the Lithuanian community in Brooklyn for being so strongly in Ukraine’s corner.
“We try to do our best because we understand very well that you are fighting against a very dangerous enemy,” he told Father Tyhovich. “There’s only one way out. That is victory, and this victory will be a victory for all of us.”
Nausėda, who has been in office since 2019, was in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, which opened on Tuesday. The war, which began when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, was expected to dominate the discussions among the world leaders gathered at the U.N.
Lithuania’s steadfast support of Ukraine has irritated Russia, according to Lithuanian-Americans in the diocese. “Lithuanians’ support for Ukraine is based partly on a shared history of Russian oppression,” Raimundas Slizys, a trustee of Annunciation Church, told The Tablet.
During a question-and-answer session conducted by Fr. Valdemaras Lisovskis, the parochial vicar of Annunciation Church, Nausėda said he believed the U.S. is being a great help to Ukraine by supplying that country with weapons, “although I wish the decision-making here could be a bit faster.”
He also expressed concern over the response of the European Union to the conflict. “They are experiencing the war from a distance,” he said, even though the conflict is taking place right on their continent.
Nausėda arrived at Annunciation Church accompanied by his wife Diana Nausėdienė. The couple’s visit — a point of pride for the diocese’s Lithuanian community — included cultural touchstones in addition to talk of world affairs.
Soloist Simona Smirnova played the Lithuanian National Anthem, “Tautiska Giesma,” on the kankles, a traditional Lithuanina stringed instrument similar to a harp.
“This is a dream come true for us. We are a small community, we Lithuanians, but we are a strong community. It is good to hear the president speak,” said Vida Jankauskas, who has been a parishioner of Annunciation Church for 45 years.
Another parishioner, Walter Sidas, said the visit provided “a big boost to the Lithuanian community in New York.”
Many Lithuanian-Americans maintain close ties to their homeland.
Lithuania, a nation with a population of 2.8 million people, lies on the Baltic Sea in Eastern Europe and is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO).
About 75% of its citizens said they were Catholic, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study.
Lithuanian-Americans have been worshiping at Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary since the early 20th Century — a time when large numbers of Lithuanians were moving into Williamsburg.
Today, despite the fact that the neighborhood no longer has a large Eastern European population, the Lithuanian community has maintained a presence at the church.
For example, it is the only church in the New York metropolitan area that offers a weekly Sunday Mass in Lithuanian.
“Our aim is to make everyone feel welcome in our parish, regardless of whether they have lived in New York for decades or have just arrived here from their homeland,” Slizys said.
Several years ago, Annunciation merged with the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Williamsburg to form one parish.
Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, pastor of the parish, who greeted Nausėda at the entrance and escorted him into the church, said it was a great honor to welcome the president. “This is a big night for Annunciation,” he said.
The church is an important presence in Williamsburg, he added. “Not only is it the only church with a Lithuanian Mass, but the people here do a great job of promoting and maintaining the culture,” he explained.