The Baltic north-east was the last part of Europe to reject paganism. Indeed, in history Lithuania is often cited as the last pagan country in Europe, for these workers of the eleventh hour only began to become Christian in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Who were the first Lithuanian Orthodox?
First of all, we must cite the example of St Dovmont or Timothy. Born a pagan, in 1265 he left his country and its then pagan customs with all his family and sought refuge in nearby Pskov. Here he was baptized under the name of Timothy. Seeing the outstanding courage of Dovmont, local people then chose him as their prince. For thirty-three years he defended the people of Pskov and all northern Russia from pagans, including from fellow-Lithuanians. He was noted for his godly and virtuous life, he loved truth, was merciful to the poor, visited those in prison, gave rest to travellers and was given to prayer and fasting. Prince Dovmont reposed in 1299, was buried in the Trinity Cathedral in Pskov and was venerated as a saint. He is commemorated on 20 May by Lithuanian and Russian Orthodox alike.
Secondly, there is the similar example of the holy princess Charitina. She too was born, it seems, into a noble Lithuanian family, perhaps with Polish connections, in the mid-thirteenth century. She too was forced to leave her land, seeking refuge in Russia from cruel paganism and civil strife in the royal house. Making her way to Novgorod, she went to Sts Peter and Paul Convent, founded at the end of the twelfth century some two miles outside the town. Although some believe that she was at one point betrothed to the Russian prince Theodore, she was to forego all royal privileges and become a nun. Here she lived a strict, ascetic life and, it seems, became Abbess of the Convent. She reposed at the end of the thirteenth century and was locally revered as a saint of God. Her relics remained at the Convent church until the Russian Revolution and St Charitina is commemorated on 5 October.
If both St Dovmont and St Charitina were forced into quitting their own land to live an Orthodox life, such was not necessarily the case in the next century. It was some fifty years later, in Vilnius itself, that there occurred the martyrdom of the three protomartyrs of Lithuania, Sts Antony, John and Eustathius.
Here in 1347, two brothers, Nezhilo and Kumets, servants at the royal court of Olgerd, were converted. The younger brother, Nezhilo, and the elder, Kumets were baptized by a certain priest called Nestor. Given the names Antony and John, they began to live an Orthodox life. Fire-worshipping pagan priests noticed them and denounced them to the Lithuanian Prince Olgerd, who in 1346 had apostasized from the Christian Faith. The brothers were imprisoned, but remained firm in their faith, refusing to eat meat on fast days. However, eventually the elder brother, John, gave way to pressure, and began doing as Olgerd ordered them. He then repented of this and confessed his faith openly again. Arrested, he was beaten and imprisoned once more, together with his younger brother Antony. Eventually, on 14 January 1347, Antony was hanged from a tree. Seeing that John did not waver this time, he too was executed and hanged from the same tree on 24 April of the same year.
Seeing their faith, their kinsman, called Kruglets, also came to the Orthodox Faith and was baptized by the same Fr Nestor, taking the name Eustathius. Olgerd was enraged at this, beat him, tortured him, broke his legs, tore out his hair and cut off his nose and ears. After three days of committing such torments, Olgerd, in fury, had Eustathius hanged from the same tree as Sts Antony and John. This took place on 30 December in the same year of 1347. In the years after their martyrdom, more and more people in Vilnius became Orthodox. Thus, a church was raised up to the Holy Trinity on the site of the tree where the three martyrs had been hanged and their relics were enshrined inside the new church.
Today, the relics of the three saints are honoured in the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius, which is the centre of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania and a national shrine for Lithuanian Orthodox. They are commemorated on 14 April, the same day as the commemoration of the two Icons of the Mother of God of Vilnius (painted in 1341 and 1495).
Thus, at a time when other parts of Europe are falling back into paganism, the workers of the eleventh hour in newly-independent Lithuania, are blessed with saints. And so, in the words of the Gospel: And behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last (Luke 13, 30).
Holy and Righteous Dovmont and Charitina And Holy Martyrs Antony, John and Eustathius, Pray to God for the Lithuanian land and people!