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Msgr. Ignatius Urbonas, 101, priest of 77 years preserved Lithuanian congregation

The late Monsignor Ignatius Urbonas processes from church Lemont Ill. followed by Bishop Dale J. Melczek after Mass honoring monsignor's

The late Monsignor Ignatius Urbonas processes from church in Lemont, Ill., followed by Bishop Dale J. Melczek, after a Mass honoring the monsignor's 75th priestly anniversary in this June 13, 2010 photo. The 101-year-old monsignor, who recently marked 77 years as a priest, died May 19 in Lemont. (NWIC file photo)

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Updated: July 3, 2012 11:45AM

Facing a dwindling parish membership in the mid-’60s, the Rev. Msgr. Ignatius Urbonas took the reins at St. Casimir, a Roman Catholic church in Gary, Ind., and kept the small Lithuanian-American congregation alive for roughly 30 more years.

“There was talk of closing the parish because they didn’t have a school anymore and therefore probably not a future, but Father spoke up and said it’s too early to close the church,” said former parishioner Sister Mary Janine Golubickis.

“Even though it was a small group, they wanted their parish community and they wanted their church and they wanted their Lithuanian language,” said Golubickis, a caregiver to Msgr. Urbonas in recent years. “He stuck in there with the people to do it.”

In charge of St. Casimir from 1966 until his retirement in 1998, Msgr. Urbonas celebrated the heritage of worshippers by offering Lithuanian homilies and hymns during mass in addition to hosting folk dances and Lithuanian dinners at the church. He also ran a school for children on Saturdays that combined religious education with Lithuanian customs.

“He enriched all the holidays and he gave the kids exposure to the culture,” said former parishioner Mildred Jagiella, who, like many of the 100 or so churchgoers, did not live in Gary and did not mind driving miles to get to St. Casimir. “He was an inspiration not just to my generation but to the next generation.”

As a writer for Lithuanian publications and a participant in many Lithuanian-American organizations — some political, others faith-based — Msgr. Urbonas frequently traveled to Chicago on weekends where there was a larger Lithuanian population.

On May 19, Msgr. Urbonas died of natural causes at his home at the Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis Lithuanian Catholic Mission in Lemont. He was 101.

Msgr. Urbonas was born Dec. 5, 1910, in Lithuania. He grew up on his parents’ farm with three brothers and three sisters. He was ordained a priest in 1935 and served as a youth minister for the diocese until political tension mounted during World War II.

“Lithuania was stuck between two fronts: First the Germans invaded and then the Russians invaded,” Golubickis said.

Msgr. Urbonas spent many nights hiding in the woods and eventually deemed it unsafe to stay in Lithuania. He and a few friends fled to Germany, where he aided thousands of young people living in refugee camps. He landed the opportunity to study at the University of Bonn, where he earned doctorates in philosophy and history.

Msgr. Urbonas came to the U.S. in 1949. He worked in East St. Louis in the Diocese of Belleville before he joined the staff at St. Casimir in 1954.

Msgr. Urbonas, who was given the honorary title of monsignor in 1990, retired in 1998 and moved to Lemont. Though St. Casimir subsequently closed, Msgr. Urbonas continued to lead an annual mass and picnic for his former parishioners.

“It was a beautiful celebration” usually held outdoors, said Joan Grigonis, a former member of St. Casimir.

At 93 years old, Msgr. Urbonas fulfilled a life’s dream by writing a memoir, My Long Journey, which was published two years later.

“He always said, ‘Every book is so precious to me,’ ” Golubickis said. “He was so reverent of books because of the power of the information and the power of the words and their influence.”

An avid reader and writer, Msgr. Urbonas was a deeply faithful man and an outgoing intellectual who loved life, according to his friends.

“He loved his country and he loved his God and he loved his people,” Golubickis said.

Msgr. Urbonas is survived by two sisters, Ona Prieskieniene and Bronislava Venslaviciene.

Services have been held.

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