Church of Valikininkai
|Municipality||Varėna district municipality|
|Capital of||Valkininkai eldership|
|Granted city rights||1571, 1723, 1792|
|Population (2011 Census)|
|Time zone||EET (UTC+2)|
|• Summer (DST)||EEST (UTC+3)|
Valkininkai is a historic town in Valkininkų (Valkininkai) eldership, Varėna district municipality, Alytus County, Lithuania, located about 22 km (14 mi) northeast from Varėna and about 55 km (34 mi) southwest from Vilnius. At the 2001 census its population was 238 and at the 2011 census it was 229.
The town is situated on the confluence of Merkys River with its tributaries Šalčia and Geluža. About 8 km (5.0 mi) east of Valkininkai there is Valkininkų Geležinkelio Stotis, a settlement that grew around a train station on the Warsaw – Saint Petersburg Railway and now has more residents.
It is believed that Valkininkai was first mentioned in a letter from Grand Duke Jogaila to his brother Skirgaila in 1387. The settlement developed on a large island (since then disappeared) in Merkys River. Situated near the Hrodna–Varėna–Vilnius route, the settlement had a royal estate that Grand Dukes used as a hunting lodge. The route further grew in importance after the 1385 Union of Krewo as it connected the Lithuanian capital in Vilnius with the Polish capital in Kraków. In 1418, Grand Duke Vytautas the Great gifted the estate to his wife Juliana Olshanska. In 1503, the town was mentioned as a seat of a volost. In 1516, King Sigismund I the Old accepted envoys of Charles, King of Spain and future Holy Roman Emperor in Valkininkai.
A royal cannon foundry, established in 1551 and powered by a watermill, is credited for the growth of the town. Needed iron ore was collected in local swamps and imported from abroad. During the Wallach reform, craftsmen were given land and relocated from the town to nearby villages, which were often named after their craft. Such villages included Čebatoriai (shoemakers), Puodžiai (kettle makers), Kaniūkai (hostlers), Juodieji Kalviai (blacksmiths), Strielčiai (bowmen). In 1571, Valkininkai was granted city rights under Magdeburg law (the privilege was later renewed in 1723 and 1792). According to 1601 register, the town had 150 families (900–1050 people), 19 butchers, 89 pubs, and 157 craftsmen. The town grew as a trade and craft center and attracted the first Jewish settlers.
Valkininkai suffered from a series of wars. The town was devastated during the Second Northern War (1655–1660) and lost 75–80% of the population. The royal cannon foundry was looted and closed. In 1701, during the Lithuanian Civil War between Sapieha family and other magnates of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a major battle was fought near the town. The town somewhat recovered, and its population reached about 800 residents in 1749 and 949 residents (including 273 Jews) in 1790. In 1812, the town was ravaged by Napoleon I armies during the French invasion of Russia. Instances of famine, caused by the war, were recorded as late as 1822. Completion of the Warsaw – Saint Petersburg Railway in 1862 and increased demand for local timber helped the town to recover and grow: the population increased from 1516 in 1841 to 2619 (including 1126 Jews) in 1897. However, industrialization was slow: a large paper and cardboard factory, employing some 100 people, was established in the last decade of the 19th century and a turpentine factory (10–14 employees) was established in 1923. The population decreased to 1244 in 1919. Around 400 Jews from Valkininkai were executed in Eišiškės in September 1941 by Rollkommando Hamann and only five Jews (four of them hidden by friendly Lithuanians) survived World War II. After the war the population decreased to 769 in 1959, 410 in 1970, and 277 in 1987.
The first church was built in the early 16th century. In 1581, Queen Bona Sforza built a new Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and established a parish with the seat in Valkininkai. The wooden church burned down in 1655 and 1772, and was wrecked by a storm in 1818. The present-day brick and stone church was built in 1823–1837 in Neoclassical style. In 1896–1898, the length of the church increased twofold when a transept and apse were added, giving the church traditional cross-shaped floor plan. The central nave has a cylindrical vault; the original construction plan envisioned a small dome, but it was never built. From 1910 to 1916, Vladas Mironas, future Prime Minister of Lithuania, was the pastor at Valkininkai church. The church displays sacred relics of Boniface of Tarsus, a 4th-century martyr, whose body was excavated from Roman catacombs and transported to Lithuania in 1765.
In 1635 or 1636, Franciscan monks established a monastery, which became the most prominent structure in the town. It was closed in 1832 after the failed November Uprising against the Russian Empire and turned into military barracks. After the January Uprising of 1863, the former monastery church was turned into a parish church of the Eastern Orthodox, even the new parish had only 75 Orthodox believers, mostly Russian officials. Such decision was part of wider Russification campaign, that included the Lithuanian press ban. In 1883, the Orthodox church was reconstructed and acquired features of Byzantine Revival. During World War I most of the Orthodox community evacuated to Russia and the church was abandoned. However, it was not returned to the Catholics – the church was transformed into a hall for dances, concerts, and plays. During World War II, Germans used the former monastery as a camp for war prisoners. In 1944, the monastery and its church were burned down and demolished.
The Jewish community built a wooden synagogue in Valkininkai at the end of the 18th century. It was rebuilt in 1801. According to a legend, Napoleon stopped in the town during his invasion of Russia and was greeted by the Jewish community. Impressed with the hospitality Napoleon gifted his red velvet saddle pad, richly decorated and bearing his initials. The gift was prominently displayed in the synagogue. In 1880, a smaller synagogue was built nearby. The synagogues were burned during the first days of the occupation of Lithuania by Nazi Germany.
The urban layout, which formed in the 16th century and is preserved to this day, was declared an urban monument and is protected by the state. Most valuable monuments are the street grid and main market square. The market square formed at the crossing of four main roads. It is long (its length is 8 times its width) and irregularly triangle.
Coat of arms
Valkininkai together with 73 other towns was granted city rights and coat of arms in 1792 by King Stanisław August Poniatowski during the Four-Year Sejm. The arms depicted a golden lion with silver tongue, teeth, and nails. The shield was surrounded by two laurel branches with red berries. The arms and city rights were abolished the same year after the Second Partition of Poland–Lithuania. The coat of arms were modernized by artist Taida Balčiūnaitė and reinstated by a presidential decree in February 1993.
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