Saint Mary Mokena has been blessed to have many phenomenal pastors over its 150-year history. Each one left his mark in some way on our parish and made it a better place to worship at, meet other Catholics and celebrate life’s most momentous occasions.
Today, the oldest-living St. Mary pastor is Father Vytas Memenas, who held the reins from 1972 until 1978. Those six years weren’t particularly long for a pastor (One of his predecessors, Father Cecil Koop, had been pastor for 16 years). Nevertheless, those years were extremely fruitful ones that saw an aging parish renovated and an overbearing debt completely paid off.
Now 89, Father Memenas resides in an assisted living center in Will County. The Mokena Marian recently visited him to learn his story, one that begins in the tumult of wartime Europe and continues through the tenures of five Joliet Bishops. Sitting on a recliner in his room, Father Memenas shared many memories, particularly of St. Mary in the 1970s, and was able to recall specific dates, even as far back as 1940.
The War Years
Born in Lithuania in 1929, Vytas Memenas was the son of a policeman. The innocence of his childhood was brutally interrupted in 1940, when the Soviet Union occupied his homeland. Mass purges and deportations commenced. Anyone affiliated with the old Lithuanian government became a target, including Vytas’ father.
“They killed the Chief of Police in November 1940,” recalls Father Memenas. “I used to play with his son, who was later deported to Siberia.”
Before the Soviets could capture Vytas’ father, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. This of course meant going through Lithuania. German troops poured in and occupied the country for three years until the Soviets resumed control in 1944.
Threatened again, Vytas’ father made the decision to flee with his family and escape execution. “I wouldn’t be talking to you today if we hadn’t left Lithuania,” admits Father Memenas. “We managed to escape by taking the last train out of our town to Western Lithuania. At that time, the war was raging back and forth. Germans were coming; Russians were coming. We stayed in Western Lithuania for six months until we crossed into Germany.”
Once in Germany, Vytas witnessed the collapse of Hitler’s empire. “I remember the American bombers laying waste to the cities,” he says. “We used to hide in the basement every night to survive the bombing raids.”
A New Beginning
After the war, Vytas and his family crossed into the American zone of occupied Germany and lived in a refugee camp for five years. Around that time, he decided to enter the priesthood and earned a scholarship to study in Rome. After spending seven years in seminary, Father Memenas was ordained on April 28, 1957.
In that same year, he arrived in the United States, joining his parents who had settled in Cicero, Illinois after emigrating from Europe. He was accepted as a priest in the Joliet Diocese, which had formed only nine years earlier. For the next 10 years, Bishop Martin McNamara assigned Father Memenas as an associate pastor in various churches in the western suburbs. In 1967, he was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Gibson City and St. George in Melvin.
In April 1972, Father Memenas was summoned by Bishop Romeo Blanchette for a new assignment. “He called me to announce I was being appointed pastor of St. Mary in Mokena, but that I couldn’t tell anyone until June,” recalls Father Memenas. “I was allowed to visit St. Mary, but got lost on the way,” he admits, laughing. “I wound up at the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Frankfort, and they gave me directions.”
The First Diocesan Pastor
When Father Memenas arrived at his future parish, he quickly noticed some problems. “I heard a strange sound coming from the roof, and, when I knelt down, I noticed water droplets trickling onto the pews. There was a leaking roof!” Indeed, when he assumed the pastorate on June 1, 1972, renovating the parish was among his top priorities.
Father Memenas fondly recalls the scores of volunteers who pitched in to make repairs around the parish: “We had bricklayers, carpenters and other professionals fixing the roof and remodeling the sanctuary. In fact, my favorite part at St. Mary was working with those volunteers who cared enough to donate their time and labor.”
His other priorities included paying off a $150,000 debt and building a rectory. “In those days, priests didn’t receive any administrative training…so I had to take these problems one day at a time,” he recalls.
His piecemeal approach worked. In addition to practicing fiscal austerity to help pay off the debt, Father Memenas benefited from a growing parish and higher Sunday collections as more families began moving into the area. By the time he left in 1978, the parish was debt-free. “I always kept the mindset that it was the people’s’ money, not my money, and therefore you have to be responsible and count every dollar,” he says.
Also under his leadership, the old St. Mary Church on Wolf Road was saved from demolition. The aging structure was badly in need of maintenance and repair. Fortunately, several parishioners, led by Ethel Cooper, raised the funds necessary to save the building. Father Memenas presided over the re-dedication of the church shortly before he moved onto his next assignment.
Unlike every St. Mary pastor before him, who had been a Franciscan, Benedictine or member of some other priestly order, Father Memenas was the first Diocesan pastor. As such, he felt particularly dedicated to ensuring the parish remained in good shape and standing, and this helped him achieve success after success during his tenure.
After his time at St. Mary was finished, Father Memenas continued to build his reputation as a “repairer of rundown churches,” even coming out of retirement in 2004 to help make administrative changes at St. Anthony Church in Joliet. His practical worldview and ability to make tough decisions served him well throughout all his assignments.
Today, Father Memenas is fully retired, having recently left his role as Chaplain for the Will County Sheriff’s Office. “I only do two Masses per year now,” he says, “once on Christmas and once on Easter.” His room is filled with newspapers and religious books that he reads in his free time.
It is visible on his face that, even after having endured so many struggles and changes in his life, Father Memenas is as sharp, high spirited and funny as ever. After explaining that he still reads the St. Mary bulletin to keep up on all the changes going on at the parish, he brings up the section that lists the past week’s Sunday collection totals. “The weekly collection was maybe $1,000 when I was there. Now I’m reading in the bulletin they’re making $30,000,” he says with a grin on his face.
Humor aside, it’s not a stretch to say that the growth and success that St. Mary enjoys today can be traced back to influential pastors, like Father Memenas, who laid the groundwork for the future.
>>Watch the interview below