Varniai is the heart of Samogitia. The Samogitian diocese was founded and the Varniai Seminary was established 600 years ago. The Samogitian Bishop Motiejus Valančius spread sobriety, and prominent cultural, artistic and clerical personalities gathered in the town itself. Today, many believers come to the late Baroque Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Varniai.
Telšiai is considered to be the capital of Samogitia, although historically the centre of Samogitian has always been in Medininkai (now Varniai). It was the land of Medininkai that was a constant target of the crusaders – many of their attacks were concentrated there.
Archaeological excavations have not found any traces of the first Varniai Cathedral, which was built in 1421. Jurgis Vilnietis (1453–1464) was appointed Bishop of Medininkai with the help of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Kazimieras. He built a new wooden cathedral and gave it the name of St. Peter and St. Paul. Varniai Cathedral. It was erected on the other side of a stream called Medininkai, on the site of the former Varniai Seminary. In 1519, the Vilnius Voivode Mikalojus Radvila began building a brick church, which in 1680 burned during a fire in the city.
Varniai Cathedral, currently known as the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, was built in 1691. The Samogitian Bishop Kazimieras Pacas financed the construction of the cathedral. He was a famous representative of the noble dynasty of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of the second half of the 17th century. The late Lithuanian Baroque-style building survived several fires that only destroyed the inside of the church and did not cause major damage to the building itself.
The church is in the shape of a cross, has three naves with two chapels, as well as two towers, one of which has a belfry. The bell features a relief of St. Casimir made in a bell foundry in 1786. A bell with a relief depicting the emblem of the Samogitian Bishop Steponas Giedraitis was made for the cathedral. Unfortunately, this bell split in the time of Bishop Motiejus Valančius, so it was remade in 1913 in Gatchina, Russia. The inscriptions of the predecessor were repeated on the new bell and the emblem of Steponas Giedraitis was transferred. It is necessary not only to listen to the authentic sound of the bells, but also to look at them, because they ‘cry’. Why do old bells cry? It is said that the bells get wet before the rain, thus warning when it will start raining in the most humid part of Lithuania.
The ensemble is complemented by another accent – Lourdes grotto, built in the churchyard of the Cathedral in 1914 on the initiative of A. Juozapavičius. This Lourdes grotto has a sculpture of the Virgin Mary brought from France.
The church interior has three naves. The central nave is higher and wider than the side naves, and is covered with a cylindrical vault. It is separated from the side naves by massive columns.
The interior of the church is rich in Baroque shapes: small interior elements, gold details, massive vaults and columns. Inside, there are as many as twelve ornate altars, the largest of which was created by a foreman of Königsberg in 1694. The great altar of amazing beauty was restored once. At the top of the altar hangs a sculpture of the Crucified, and below it, a hierogram of Mary embedded among the angels, decorated with a gold-silver carved wooden wreath. The central altar is decorated with a tabernacle covered with silver tin made in Brussels.
To the left of the high altar is the bishop’s throne, dating back to the time of Motiejus Valančius. He intentionally left this throne in Varniai as a reminder of the old cathedral when he moved out.
On the left side of the church is a chapel with St. Casimir’s altar and an altar with a painting of Mary Magdalene and a relic of St. Emilia.
It is impossible to pass through the famous altar with a 17th-century copy of the image of the Mother of God of Trakai. The series of altars is also famous for the latest monumental altar with metal castings made by artist Petras Repšis called Samogitian Baptism.
Once inside the church, it is necessary to raise your eyes and look at the special organ (1821), which is a combination of Classicism and Baroque. The Samogitian organ builder Józef Woyciullewicz built the organ in the former Cathedral of Varniai in 1821. The upper part of the organ features the emblem of the Giedraičiai Dynasty of Lithuanian Dukes. Inside the organ, one can see some Polish writing in red pencil: “Ru 1821 Zbudowany” (meaning: built in 1821).
Historiography also mentions an earlier date – 1817 and the same organ builder Józef Woyciullewicz.
Woyciullewicz used parts of old pipes in the construction of the organ. The 16-register organ had three windbags. In 1871, organ builder Pranciškus Sideravičius, who rebuilt the instrument from the ground up, replaced the old windbags with new ones. In 1893, the organ was repaired by Breyer, in 1902 by N. Ventas, and in 1960 by an unknown organ builder.
The prospectus of this organ is Classicist, but the disposition of the instrument is of the Baroque style. The architectural composition is moderately decorated with elements of geometric shapes and carvings. The emblem of the Samogitian Bishop Juozapas Arnulfas Giedraitis is installed at the top of the central tower. Organ prospectuses of a similar Classical style composition are in the churches of Šakyna and Lučiai (Belarus).
The organ stood silent in the last decades of the 20th century, severely damaged by wood pests. In 2007, Stanislovas Stanionis restored the organ prospectus. From 2007 to 2011, the instrument was serviced by the workshop of organ builder Laimutis Pikutis.
It is believed that 10 bishops of Samogitia are buried in the Varniai Church, including Bishop Kazimieras Pacas, the founder of the cathedral. In the basement below the church is the crypt of the Samogitian Bishops. Samogitian Bishops were buried there until the 19th century. The centre of the crypt holds the remains (mummies) of two Samogitian Bishops – Juozapas Arnulfas Giedraitis (1838) and Simonas Mykolas Giedraitis (1844).
The church has traditions that live on to this day. It is worth visiting during Easter when the drums are ringing to call believers to the procession. The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul is also included in the cultural road programme of the Samogitian Diocese.