Since the medieval times until today, anyone entering into Vilnius, Lithuania must enter through the old city gates, which protected medieval Vilnius from the enemy. These are the only remaining gates left intact in the old city walls from the middle ages. As you enter through these gates you cannot fail to pass under the beautiful icon of the Mother of God, the “Mother of Divine Mercy”. It is this painting to which tradition attributes the historical name for the gates, Ausros Vartai – “The Gates of Dawn”. For over 500 years, pilgrims flocked to this miraculous font of grace, ever growing in popularity, because of the marvelous graces reportedly received as a result of souls’ petitions to Our Lady, until it finally became known as the miraculous icon of Mary the Mother of Divine Mercy.
What is much less known is that the first Image of Divine Mercy, as revealed in St. Sr. Faustina Kowalska’s vision in 1931, was painted in Vilnius by the artist Eugene Kazimierowski in the presence and under the instruction and direction of Saint Faustina herself and, her spiritual director, Fr. Michael Sopocko.
HISTORY OF THE 1ST DIVINE MERCY IMAGE
[ VILNIUS IMAGE ]
In August of 1948 the Soviet government closed St. Michael’s church and had kept the image exposed in the church. They also took over the convent of the Bernadine sisters where Fr. Sopocko had first kept the image. The contents of St. Michael’s were transferred hastily to the Dominican convent nearby. Sometime in 1956, the Image of the Divine Mercy was transferred from Vilnius to a church in Belarus, near the Russian border in the village of Nova Ruda. In 1970, the Soviet authorities closed this church and removed the entire contents out of the church, but, by some extraordinary miracle, they overlooked the Image of Divine Mercy.
Thus for many years this valuable painting, which in time would mean so much to the Catholic world, remained in this closed and abandoned church, viewed only by the Lord Himself. Many who knew that the picture was still in this closed church were afraid of its deterioration and tried to find a way of getting it back to the safety of Vilnius and Lithuania.
It was only in 1986, after spending thirty years in this little abandoned church in Nova Ruda, that the parish priest of St. Theresa’s church, at that time, who then became the Archbishop of Moscow, Thaddeus Kondrusevic, secretly helped, to get the return of the image of Divine Mercy to Vilnius. It was installed temporarily in the Dominican Chapel in the Church of the Holy Spirit, which was the best choice at that time, as it was being renovated and, therefore, it was seen just as part of the renovations and did not raise any suspicions. However, it was not given a very prominent position and was just hung on a side wall, not at all an appropriate place for an image given directly to the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, and an Image from which Our Lord promised great graces would flow to a world so much in need.
In the image described by Saint Faustina to the painter Eugene Kazimierowski, Jesus was depicted wearing a white tunic bound by a sash, with his right hand raised in blessing to mankind and the left hand of Jesus is touching his garment by His Heart. From here, as from an inexhaustible font of mercy, two rays flow out to the world, one pale, and the other red. The pale rays symbolize water cleansing the soul, signifying the sacrament of Baptism and Reconciliation, while the red rays symbolize blood, which renews the soul, signifying the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the first apparition to Saint Faustina Jesus requested that under the picture we should write, ”Jesus I Trust in You” reminding us that only the one who trusts is able to receive the graces given.
The picture of Divine Mercy unites the two gospel events, the death and resurrection of Christ, which is the greatest witness of the merciful love of God for all mankind. To those who venerate this Image, there is a promise, “the soul who venerates this picture will not perish”, said Saint Faustina. Also, Jesus promised to protect the cities and villages of the people who would venerate the picture and trust in God’s mercy.
Although the first and only apparition in Poland to Saint Faustina of Jesus as the Image of Divine Mercy, occurred on February 22, 1931 in Plock, Saint Faustina had several apparitions of Jesus as Divine Mercy in Vilnius until 1936, in a convent house where she was sent by the superiors of her religious community, the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. The convent house where Saint Faustina first stayed in Vilnius was restored in 2006 and has been open to pilgrims ever since.
While living in Vilnius, Saint Faustina met her confessor, Fr. Michael Sopocko, a theology professor, who was confessor to her community as well. He was also to become her spiritual director and helped her carry out her mission on earth, to spread devotion to God's Divine Mercy. Jesus said of Fr. Sopocko, “This is my faithful servant, he will help you carry out my will on earth”. Fr. Michael Sopocko persuaded Saint Faustina to keep a diary, which today reveals the message of Divine Mercy, which our Lord wanted her to impart to the world.
Extraordinarily, it was also in this city of Vilnius, right beside the famous miraculous icon of the “Mother of Mercy”, that this image of Jesus the Divine Mercy, now famous all over the world, was first publicly exposed to the world and first publicly venerated in a celebration which ended on the Sunday after Easter of 1935, the Jubilee year of Salvation. The Vilnius Image of Divine Mercy, as it has been called, was also blessed for the first time by Fr. Sopocko on the same Sunday of 1935, the first Sunday after Easter, the very Sunday, which has been declared by the Vatican as “Divine Mercy Sunday”.
After the Tridiuum celebration commemorating this event, Saint Faustina, who was in the crowd that day, recorded in her diary how overjoyed she was to hear Fr. Sopocko give a talk on Divine Mercy on that Sunday at the shrine, (the first proclamation of the message), and how she saw the Image of Our Lord as if it had come alive, as He extended His hand and spread His blessing over the huge gathered crowd of the faithful. She also records how she could see His rays of love and mercy penetrate many people’s hearts as they gathered there in a great unison of faith.
In the beginning, the picture of the Divine Mercy Image was kept in the home of Fr. Michael Sopocko and then, in the autumn of 1934, it was brought to the convent of the Bernadine sisters near St. Michael’s church, where Fr. Sopocko was the rector. In her diary, Saint Faustina refers several times to the fact that Jesus appeared to her requesting that she tell her confessor that the picture must be displayed in a church, not in the corridor of the convent. It was first displayed on the Sunday after Easter at the Mother of Mercy shrine. Then in 1937, again on the Sunday after Easter, the day of Divine Mercy, the picture was finally hung by Fr. Michael Sopocko in St. Michael’s church, Vilnius next to the main altar.
When the Second World War began, the promise of Jesus to protect the places where this picture was venerated gained attention. The Archbishop of Vilnius allowed Fr. Sopocko to reveal its history. And it was only after the death of Saint Faustina, through reading her diary, that the mystery of the Divine Mercy message was fully revealed.
During the Second World War the devotion to Divine Mercy began to spread rapidly as pictures were circulated widely especially among the soldiers taking part in the fighting.
In 1947 Fr. Michael Sopocko had been transferred to a parish in Poland. He was always very concerned about the safety and whereabouts of the picture and after the closure of St. Michael’s.
It was finally his Eminence Cardinal Audrys Backis, who created a permanent home and shrine befitting this extraordinary and most famous painting. A shrine that will be a focal point for all time for an Image and the message of God’s Divine Mercy revealed to Saint Faustina meant for today’s world, a message that has today captured the attention and interest of Catholics all over the world.
Many pictures of the Divine Mercy image have been painted for the followers of the devotion to the Divine Mercy around the world, but the original is still considered the most important in the history of this great devotion, as this was the only one painted under the guidance of Saint Faustina who was the only person that actually saw the image in the flesh on that fate filled day in 1931. All the others are only copies of this one, and were never subjected to the severe trials of the people who protected the first painted Image in its early turbulent history.
The original image still remains in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the Divine Mercy has been honored and venerated through the “Mother of Divine Mercy” above the famous “Gates of Dawn”.