Kedainiai is the only provincial city in Lithuania with an Old Town made of brick and stone. It's in the geographical center of the country at where the river Nevėžis and its tributaries Dotnuvėlė, Smilga and Obelis come together.
It first appeared in written sources in 1372 and developed quite fast towards the end of that century. According to legends, the town owns its name to the wealthy merchant Keidangen, who came from Kuršas and established a small fishing village.
The Gothic Church of St. George, which replaced a pagan sanctuary ca 1445-1460, has a yard with a lovely view of the river and the Old Town on the other side. In some places the walls of the church are 1.35 meters thick, indicating that it was once cast in a defense role. The town flourished under the family Radziwill from the mid-15th century.
It became the administrative center of Samogitia in 1535, and one of the country’s first and largest Reformation centers during the last half of the 16th century. Increased trade along the Kaunas-Riga road and other favorable conditions brought Hansa merchants and European craftsmen to the town in the 15th century.
It acquired Magdeburg city rights and a coat of arms in 1590. The lively commercial and artisan city had six marketplaces, and still retains some of its old sites and names; Didžioji, Senoji, Jonušavos, Knypavos markets. A bridge connecting the two parts of the city emerged across the Nevėžis in 1602.
A Calvinist school built in (1625), restructured into a high school in 1629. A printing-house issuing Reformation literature appeared in 1652. Orthodox believers, Jews, German Lutherans and Scottish Reformationists settled here in the first half of the 17th century. They changed Kedainiai into a multi-ethnic city.
History of Kedainiai from the 17th century
Lithuania became a Swedish protectorate under a treaty signed here in 1655, but the city didn't escape serious damage during the Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century. The Radziwill palace was destroyed and its furniture, books, collections of art and rare items dispersed.
The city also suffered hard from the plague in 1709-1711. At the end of the 18th century, the city, like other urban centers throughout the Grand Duchy of Lithuania lost its autonomy after the collapse of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth.
Change of ownership
The counts Czapski acquired the Kedainiai estate in 1811. They lost it in 1864 after accusations of Marian Czapski's collaboration with rebels. After an auction in 1866 the engineer and tsarist army general Eduard Totleben became the new owner.
He rebuilt the estate, adding a Moorish style minaret (1878) in the park in honor of the Crimean War. The minaret rises above the treetops past the railway station to this day. The other estate buildings collapsed at the end of the Second World War. Industrialization increased in 1871 with the construction through the city of a railway line from Liepaja. By the end of the 19th century 6,000 people lived in Kedainiai.
In an independent Lithuania the city became a district center with a high school, one Jewish and three Lithuanian primary schools, a teachers seminary, museum and library. During the Soviet occupation a chemical plant, metalwork factory, sugar factory and other enterprises emerged here. Independence at the end of the 20th century did not overburden this city. It continues to be well-managed and cared for.
Points of interest in Kedainiai
The most interesting part of the Kedainiai Old Town concentrates itself around Didžiosios Rinkos (Great Market) Square. The Old Town Hall is one of three such buildings still standing in Lithuania. Built ca 1654 and renovated many times since then, it now houses administration offices and art exhibition.
The 17th-19th century buildings around the town hall were once the homes of the major, school professors, artisans and merchants. In the square – a monument to marshal Janusz Radziwill, hetman of the Grand Duke of Lithuania and initiator of the union between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Sweden.
Christopher and Janusz Radziwill funded the nearby Evangelical Reformed Church. Its strict fortress-like features are some-what softened by four small towers, and wall embellishments. It has a reconstructed ornately carved manneristic style oak pulpit, and a vault with the Radziwill family mausoleum and 17th century Metalwork sarcophagi, including the restored caskets of Christopher (“the Thunderer”) and Janusz Radziwill, created in the workshop of Torun goldsmith J.C.Bierpfag. The wooden Church of St. Joseph, constructed by members of the old Carmelite Order ca 1766, has the same style belfry.
The monastery is from 1709. Converted into a warehouse in 1963, the sanctuary was re-opened in 1991 after restoring it with surviving fragments of 18th century. It has altars, and beautiful paintings with ornate raiment of St. Joseph and of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus. The Carmelite monastery closed during the tsarist period, and later converted into a military barracks. After restoration work in 2000 it was given to the Kedainiai regional museum. Now it exhibits testimonials from the time of the Radziwill epoch and the 1863 insurrection. There are also examples of estate art, and crosses created by the famous “god-maker” Vincas Svirskis.
An inner courtyard in the restored (2000-2002) Gymnasium Illustre (Didžioji St. 62) established by Christopher Radziwill is reminiscent of the Vilnius alumni House.
Two Baroque style synagogues, a summer and a winter one (1837), still stand in the Old Market Square. The restored winter synagogue is now occupied by a multicultural center. It offers concerts, conferences, and an exhibition dedicated to the Kedainiai Jewish community. In the 19th century the local Jews were known for growing cucumbers. The town still carries this tradition today. A plaque on the synagogue at Smilgos St. 13 dedicated to the celebrated 18th century Vilna Gaon who studied the Talmud in Kėdainiai is a reminder of this town‘s once flourishing Jewish community.
Modern Day Kedainiai
Billowing white on a small hill at the edge of the Old Town is Christopher Radziwill‘s founded Evangelical Lutheran Church (1629-1640). A monumental four-tier tower in the shape of a square appeared to the front of the building in 1714. Restoration of the sanctuary happened in 1845. But with the decline of the parish fell into ruin during the first half of the 20th century. A plaque in memory of military engineer and professor at the Kedainiai gymnasium Adam Freytag, astrologer and personal physician to Janusz Radziwill, shows that he might be buried in the church.
All that remains of the Orthodox sanctuaries is the stone Christ Church of the Transfiguration, established in 1869 in a reconstructed building given to that congregation by Marian Czapski. The wooden Orthodox Church of St. Andrew, built by Janusz Radziwill in 1645 for his second wife, the Moldavian princess Maria Lupu, is now part of the ethnographic museum in Rumšiškės.
The painter Janina Morkutė-Marks has a private museum in a homestead on the former Juozapavas domain. You'll find it on the Smilga River in the north part of the Old Town. It shows her American pop and psychedelic painting from the 1960's and 1970's, and works by other artist. Writings by Juozas Paukštelis and other local authors are in a memorial museum (1988) in the writer’s former home.
Post-war partisans used the thick-walled tower of the former Zabiela family estate, at Labūnava, along the road to Babtai, 8 km southeast of the city, as their head-quarters.