Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Mary and Europe

by Msgr. Nicola Bux, Rev. Salvatore Vitiello


This study gives an historical account of the origin of the main shrines in Europe that are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, highlighting those shrines that have spontaneous and authentic support from the Sensus Fidei. The authors review shrines from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, England, Malta, Ireland, and many other countries.

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Fides Service, August 31, 2007



















This study intends to present historical elements with regard to the origin and development of the main shrines in Europe dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. By deliberate choice and because of the inseparable bond between the growth and visibility of these Sancti Loci and the beating heart of the People of God, the study highlights that which spontaneous and authentic support from the Sensus Fidei, and its immediate ever accompanying “pilgrim” movement, revealed in the past and continues to reveal to the whole world.

Since it is impossible to indicate pre-eminence of certain Locus Mariae over the others, given that it is She who with her miraculous apparitions or indications gives rise to every shrine, we will analyze the principal ones proceeding according to a criteria of geographical position in Europe according to the countries in alphabetical order and indicating those towards which the Holy People of God move most frequently.

Pilgrimage, inseparable from the existence of every shrine and explicit recognition of it, has a privileged place of encounter with the Mystery, it expresses in its every being, the cry of humanity, rooted in its need that the answer which only the relationship with God gives to the human heart, may embrace the whole of life, each and every day. Pilgrimage renders daily life a movement towards Christ.


The Holy Mother of God, to whom the Austrian people give the title Magna Mater Austriae, has always accompanied the history of these lands, being invoked as Maria Hilf, Mary Help of Christians. Marian devotion was brought to these peoples by the first Christian merchants from northern Italy. Later it was enriched by the teachings of the Holy Bishop Ambrose who sent his missionaries, capable of educating to Mary as the tender and loving Mother of her children, safe fortress against the ranks of Satan.

The miraculous saving of the city of Vienna under besiege by two hundred thousand Turks in the Summer of 1683, is attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. To thank the Divine Auxiliatrix the trophies of war were sent to the Shrine of Passau, now a German city, and to mark the event Pope Innocent XI instituted the feast of the Holy Name of Mary celebrated by the Church all over the world on 12 September.

Merit for the remarkable development of devotion to Mary is due to the regular Orders of the Benedictines first of all and later Cistercians, Norbertines, Franciscans and Dominicans, who built everywhere monuments, chapels, churches and shrines dedicated to the Holy Mother of God.

At the Benedictine Abbey of Lambach, built in 1032 by Saint Adalbert, the Blessed Virgin is portrayed in frescoes majestically enthroned, similar to the Byzantine Madonna Nicopeia. In the conventual church at Seckau a miraculous 12th century image of Mary is preserved. At Rein, the oldest Cistercian abbey Austria, built in 1129 by Leopold I, Margrave of Steiern, we see the smiling Virgin crowned with wheat spikelets, similar to Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. At the Church of the Scots in Vienna, since 1158 the faithful are drawn by Our Lady Domina in stone, brought here from Regensburg by Scottish and Irish Benedictines.


Considered the most famous of central Europe and the most popular spiritual and religious place for the Catholic peoples in the region of the Danube, the Marian Shrine of Mariazell, situated among the Steiren mountains, has its origins in the cell of the monk Magnus. He came from the Benedictine monastery of Saint Lambert to settle in these mountains around 1157, carrying with him a limewood statue of Mary which, according to tradition, he had carved himself. The monk's holy style of life and the fame of the miracles which happened here, started an unending flow of pilgrims and in 1200, Prince Henry Vladislav of Moravia, as an act of thanksgiving after being cured of a serious illness, had the first church built here Mariazell in honour of the Great Mother of the Slavic Peoples.

Two hundreds years later, in 1370, the shrine was visited by another important benefactor, King Louis I Hungary. In thanksgiving for an improbable military victory, he had a sumptuous chapel built as an ex-voto with the image of the Blessed Mother set at the centre of the church as at the Holy House in Loreto. The fame of the Locus Sanctus among the Alpine mountains and the consequent increase in the flow of the People of God led to an annual pilgrimage started in the 17th century. The present church and rich interior decorating, date to that period: of the old Gothic church there remains the door and the chapel of King Louis. Under Emperor Jozef II and with the Napoleonic wars which followed, pilgrimages to Mariazell were impossible and the shrine was sacked many times, but always flourished again.

Widespread recognition and devotion to the Great Mother of the Slavic Peoples on the part of so many pilgrims and temporal authorities, and the consequent involvement of the latter in the progressive edification of the shrine, testify to the universal nature of mendicant man's infinite need of Christ and the only full correspondence to this need in Christ mendicant the heart of man, always through the continual intercession continua of His Holy Mother since as Dante Alighieri wrote: «qual vuol grazia ed a te non ricorre, sua disianza vuol volar sanz’ali».

Every man is created to encounter Jesus Christ and in Him to realise himself through His holy will. The Lord acts in history reaching our to the human heart asking for no presupposition except for human nature itself. «Mi feci trovare da chi non Mi cercava, dissi “eccoMi” a chi non invocava il Mio Nome» (Is 65, 1). Awareness of one's own infinite need is successive to the response of Christ, who simply “reveals man to man”. Therefore just as there is no presupposition for the encounter with the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no “moral pre-disposition”, and even less a social condition, He manifests himself gestis verbisque, through the faces of those who love Him. In fact the ultimate goal of the Mystical Body of Christ in history, Holy Mother Church, is Salus animarum.

How great is the human soul, only God is greater (Saint Teresa of Avila).


One of the countries where devotion to the Holy Mother of God found most fertile hearts, Belgium, experienced with wonder around the 3rd and 4th century the Christianisation of pagan festivals as the consequence of the evangelisation of barbarian peoples.

Gratia non tollit naturam sed eam perficit. Christianisation in fact aimed not to eradicate the celebration of existing festivals but rather to give them new significance, operating exactly as Christ does with each human heart. He «saves us not from our humanity but through our humanity» (Benedict XVI, Urbi et Orbi Message, Christmas 2005).

And so May Day was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and with the edification in towns but above all in forests, of chapels and monuments dedicated to Mary, purified local superstitious practices and pagan beliefs.

Between 625 and 750 forty five Benedictine monasteries, visible sources of inexhaustible love for Christ and for his Holy Mother, were built all over the land of ancient Belgium.

Among the numerous confraternities which after the year 1000 enriched the religious life of the country, linking their beginnings to certain Marian shrines, three deserve special mention. The oldest would appear to be the confraternity of Our Lady of Tongres, founded at the shrine of the same name in 1093. About three centuries later in Flanders, the confraternities of the Rosary and Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows were started.


At Beauraing, province of Namur, Our Lady appeared to four little girls and a little boy from 2 December 1932 to 3 January 1933. The Blessed Mother, appearing on a mayflower bush of in the garden of a home for retired nuns, presented herself as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven and promised to convert sinners in exchange for prayers and the edification of a chapel and pilgrimages to it. As in Fatima, Our Lady showed her heart not crowned with thorns, but covered in gold and therefore glorified and sparkling with love for God and for mankind. The effects of the apparition were immediately visible: tens of thousands attended the last apparitions and the Home became a famous place of pilgrimage.

As it often happens, great Sensus Fidei led to the recognition of the apparition and the garden became an open air shrine, and extended later to the grounds of the ancient Beauraing Castle, with its park and a covered part of the area with a basement building to protect the sick pilgrims in bad weather.

The Bishop of Namur gave permission for public devotion in 1943 and in 1948 he recognised the authenticity of the apparitions and two cases of healing which happened in the early years.


Again as testimony of the historical effectiveness of divine action in space and time, according to the method of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, after World War I there arose and developed a large town, Banneux, not far from Liege, in the west of Belgium, whose origins are inseparably connected with the apparitions of the Queen of Heaven, so much so that it is still known as “Mary's Town”.

Here Our Lady appeared eight times from 15 January to 2 March 1933, immediately after the last apparition in Beauraing. Surrounded and crowned with light She appeared to eleven year old Mariette Beco, the daughter of poor, honest parents who were religiously non practising. That evening in January, while watching from the window for the return of her brother Julian, for the first time Mariette saw the Heavenly Mother dressed with garments whose brightness illuminated the Winter darkness.

The Gentle Lady in the apparitions which followed asked the girl to put her hands into a small spring of gelid water to alleviate the suffering of sick people.

Following the heavenly apparitions there in the garden of the Beco family in a short time Belgium's most important Marian shrine was built and dedicated to Our Lady of the Poor; it is not a basilica it is a chapel at the explicit request of Our Lady, with series of surrounding buildings and at the centre a vast area for celebrations when the pilgrims are many. From 1933, in fact despite widespread local diffidence with regard to pilgrimages, Banneux was visited by about one hundred pilgrimages from all over Europe.

The title of National Shrine of Il Belgium is attributed instead to the church of Our Lady of Hal, situated on the road which leads from Mons to Brussels. It won the title for having witnessed at the foot of its walls and under the protection of the Virgin Mother, many battles determinant for the country's independence. The statue portraying the enthroned Holy Mother breast feeding the infant Jesus, image donated by Saint Elisabeth queen of Hungary to her daughter Sofia, who went as a bride of Belgium, was exposed for veneration in the 13th century, to be precise in the year 1257. In the 14th and 15th centuries the magnificent gothic church and chapel in which the holy image is venerated were erected. The fame of the miracles, scrupulously documented, obtained through the intercession of Our Lady of Hall, was such that in many towns were dedicated to Her also in France.


The decision by King Boris (882-889) to join definitively the Patriarchate of the East in 885, of which the fulcrum was the then Constantinople, today Istanbul, certainly determined the religious orientation of the history of the Bulgarian people towards Orthodox Christianity.

In this country devotion to Mary, of fundamental importance for the Slav liturgy, introduced at the same period by disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius, was the privileged vehicle for the transmission of the faith and the foundation stone of popular spirituality, especially in the time of occupation by Turkey, which started in 1393 and lasted until the country's independence in 1878.

The Turkish invasion was such that it determined disuse of the Bulgarian language and therefore, the national culture and the language itself were preserved only in monasteries thanks to fidelity to liturgical celebrations in Slavic and the building of great libraries, especially at the monasteries of Rila and Trojan and that Zograf monastery on Mount Athos. The schools of these monasteries, to which also lay men were admitted, demonstrated their value since, alone, they met the need for learning dictated by a new awakening of popular national conscience in the 19th century.

Bulgaria experienced an ideological attempt to subjugate the Church on the part of the political power, when it entered the orbit of the Soviet communist regime. But then too the profound popular sense of belonging did not permit its destruction.


To the 10th century belongs the first Bulgarian monastery founded at Rila by a holy hermit John Rilski, to whom is attributed the title of patron saint of Bulgaria and whose body is still preserved here. This place, dedicated to Mother of God Protectress, represents the heart not only of Christianity in that country but also the culture. Christianity in fact revealed and reveals thus to the world, that it is the only authentic custodian of man, of his authentic personal dimension, his history since, never, when responding to his infinite need, was it forced to censure some aspect of human existence instead every detail and every instant of this existence have found and find full accomplishment in Christ the Lord.

The Monastery of Rila, to which the people are linked in a special way given its fundamental function as custodian of the national culture during Turkish domination, was destroyed by fire in 1833. Immediately there was a national race for its rebuilding to restore it to its past splendour. The icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary venerated there, a gift of the Byzantine Emperor Michael Comneno in the 13th century, was rightly called Protectress.


«The Kingdom of France is the Kingdom of Mary». These words were used by the then Pontiff Urban II at the end of the year 1000, to express his wonder when, crossing the land of France during the preaching of the first crusade, he saw the numerous shrines of Marian devotion with which the people had adorned the whole country.

France boasts Marian shrines dating to the 6th century, epoch of the evangelisation of the Celtic peoples.

Authentic French majesty must be attributed to the sovereign Charlemagne, author of the Holy Roman Empire. He himself oversaw the building of numerous shrines and nurtured sincere and profound veneration towards the Blessed Virgin, to the point that he asked to be buried with a small statue of her placed upon his breast. Under his rule, in the city of Paris, there arose, next to the ancient cathedral of the city's patron saint Stephan, a church dedicated to the Holy Mother of God in which worship soon became prevailing compared with that of the first martyr. Thus was born the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. In the two successive centuries there were a series of emperors and kings profoundly attached to devotion for the Blessed Virgin and the gothic style too, which was becoming popular in that period, was closely connected with Marian devotion: the first eight gothic cathedrals built in northern France – Chartres, Paris, Rheims, Laon, Rouen, Bayeux, Erveux, Amiens – are all dedicated to Our Lady.

The lands of the Franks saw love for the Holy Mother of God continue to grow during the return from the crusades until the reign of Louis XIII, whose political actions were each marked by an act of piety. Memorable in 1635, during the war with Spain, the consecration of the kingdom on his part to the Blessed Vurgin: kneeling in a ruined chapel near a battle field. This gesture, known as the “to vow of Louis XIII”, had a profound and lasting resonance in the souls of the French.

And again, in the epoch in which there was an attempt on the part of the Jansenistic heresy and Enlightenment thought to undermine devotion to Mary, the Lord gave to the Catholic Church the splendid figure of Louis Grignion de Montfort. The greatness of this paladin of love for the Holy Virgin Mother, despised if not unknown by his contemporaries, is still resplendent in his full brightness today.

Always a privileged vehicle for the protection and the transmission the faith, Marian devotion played a fundamental role during and after the ideological invasion operated by the French revolution during which Notre-Dame was reduced to a temple to the godess of reason.

After the fall of Napoleon, it was the Marian apparitions of the 19th century which characterised the spiritual life of the French and, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, a number of prestigious personages of society of the time were captivated by the Lord and bore witness to Him with their lives, reviving Catholicism in this country: Estrade, Carrel, Huismans, Bloy, Claudel and Maritain.

The testimony and enthusiasm which accompanied the first peregrinatio Mariae, during which Our Lady of Boulogne crossed the whole of France and reached Lourdes on 7 September 1942, were such as to give rise on 23 May of the following year, on the occasion on the part of the French bishops of the nation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a new pilgrimage which was witnessed with astonishment by Robert d’Aucourt, academic of France with these words: «Thirty thousand kilometres they walked, the “servants” of Our Lady of the Great Return … On their faces, in their eyes, shone the faith of the great praying hosts of the 13th century». The numerous peregrinationes Mariae organised all over the world in the post-war years were modelled on that of Notre Dame du grand rétour.

The first apparition was seen on 18 July 1930 during the night, in the mother-house of the Daughters of Charity in Paris, by Saint Catherine Labouré. On that occasion the Mater Ecclesiae asked the young novice to coin and diffuse a medal as it was shown to her: on the underside the figure of Our Lady with outstretched arms from which rays poured, her feet were stamping in the head of the tempter serpent. Around the edge we read the invocation: «O Mary conceived without sin pray for us who have recourse to You». Anyone wearing the medial would have received special graces through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The nun remained unknown all through her life and it was the Jesuit Fr Aladel, the only person to whom she confided her experience, who diffused it. The diffusion of the 'Miraculous Medal' gave rise to a vast movement of apostolate, still active today.


From the apparition in 1846 to two children, eleven year old Massimino and fourteen year old Melanie tending their masters' flocks, takes its origin the shrine of “Our Lady of La Salette”, situated at 1,800 metres above sea level. During the apparition, the Blessed Virgin in tears, urged the French people to convert their hearts to avoid being punished by her Son who was angry with them.

This apparition, soon acknowledged by the local bishop, marked the return of the French people to Catholicism.

Immaculate Mary always calls man to conversion, as she continues to generate Christ in every human heart and to intercede with the Father that every individual may be granted enough time to convert to the truth.


The grotto of Massabielle, where on 11 February 1858 Our Lady appeared to fourteen year old Bernadette Soubirous, the daughter of a poor miller, and announced herself as the Immaculate Conception, draws millions of people travel every year who come on pilgrimage to obtain grace at Europe's most visited Shrine Our Lady of Lourdes.

Between 11 February and 16 July there were 10 apparitions many of which were only a silent presence of Our Lady. During the eighth apparition, the 'Lady' asked Bernadette to pray for sinners and kiss the ground as a penance; in the next one She asked her to drink and wash herself in a muddy puddle at the entrance to the Grotto, which in a few hours had become an abundant source as it is today; during the 13th She asked her to tell the priests that she would like people to come in procession to the place and for a chapel to be built.

In 1862 the Bishop of Tarbes, monsignor Laurence, recognised the authenticity of the apparitions. In 1866 young Bernadette entered a convent at Nevers, where she was born to heaven in 1879 at the age of thirty six. In 1925 Pope Pius XI placed her among the host of the Saints.

The inexhaustible resonance which truth always has in the human heart, together with the stir aroused by the apparitions in French public opinion, led to the immediate development of the Shrine. The spiritual atmosphere at the Locus Mariae the solemnity of the celebrations and the air of recollection and devotion which characterise it, made it a model to which all Shrines have since aspired. The first church, the upper one in neo-gothic style stile built on the spur overlooking the grotto, was inaugurated in 1871. The lower building, called the Rosary Church, in Romanesque -Byzantine style, was built in 1889. A third underground basilica to hold over 20,000 worshippers was added in 1958.


During the reign of the Christian emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne, connected with Germany just as much as France, Marian devotion experienced a moment of great splendour among the German people, who today still pray to the Holy Mother of God with the title Unsere Liebe Frau, Our Beloved Lady.


To this periods dates, commissioned by the Emperor himself, the building in the city of Aachen peripheral see of the empire, of what was called the Palatine Chapel where the tomb of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire is preserved and where for six hundred years Germanic emperors were crowned. Here were placed important relics brought from Constantinople which immediately attracted numbers of pilgrims. Among these, deserving special mention, apart from the problem of their authenticity, not easily solved, the dress the Blessed Mother was wearing during the Nativity and the swaddling clothes of the Holy Babe. The relics are still shown to the faithful every seven years and the event draws enormous crowds from all over the place.

German Marian architecture was remarkably expressed in the Romanesque style during the 10th and 11th centuries, with the building of the country's principal Marian cathedrals Spier and Mainz, and many monasteries almost all places of pilgrimage: Saint Maria in Capitol in Cologne, the Monasteries of Trier, Reichenau, Regensburg and above all that of Maria Laach, a magnificent building, famous for its uninterrupted tradition of theological studies. At the end of the year 1200 the advent of the gothic style stimulated mainly the production of architectural masterpieces dedicated to Mary.

The Order of the Capuchins and that of the Jesuits were of fundamental importance in the defence of authentic and sound Marian devotion, especially during the iconoclasm started by Lutheran influence. These Orders had the merit of purifying the German people from devotionalistic tendencies. Special mention must be made of the Jesuit, Saint Peter Canisius.


Principal shrine in southern Germany and more in particular in Catholic Bavaria, “Our Lady of Greenfields ” in Altötting has its origin in the work of Saint Rupert, apostle of the region, who transformed a pagan temple into a Marian oratory. Here Charlemagne later had built the Chapel of Graces, of octagonal plan, and a monastery. The latter was destroyed by incursions of Hungarians still pagans, who left however the church intact. In 1228 the shrine, abandoned for a long time, was restored to its original splendour of the work by the Dukes of Bavaria, especially those of the Wittelsbach family. The hearts of the sovereigns of this dynasty are still preserved in a special apposite urn kept in the Chapel of Graces. The image venerated today at Altötting dates to 1300 and consists of a small limewood statue of Our Lady seated with the Infant Jesus, usually clothed in a richly embroidered garments and placed at the centre of a rich altar.


The mantle of the Queen of Heaven extends over many Sancti Locii in the land of Germany; among these we mention especially the first shrine dedicated to Maria Hilf, (Our Lady Help of Christians) built in the town of Passau at the beginning of 1600, when the dean of the cathedral, after having had made for his devotion a copy of the painting by the famous artist Lucas Cranach, in which the Child seems to take refuge in the arms of his Mother (hence the title Maria Help), exposed it in a small chapel which, due to a vast flow of pilgrims, was soon replaced by a shrine; no less than five volumes of vast dimensions record the graces received and healings, through the intercession della Blessed Virgin in this place.


The inseparable nature of the Petrine and Marian dimensions of the Church of Christ, guarantors of unity for the Church herself and of authentic custody of the whole Truth, has been testified many times in history because whenever loyalty to the ministry of the successors of Peter waned, there was also an unexplainable and obstinate rejection of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This happened, with the schism of 1534 in the time Henry VIII, also in Britain, where Marian devotion, handed on during evangelisation of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, which saw its highest expression in Saint Augustine of Canterbury sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 597, was seriously undermined by the suppression of the monasteries and shrines whose possessions were confiscated by the English crown, at the advice of pro-protestant ministers Thomas Cromwell e Thomas Cranmer.


Only at the beginning of 1800 was it possible to see a revival of devotion to Mary both on the part of Catholics, after the abolition of the laws against them, and on that of a greater part of the Anglican reality, which precisely in Marian devotion seemed to rediscover nostalgia for such beauty, constituent still today a fundamental point of rapprochement with the Catholic Church.

Among the principles shrines in Europe, the shrine at Walsingham constitutes the most excellent place of Marian devotion in the land of Britain. According to tradition it was founded by a certain dame Richeldis in 1061, who in a dream was ordered to build a chapel as a copy of the Holy House in Nazareth. The chapel when the devotion developed, was enclosed in a sumptuous gothic church. Following its destruction, in 1538, only in 1934 did Walsingham see the reconstruction of a shrine within which was enclosed the Holy House. In the same year there was the inauguration of a Catholic shrine in the former Slipper Chapel, where traditionally pilgrims would leave their shoes to walk the last mile barefoot.



In Sussex, south of London, the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation, thanks to the protection of the Catholic Lords Carylls, survived the tempest of the reformation, constituting thus, besides a centre of worship for Catholics, a refuge for the indomitable Catholic clergy in hiding, fervent custodians of orthodoxy in England.

With the intensification of religious persecution, the church was demolished and rebuilt in another place so as not to attract iconoclast violence. In 1863, after having gained support all over Europe, the new chaplain Fr Jean Marie, from France, erected a larger church and, as the image to venerate, he brought from Turin, Italy, a copy of Our Lady of Consolation. Every year from Westminster a pilgrimage is organised to thank the Lord and His Merciful Mother for preserving the Catholic faith in England.


Glorious Hellas, cradle of the most poetic expression of man's infinite quest, in Christianity found an answer historically and culturally. Through Constantine it became part of the Byzantine Empire. Profound and widespread devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was stirred by the Council of Ephesus (431), held in a Marian church and under the banner of «Maria Theotokos» (Mary Mother of God). Many pagan temples were made into Christian churches and many dedicated to Mary; among them of fundamental importance the “conversion” of the Parthenon in Athens, dedicated in 432, to Aghia Sofia (Holy Wisdom: The Verb, Christ) and then in 662, to the Paniaghia Ateniotissa (The All Holy of Athens) which superimposed definitively the cult of the pagan goddess Athena. The history of this country is inseparably united with that of the Roman Empire of the West, catalyst, in what was its capital, Byzantium, of all Greek cultural and political prestige. However rather than dwell on this aspect, we will treat only the principal places of Marian devotion in the Hellenic peninsula.


This most famous and popular of Greek shrines, situated on the island of the Cyclades, has its origins in the discovery, in 1823, following instructions received by a nun in a dream, of an ancient icon of the Evengherestia (Our Lady of the Annunciation). At first, digging in the place indicated revealed nothing but the remains of an ancient church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. With the stones recovered from it the workmen built a small chapel dedicated to Mary and just when the work was finished, a pickaxe struck an old board, revealing the icon for which they had been searching. The emotion caused by the event was such as to involve and hearten the entire population, living in expectation of imminent liberation from centuries of Turkish domination which had begun on 29 May 1453. The central moment of the celebrations is represented by a procession on 15 August every year, when the splendid icon, clothed in gold and gems and protected by a precious canopy, is carried across the island with hymns and prayers.

Deserving special mention, also the shrines of the All Holy of the Golden Step (Crissoscalitissa), and the All Holy of Grotto (Nisiros) and particularly the Shrine The All Holy “Portatissa”.



The icon, one of the most venerated on Mount Athos, according to tradition belonged to a widow of Nicea who kept it safe from iconoclast fury; however in 829 a solider discovered it and with the intention of destroying the icon, struck it with his sword. From the wounded face blood flowed. The soldier, deeply moved by the event, was converted, nevertheless to save it from further danger the good widow entrusted the icon to the sea, and sometime afterwards it appeared on a beach near the Georgian monastery of Iviron, one of twenty large monasteries on Athos. The title Portatissa is due to the continual rediscovery of the Marian image on the monastery gate (porta), despite repeated attempts to place it inside the church. The monks were forced to build at the monastery entrance a chapel, in which the icon is venerated still today. On the annual feast day with a solemn procession to the seashore, the rediscovery of the icon is commemorated.


All the Irish shrines visible today date to the 11th century because the land of Ireland, although at the end of the known world, among the most fertile for conversion following evangelisation begun only in 432 by Saint Patrick born in England, suffered in the 8th century invasions by the Vikings who sacked and destroyed monasteries all over northern Europe.

The new flourishing of the Catholic faith and devotion to Mary from the 11th century onwards was due, to the presence on the island of Normans who dedicated many local shrines previously dedicated to local saints, to Our Lady.


This is the case of Our Lady of the Island, a shrine previously dedicated to Saint Barry. Pilgrimages to this place continued even during the periods of fiercest English persecution in the reign of Henry VIII. Pilgrimages had a marked penitential character: pilgrims used to walk the perimeter of the island many times barefoot in the water. In those times Irish Catholic fervour became also a symbol of that national and cultural identity at length denied by British oppression. In times of greatest persecution awareness of belonging to Christ and the consequent entrustment of man to his Creator always becomes more intense and evident, not as a consequence of the need to take a stance within the conflict, but as man's insuppressible longing for Truth in the face of unjustifiable negation of it.

In 1647 the first national assembly of the new kingdom proclaimed Mary its protectress. In 1641, the people of Ireland led by captain Owen Roe O’Neill, took as a war cry “Saint Mary” and as the army standard the figure of Our Lady and Child. But the resistance was soon quenched by the troops of Oliver Cromwell who travelled the length and breadth of the island, destroying every vestige of Catholic worship and demolishing every church and convent.

What enabled the Irish to preserve their Catholic identity and effectively nourish the faith was individual and family recitation of the Holy Rosary, which played such an important role as to become a national mark.

Penal laws against Catholics were abolished only in 1828 and social and economic rehabilitation had to wait even longer. The old shrines and convents which had been destroyed were never rebuilt and solitary ruins can still be seen spread here and there in the countryside. This is why Ireland's only shrine is Our Lady of Knock.


The national Marian Shrine, it is a compulsory destination for every good Irish Catholic.

The place draws its origins from an apparition of Our Lady with Saint Joseph and Saint John the Baptist, complete with an altar with above it the Divine Lamb and the cross. It dates to 21 August 1879 and happened in the presence of fifteen people of different ages. The shrine is visited by about a million pilgrims every year. The event helped reduce social tension and aversion for the British and was interpreted as a sign of heavenly assistance and a call to remain faithful to the Catholic Church and especially to the Holy Eucharist and to Mary. The local Bishop John McHale, commented the favourable response of the commission with regard to events at Knock with the following words «This is a privilege for the poor people of the West, in their misery and suffering the Blessed Virgin appeared to them».

To 1976 dates the building of a large church in addition to the local parish church and the place was honoured by a visit by the Servant of God John Paul II on 30 September 1979, on the occasion of the centenary of the apparition.


The last to be evangelised around the year 1200, epoch placed under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, the Baltic peoples gained independence only in 1991, after subjection by the USSR in the context of the Second World War.

The reforming Protestant, Lutheran and Calvinist wave of the 16th century affected all three nations, until then under the control of the Teutonic Order, whose grand maestro, Albert Hoenzollern, in 1525 became a Lutheran.


Essential support for the “Catholic reform”, with the consequent re-evangelisation of those lands, was constituted, besides by the indispensable activity of the Jesuits Fathers, also by an apparition of Mary in 1612, on the site of what was at the time the destroyed shrine of Silura. There, two shepherd children had a vision of a weeping young woman with a child in her arms; the image soon disappeared. The local Calvinist pastor, after severely reprimanding the children, went to the place to deny the rumours and disperse the crowds which had gathered there but, astonished, he saw for himself what he had been told. When the pastor asked Our Lady why she was crying she replied: «There was a time when my Son was adored here by my people. But now this holy ground has been abandoned to pasture and the iron of the plough». News of the event reached also the sacristan of the old church, blind for several years, he reached the place and suddenly his sight was miraculously restored and he was able to indicate the place in which the Catholic parish priest had buried the Icon of Our Lady to protect it from Calvinist iconoclast fury, during which the first shrine had been raised to the ground. The event, which had an immediate resonance, called many to conversion.

The principal obstacle to pressing and repeated attempts to 'Russianise' these lands, particularly following the anti-tsar insurrection in 1831, was precisely the newly found Catholic faith. Wherever in history, to affirm some ideal, it was deemed necessary to eliminate some elements of reality, never has a position of freedom, of primate of love for the truth been enjoyed. Faith in Jesus of Nazareth, supreme Truth, alone in history preserves and has preserved human reason in its most authentic dimension, of full awareness of self and self identity. The violence of the ideology attempted in fact to destroy what constituted the very symbols of the nation: the Church of St Casimir in Vilnius, the heart of Catholic Lithuania and the countries highest architectural expression, was taken over the Russian army; the Carmelite community of the Shrine of the Door of the Dawn, also in Vilnius, was sent expelled; in 1866 pilgrimages were banned by law.

The people, united and strong in their faith and under the protection of Mary, always opposed this ideological intrusion, to the point that the principal leader of the ferocious repression, Russian general Mura’ëv wrote in his report to Tsar Alexander II: «We must not deceive ourselves, we must realise that as long as Catholicism exists in the country, the government will never subdue it».

Marian devotion expanded greatly in these lands in the period between 1917, with the fall of tsarism caused by the communist revolution, until 1940, year in which Russia occupied these territories. The tradition of pilgrimages was resumed and found its highest expression in the pilgrimage to Suliva. Baltic Marian vitality was such that it won the admiration of the then apostolic nuncio to Poland, Mgr Achille Ratti, later Pope Pius XI, who defined the land of Lithuania “Land of Mary”. The definition was so pleasing to the Lithuanian people that they made it their own.

Even under the communist dictatorship pilgrimage continued to be for the people a fundamental manner of expression loyalty to Christ and to the Church as well as to their national identity. The grandeur of Marian events was such that it left the political authorities powerless.


Among the principal Baltic places of worship, the Shrine of the Black Madonna at Aglona in Latvia deserves attention. Built of wood in 1699 as a simple little church adjoining a Dominican convent and situated in a forest of fir trees, the building was enlarged considerably in 1768, because many miracles happened through veneration of a wooden image of the icon at the Marian shrine of Torki, which, due to the colour assumed with time, was referred to as the “Black Madonna”, and its successive popularity as a place of pilgrimage.


Poland of the Mediterranean, the Island of Malta, thanks to Norman conquerors, saw a flourish in Marian devotion and those prayers played a determinant role during resistance on the part of Maltese Catholics to incessant besiege in 1565, by two hundred ships from Islamised Istanbul, to take control of the Mediterranean Sea. On the eve of the feast of the Nativity of Mary, the unexpected withdrawal of the Turkish fleet was seen as a clear sign of the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ever since September the 7th has been celebrated as the feast day of Our Lady of the Victories, a national holiday. Having lost the freedom of self-determination with the Napoleonic conquest in 1798, made possible by the weakening of the Sovereign Order of Malta, the island passed in 1814 under the sovereignty of Great Britain, Malta became an independent member of the British Commonwealth only in 1964.


To be mentioned among the world's greatest architectural enterprises, the Church of Mary Assumed into Heaven in Mosta, built towards the end of 1800, is almost a perfect copy, of only slightly smaller dimensions, of the Pantheon in Rome, and in fact it earned the title of the world's “third dome”, after St Peter's in the Vatican and the Pantheon precisely. This glorious building, extremely intricate from an architectural point of view, was achieved by an almost illiterate master mason, who was however heir to the centuries old Maltese art of local stone work.

During the Great War, Italian bombs which half destroyed this Mediterranean Poland, fell on the great dome repeatedly, but every time unaccountably rolled off unexploded. This too was seen by the Islanders as a sign of the protection of the Queen of the Apostles.


One of the Marian images most dear to the Maltese was preserved in the north western part of the Island of Gozo, in a little church, in place of which today stands the Shrine Ta’ Pinu. It was placed there by a certain Filippo Guaci (Pino, hence the name of the shrine) in 1619, in what at the time was a simple seasonal chapel, present in this place since the late Middle Ages; the Italian artist Amedeo Perugino had painted here an image of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven. The Shrine was built in 1883, after the Blessed Virgin appeared to a local peasant woman, Carmni Grima. Passing by the little church the woman heard a female voice calling her and when she glanced inside the church the voice said: «Recite three Hail Mary prayers in honour of the three days during which my body remained in the tomb». Confiding the event to a local pious young man, the woman learned that he too had been asked to pray meditating on Jesus' “hidden wound”, the wound the weight of the cross had left on His shoulder.

The local bishop, after questioning the two, authorised devotion in the place of which fame spread and was renewed in 1887when the people of the island miraculously survived an epidemic of cholera.

The new shrine in Romanesque-Byzantine style was consecrated in 1931 and the image was crowned by the Vatican Chapter in 1935.


The Low Countries, came to know of the Christian event for the first time in 384, thanks to evangelisation by Saint Servatius (Dutch, Sint Servaas); first apostle of those regions, he ministered in Maastricht (in the south on the border with Belgium). Here he is said to have built a chapel dedicated to 'Our Dear Lady', from which developed the splendid present-day shrine.

The necessary re-evangelisation of those lands, following invasions by Barbarians in the 7th century, was undertaken by travelling Irish monks, among whom we mention Saint Wilfrid and Saint Willibrord (657 - 738), who later became the Netherlands' most popular Saint. He ministered mainly in Utrecht, where he built a church dedicated to Mary.

Dutch Catholics flourished amidst “city competitions” in the year 1000, in which the institutions of society at the time strove to gain for the respective city the protection of the Blessed Virgin, above all by adopting a miraculous image, often of small dimensions and with no particular esthetical or artistic value; a people involved in pilgrimages which, more than anything else, sanctioned the historical union between the Low Countries and neighbouring Belgium, rich in frequented places of worship.

The country too was not spared by the Protestant impact, concretised mainly in Calvinist persecution of Catholics. The latter, objectively a minority, were deprived of their fundamental rights, including political rights, banned from practising the faith in public, they helplessly witnessed the comparison of their faith to a mere crime which could incur in penal punishment.

Every reminder of prayer was banned, shrines in particular, besides the known iconoclast fury, all feast days, pilgrimages and processions were prohibited. Dutch Catholics could only continue to practice the faith, camouflaged, in order to preserve and safeguard their Catholic identity.

This is the case of ‘s-Hertogenbosh, where the ancient procession made for seven consecutive evenings around the city, became a composed and silent walk.

Dutch Catholics began to see their identity, dignity and freedom restored only towards the end of 1700 with Napoleonic occupation and the flight of the Orange ruler. In this period the People of God regained possession of cathedrals previously confiscated, including “Our Lady of the Wood at ‘s-Hertogenbosh” deserves special mention


This late-Gothic building has its origin in veneration of a miraculous statue today preserved in a beautiful chapel inside the splendid cathedral.

The statue, initially removed and put in a storehouse because of its little worth, drew the veneration of all the local people when, during a vain attempt to move it again, after at the insistence of a workman it had been returned to the cathedral, numerous documented miraculous healings took place.


In Maastricht, the cradle of Dutch Christianity, Marian devotion is centuries old and deeply rooted. The present church dates to the year 1100 and has the appearance of a fortress with turrets and arrow slits. The statue preserved here dates to 1400 and, probably, replaced an earlier image.

The people began to make pilgrimages to Mary Star of the Sea at the beginning of 1500, and this veneration lasted until 1639, when the city was taken over by the Protestants. From that year onwards the statue was carried along a complicated route of pilgrimages through Holland and Belgium which ceased only in about the mid 20th century when the image was restored to its original position.


«Mother of God, Virgin, glorified by the Lord, Mary, obtain grace for us. Kyrie eleison», among the oldest poetic compositions in the Polish language, this is part of a Marian hymn still sung today, a clear expression of this people's great devotion to the Mother of the Church, the Begurodzica (Mother of God).

In Poland, characterised by a marked Catholic identity, from about the year 1000, expressions of devotion to the Virgin assume an intensity and warmth difficult to find elsewhere. The Mother of God is an integral part of public and social life, but first of all family life; it suffices to recall for example that the farmer or builder only began activity after a request, through a blessing, for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, without which work could not start.

The first Church built in Poland was dedicated to Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, a devotion which never waned and was first diffused by the Cistercian Order. A group of Pauline monks, sent by Louis of Angiòu, then King of Hungary and Poland, towards the end of the year 1300, started the construction of the Shrine of Jasna Gora, near Czestochowa.

Towards the mid 16th century marked by the influence of the Protestant reform, the Catholic Church was reasserted mainly thanks to the activity of the Jesuits and unswerving Marian devotion, and the land of Poland, surrounded by pagan peoples, realising its position as the stronghold of Catholicism, proclaimed Mary “Queen of Poland”.


A significant episode of Marian intercession in Polish history dates to the years of dominion by King John Casimir (1648-1668), when expansion towards the territories of the east caused, what has been defined the period of the “deluge”. In fact the Polish army suffered serious defeat at the hands of the Tsarist empire and was attacked at the same time by Swedish troops. In December 1655, on Christmas night, the relentless march of the troops through Poland halted exactly under the walls of the Monastery of Jasna Gora, mentioned above. Mary, protectress of the weak, did not allow the “palace” of her kingdom to fall into enemy hands. After this event the following year on April 1st King Casimir dedicated the nation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This Polish shrine par excellence was the object of many vicissitudes including, in 1430, sacking by a band of Hussites from Bohemia who smashed to pieces the venerated image, which was necessarily repainted. This sacrilege heightened the desire to make the pilgrimage and consecrated Jasna Gora as the national shrine. The first church in wood was later the site of a Gothic style church in bricks; this remains as the chapel of the image and constitutes the heart of the vast religious complex. Dated 1600 the splendid monastery and walls built to defend the shrine-castle.


Special mention must be made of the apparition of the Holy Mother at Gietrzwald, in 1877, year in which the Polish zone was subjected to “Germanisation” imposed by Chancellor Bismark, who banned the use of the Polish language in the entire zone under his dominion. In this area there was a church where the people venerated an image which was a fairly liberal reproduction of Our Lady of Częstochowa.

That year two little girls Hyacinth and Barbara, witnessed a splendid apparition of the Immaculate Conception who, breaking the harsh law of the “iron fisted chancellor”, spoke to them in Polish asking for the recitation of the Rosary and announcing the end of the long religious persecution.

We cannot fail to mention the Shrines of the Mother of God at Zebrzydow in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, of the Immaculate Conception at Niepokalanòw, of the Blessed Mother of Piekary in Piekary Slaskie and of Our Lady of Graces in Warsaw (where the people venerate a copy of the image at Faenza (Italy), whose devotion was diffused by Father Giacinto Orselli).

Also important:


This originates from an apparition to a Polish soldier, Thomas Klossowski, as he lay seriously wounded on a battlefield in Leipzig (1813), to whom the Blessed Virgin granted healing and asked him to search for an icon. He found it only twenty three years later and the image is still venerated in the chapel at the shrine.


Last in this treatise and most evident emblem not only Polish but entirely Catholic, of total and exemplary discipleship of Christ in dedication to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Servant of God John Paul II, played a fundamental role in the recognition of the authenticity of the message of Divine Mercy, whose diffusion was entrusted to a humble handmaid, now, Saint Faustina Kowalska, a nun of the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy.

She lived the two last years of her life, and was to born to heaven at the age of thirty three after acute suffering caused by consumption, contracted with pain on a hill in the district of Lagiewniki, where now stands the Shrine, perhaps the most loved in all Poland, of Divine Mercy.

The ever fecund holiness of Sister Kowalska who chose, suffering and adoring, to give herself totally to God day after day, renders this hill and this Shrine a fulcrum of prayer and searching for the infinite Love of the Mercy of Jesus Christ, which, as depicted in the image here preserved, pours forth from His Heart in two luminous rays, making all things new again and again.

Pope John Paul II re-established the message of Divine Mercy and laid the foundation stone for the new Shrine, on the exact spot of the first one.

The new architectural project, although characterised by a search of luminosity by means of ample and majestic spaces of cement, is disappointing from a liturgical point of view, since it lacks any religious reference except for a large painting of Sister Faustina.

The principal effect of the construction is the 'secondary' position of the Blessed Sacrament compared with the “functionality”, cleanliness and acoustics of the religious space. It happens then, as in this case, that the Tabernacle appears removed from its authentic centrality, with the consequent immediate disorientation of the faithful.

Of far greater impact instead, the old chapel where Sister Kowalska used to pray in spiritual recollection. In the chapel pilgrims have the opportunity to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament which has beside it a beautiful picture of the Black Madonna.


Having become two independent nations only in 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia still present the same Christian origins.

The Christianisation of these lands is due principally to the effective witness of Saints Cyril and Methodius who laid the foundations, not only of the faith, but also of a characteristic Marian piety which became part of the spiritual and liturgical as well as the intellectual and cultural life of both countries.

Both Christian cultures suffered two serious wounds to the Catholic faith, one caused by the preaching of Hus in 1400 and the other by the Lutheran Reform in 1500, which undermined their peculiar Catholicity for many years.

Nevertheless numerous miracles at aedicules in fields and woods, the discovery of a good number of images, as well as miraculous protection from various enemy incursions, led to a continual building of shrines and places of worship, thanks to a great extent to the development of religious orders. Special mention must be made of the Jesuits who, under the protection of the Hapsburg family, restored Roman Catholicism, receiving strong support from the deep Marian devotion proper to them.

To them we owe the reopening of many shrines suppressed or abandoned, stimulating in this way, a return to the early popular enthusiasm for the Mother of God, known with the title of “Protectress” of their territories, which thus became “The Garden of Mary”: this devotion is documented in long processions in the months of May and in October with prayers, hymns, standards and statues evoking the mysteries of the faith, with the recitation of the Rosary on the eve of Marian feast days and during pilgrimages.


Probably the oldest shrine of Bohemia, initially dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian. Marian devotion developed around the year 1600 following the discovery of a plaque of gilded metal, on which was engraved a Marian figure. The plaque, stolen and found again no less than three times during the Thirty Year's War was called, because of this, “Palladium of Bohemia”. According to tradition, given by Saint Methodius to Saint Ludmilla, it is still exposed for the veneration of the faithful.


In 1927 Pope Pius XI proclaimed the Sorrowful Mother patroness of Slovakia. This shrine takes its origin from a vow made to the Sorrowful Mother by a Hungarian noble woman abandoned by her husband, who promised, in exchange for the return of her husband, to build a shrine in honour of Our Lady.

Her prayer was soon heard and the shrine is still open for veneration although the adjacent Salesian monastery was made into a barracks to dissuade devotion in 1927.


We chose to treat the countries of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland together, due to their obvious common historical cultural and religious homogeneity, dedicating instead an autonomous space to Denmark, historically and culturally more autonomous and rich in Christian tradition compared with the others.

Merit for the diffusion of Christianity in these vast lands, characterised mainly by forests, is due to the work and the person of Benedictine monk Saint Ansgar in the year 830. Successively to the arrival of the Cistercian order there was a considerable development of missionary activity rooted devotion to Mary and entrusted to her intercession.

The diffusion of devotion to Mary, considered a fundamental and essential element for the maturation of the faith, is a primary objective of the sons of Saint Bernard and Saint Norbert. To them we owe the edification and dedication of many chapels and churches built in honour of Our Lady.


New impulse to Marian devotion was attributed to the arrival of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders and especially to the splendid figure of Saint Brigid (1303-1373). Educated to the Cistercian life, she then founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, with female and male branches. The Mother Abbess, representing the Blessed Virgin Mary, received the obedience of both the nuns and the monks, imitating Mary among the Eleven at Pentecost.

Successively many confraternities of the Rosary were formed and soon became real “homes of Mary's Rosary” centres of propulsion of Dominican witness and custodians of the crown of Saint Brigid.


Always down through history, the Holy People of God has found comfort and understanding in the maternal affection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Christian Event and the consequent movement of devotion to` the Heavenly Mother reached the land of Denmark for the first time thanks to the Benedictine Saint Willibrord (658-739), first Bishop of Utrecht. God's work was undertaken successively between 950 and 1150 by Anglo-Norman missionaries and Benedictines. It was then that Our Lady was given the title “Queen of Denmark”. In only a hundred years the land was enriched with about two thousand churches, many of them dedicated to Mary. Splendid gothic and Romanesque cathedrals were built and drew a continual flow of new monastic orders, and Marian spirituality became ever more widely diffused: under the holy name of Mary, numerous monasteries were built: twenty four Benedictine, fifteen Cistercian, seven Norbertine, twenty six Dominican, thirty Franciscan, eleven Carmelite, nine Augustinian and two Brigidine.

With the spread of Lutheranism in the 16th century the Danish people witnessed the suppression of altars dedicated to Our Lady and the destruction of the icons to which the faithful turned their eyes when they prayed and then the promulgation in 1683 which prohibited, under the penalty of death, Catholic priests from residing in the kingdom.

However the People of God remained faithful to Mary and at the chiming of the Angelus bell the peasants continued to take of their caps and recite the Hail Mary, and to kneel and pray where there had been a church or an altar or a statute of the Blessed Virgin.

At last in 1849 the promulgation of a new law guaranteed Catholics freedom of worship, to meet in associations, also of a Marian nature, and to build again in the following decades convents and shrines dedicated to the Mother of God.

© Fides Service

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