Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Fatima and Lourdes are household names when it comes to approved apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But how many outside Poland have heard of the Gietrzwald Apparitions? Maybe a few more than before since pilgrims to this year’s World Youth Day were invited to visit the shrine of this approved apparition.
As Fatima heads to its 100th anniversary, Gietrzwald heads to its 140th which takes place a month earlier. When we look at the Gietrzwald apparitions, an immediate burning question is this: did it act as a heavenly bridge joining Lourdes and Fatima? And prepare the world for Fatima?
At Lourdes in 1858, our Blessed Mother appeared to one person, St. Bernadette. At Gietrzwald in 1877, she visited two young girls. At Fatima in 1917, Our Lady appeared to three young children. A hint of some progression?
But of course, that’s not as important as are other shared highlights which are important messages and instructions our Blessed Mother gave and reinforced for her children — then and now.
But first, where is the town of Gietrzwald? In the district of Warmia in Northern Poland, which at the time of the apparitions was annexed to the German empire and under control of the Prussians. The Polish language was forbidden to be taught in the schools. Warmia was surrounded by Prussian Lutherans, but most everyone in Warmia was Catholic and spoke Polish. The small town’s church also served as the parish for eight villages in the surrounding beautiful, fertile countryside.
In 1877, our Blessed Mother chose to appear to two girls in Gietrzwald.
Holy Place for Apparitions
Our Lady was already known in Gietrzwald. The church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary had a miraculous image of her and already was celebrating its patronal feast on her birthday of Sept. 8 at least by 1500. By 1505, her image was already revered as miraculous. She holds the Child Jesus, and angels around her display the inscription Ave Regina Coelorum, Ave Domina Angelorum, Hail Queen of Heaven, Hail Lady of Angels.
Our Lady of Gietrzwald appeared outside the church, first to 13-year-old Justyna Szafryńska. Days later she appeared to 12-year-old Barbara Samulowska. Both were from poor Polish families.
Justyna’s situation echoes that of St. Bernadette. Neither had made her first Holy Communion yet. Bernadette was 14 and trying to learn the Catechism to prepare for hers. At 13, Justyna also had some difficulty preparing for first Confession and Holy Communion. But on June 27, at the church with her mother, she passed the exam given by the pastor. She must have been ecstatic that she could now receive her first Holy Communion.
Leaving the church that early evening, her attention was drawn to the 20-foot tall maple tree by the rectory where she saw a “white-clad figure, with long hair falling over her shoulders and sitting on a golden throne decorated with pearls. Then she noticed a bright glow coming down from heaven and an angel with golden wings in a white robe…” who bowed to the woman on the throne. At Lourdes Our Lady wore a white dress and at Fatima she was dressed in white, shining brighter than the sun. During this first apparition the Blessed Virgin Mary didn’t speak to Justyna.
Justyna told everything to Father Augustyn Weichsel, the pastor. The next day Mary appeared with the Child Jesus. He held a globe and sat on her knee. Father Weichsel would write the bishop with all the details.
The appearances of the Blessed Mother would continue daily from June 27 through Sept. 16.
As in Lourdes and Fatima, Mary appeared each time outdoors. At Lourdes in a grotto. In Gietrzwald by the maple tree. In Fatima, above a holm oak tree.
Barbara Samulowska saw the Blessed Virgin the first time on June 30, the day Mary began appearing alone and sitting on a throne. She would appear this way every evening as the Rosary was being prayed in the church. The pastor told young Barbara to inquire of the Blessed Mother: "What do you ask Mother of God?"
Her reply — the first message of the Blessed Mother — was: "I wish you to pray the Rosary every day."
This message reflects the Blessed Mother’s first appearance to Bernadette. During that visit Bernadette said the Rosary with the Lady who had not yet identified herself. Mary did not say anything — the message was unspoken but clear.
It also echoes the first visit of Mary at Fatima who told the children, “Say the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war.”
Very quickly people heard about the apparitions and immediately responded. There didn’t seem to be the skepticism that at first marked other apparitions. There was a rebirth of spirituality and also a strengthening in believers.
People gathered at church to say the Rosary. They prayed it in nearly all the homes and surrounding villages. In one village people prayed the Rosary in church three times daily. There were “numerous conversions and frequent reception of the sacraments.”
Mary Identifies Herself
By the apparition on July 1, Justyna asked, “Who are you?”
She heard this answer, “I am the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception.”
Here, as at Lourdes for the first time, Mary identified herself as the Immaculate Conception. At Fatima, during the last apparition, Mary said, “I am the Lady of the Rosary.” But At Gietrzwald, it seemed as if she were combining both identifications — one verbally and one primarily by her continuing main message.
In fact, Justina and Barbara’s daily apparitions always took place during the evening’s Rosary usually beginning at the second mystery and finishing during the fourth mystery or beginning of the fifth.
On July 3, Mary told the girls the sick will be healed. There would be a miracle. The pastor asked the girls to see what the sick should do to be healed. Our Blessed Mother answered, “They should pray the Rosary.”
Near the end of July and the beginning of a vacation from school, people were praying the Rosary in the church three times a day — joyful mysteries in the morning, sorrowful later on, and glorious in the evening.
The children also got some specific answers to questions. When Justina asked if a particular person should go to the monastery, Our Lady replied that it’s good for as many as can to go to the monastery.
When the pastor told the children to ask why so many people were swearing falsely, Our Blessed Mother answered, “This is not worthy to enter heaven, it is the instigation of the devil.”
Others such as the drunks would be punished, too, if they didn’t amend their ways.
Another time our Blessed Mother told the children that “everyone should listen to the priests.” And priests should “earnestly pray to the Virgin Mary, then she will always be with them.”
Because of the difficult suppressions during this time of Prussian occupation and rule, the children asked if persecutions would stop and if the “orphaned” parishes would receive priests. Sounds familiar in the way elements of the strong secular governments and society was in France and Portugal during the other apparitions.
Mary told them, “If people will earnestly pray, then the Church will not be persecuted, and the orphaned parishes will receive the priests.” Fervent prayer was the key.
To other questions, answers included to have Masses said for the dead and also for a person who converted to Lutheranism.
When the girls asked for her blessing, she told them, “I always bless you.”
On Sept. 8, the feast of Our Blessed Mother’s Birthday, through our Blessed Mother’s intercession, the spring, where pilgrims coming for decades to venerate the miraculous picture of Our Lady in the church had gotten their water, began to relieve people’s sufferings and bring healing to them.
It was reminiscent of the spring at Lourdes. In the later 20th century healings of many serious diseases were also being recorded.
Over the years there were many conversions too, and in the initial days during the apparitions confessions began in early morning and continued to 10 pm.
Sept. 16 saw thousands of pilgrims join in the ceremonies for the consecration and enthronement of a new statue of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. They joined in the procession while carrying the statue around the church.
The rain that day was described as torrential, but, as in Fatima, it stopped at this time. Everyone sang and prayed the Rosary.
The Blessed Mother, in this last apparition, made her final words reflect her opening words: "Pray the Rosary fervently."
It took some years for Lourdes and Fatima — where in her last apparition Mary said, “I want you to continue saying the Rosary every day” — to be officially recognized. The same with Gietrzwald.
Then on Sept. 11, 1977, the Bishop of Warmia approved of Our Lady's apparitions. The Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, was present to witness this canonical recognition of these apparitions that took place a century earlier. As Pope John Paul II, he sent a letter to the shrine on its 125th anniversary in 2002 thanking Mary for her presence and maternal protection.
Of course, we known that St. John Paul II was especially close to Our Lady of Fatima and the Rosary.
As for the visionaries themselves, Barbara became a nun like Bernadette did and Lucia Dos Santos would do. She joined the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul and spent her early years at the convent at Rue du Bac in Paris — where St. Catherine Labouré had received visions of the Blessed Mother and had been given the Miraculous Medal. There, Sister Barbara Samulowska worked with children, then went as a missionary to Guatemala where she died in 1950 at the age of 85 after 54 years of missionary work.
One sister in her order wrote, “I sensed that the soul lives only for God and a strong love for the Blessed Virgin permeates every action of Sister Barbara.” Her cause opened in 2005 and she is named Servant of God. Sister Lucia’s cause for canonization opened shortly after.
Justyna went to a boarding school run by the same order, decided to join the Daughters of Charity, was sent to the same convent in Paris, but did not continue to final vows. There is no exact record of what happened to her after that, but it seems she married and had a family, possibly in Westphalia.
Although there are some differences comparing the Gietrzwald apparitions with Lourdes 19 years before and Fatima 40 years later, the similarities make these in Poland appear to be the bridge between the two better known ones.
The span links some unmistakably clear and precise instruction from our Mother, especially conversion, praying for sinners, and praying the Rosary every day — “I want you to continue saying the Rosary every day.”
Across the bridge to Fatima, our Blessed Mother in all six apparitions said to continue to “say the Rosary every day.”
It’s time to cross that bridge with her if we haven’t already.