A group of 80 college-aged students arise at six o’clock to grab a light breakfast and board a bus at 7am. The short 15-minute ride takes them to the heart of an Austrian nature park, their starting point for the day’s adventure. As they begin to hike, the pristine air, beautiful mountain cliffs and gently flowing, crystal clear Erlauf River invigorate their spirits.
Why do they venture out this early morning to hike seven hours in the foothills of the Austrian Alps? What would possess these 20-year-olds to embark on such an adventure? Their destination is Mariazell, the most visited Marian shrine in Central Europe. They are a group of American college students spending a semester studying abroad in Gaming, Austria, with the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and they have taken on the challenge to participate in the biannual Pilgrimage for Life, “extreme style” — a distance of over 18-plus miles.
Nestled in the center of Austria, a small, quaint mountain village named Mariazell has a population of 2,000, but receives over a million pilgrims a year. The basilica church is in the center of town and towers over the picturesque landscape.
Monk’s Marian Miracle
The fascinating history of the area begins in 1103, when the area around present-day Mariazell was donated to the Benedictine Monastery of St. Lambrecht in Austria. Monks then began to build private cells in the surroundings. Legend has it that Abbot Otker sent a monk named Magnus to the area to serve the spiritual needs of the people. On the evening of Dec. 21, 1157, he came upon a huge boulder blocking his path. Magnus took a small limewood statue of the Virgin Mary from his bag and knelt in prayer, imploring the help of the Mother of God. The rock was miraculously split in two, allowing him to continue on his journey.
At the end of his journey, the monk placed the statue on a tree stump and constructed a cell for use as a chapel and living quarters. Over the years, it came to be called “Maria at the Cell.” The miraculous statue of the Virgin became well known in the area, and the chapel was continually enlarged to accommodate the growing number of visitors.
In the year 1200, the first church was constructed on the site; Henry I expanded the church in 1335 as thanksgiving for a miraculous cure. More pilgrims began to visit after about 1330, when a Zellfahrt (Journey to the Cell) was introduced as a form of atonement for criminals.
In the church, the small miraculous statue (19 inches tall) featuring the seated Virgin holding the Child Jesus is housed in the Chapel of Grace or Chapel of Miracles, standing directly over the place where Magnus established his monastic cell. In the baby’s hands are an apple and a fig, calling to mind the fall of Adam and Christ’s successful redemption of mankind. Both Mary and Jesus are almost entirely covered in rich garments and wear golden jewel-encrusted crowns.
The statue of Our Lady housed in the church of Mariazell is still honored today as the Magna Mater Austriae, the Great Mother of Austria. From all corners of the country, as well as the neighboring countries of Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia, faithful continue to flock to the shrine. Many still make the pilgrimage on foot from various starting points during the traditional months of hiking (June and July). The government used to decree the day on which the pilgrims from Vienna were to meet in the capital at the old Cathedral of St. Stephen and set out in ordered bands for their four days’ pilgrimage.
The concept of a walking pilgrimage is still very much a part of the Austrian Catholic ethos. During a recent visit to the church of Heiligenkreuz, right outside Vienna, we saw a hiking signpost reading: “Mariazell: 99 kilometers.” My son’s local kindergarten teacher was in a biking accident and told me that while being taken away by the ambulance she expressed her desire to make a pilgrimage to Mariazell in thanksgiving for her life having been saved.
Faithful also arrive at the shrine by car, bus or train. The town welcomes visitors young and old into the towering church complex and accompanying museum complete with ex-votos (gifts “out of thanks”) left by pilgrims over the years as thanksgiving for prayers answered. As a testament to Mariazell’s great popularity, the ex-votos represent one of the greatest numbers of nationalities of any Catholic shrine.
Pope Benedict XVI’s September 2007 apostolic journey to Austria was timed to coincide with the 850th anniversary of the foundation of the shrine of Mariazell. The celebratory Mass at the church for an audience of 30,000 was celebrated on the feast of Our Lady’s birthday, Sept. 8, and was the center point of his three-day trip.
Encouraging those in attendance, he said, “Today, as in the past, it is not enough to be more or less like everyone else and to think like everyone else. Our lives have a deeper purpose. … Thus we can find the right path; we can follow it step-by-step, filled with joyful confidence that the path leads into the light — into the joy of eternal Love.”
Indeed, it is this eternal love that the students seek when they begin their early-morning hike. Offering thanksgiving, penances and praise throughout the day, the pilgrims are filled with joy and exhaustion as they finally enter the basilica. As they kneel at the famed statue, they join millions of others from many nations in claiming Our Lady of Mariazell as their mother — and affirm Mary as the Mother of the universal Church.
Niki Kalpakgian writes from Gaming, Austria.
Mariazell is located about 80 miles southwest of Vienna, on Route 20. The pilgrimage can be made on foot from several locations and distances around Austria. It is also accessible by train via St. Polten, where one takes the narrow-gauge train to Mariazell (about 2 1/2 hours). From the Mariazell train station, a bus takes passengers into the town center (about five minutes), or you can make the 15-minute walk to the basilica.
Planning Your Trip
Peak season is May through October, with limited opening hours during the winter months.
Basilica hours: May 1 to Oct. 31, 6am to 8pm
The museum is open from May 1 to Oct. 26.
Sundays and holidays: 11am to 3pm
Tuesday to Saturday: 10am to 3pm