Most tourists visiting Hungary head to the recently restored Grassalkovich Castle in Godollo, not far from Budapest, because it was once home to royalty — Empress Elizabeth (Sissi) and Emperor Francis Joseph I (in the latter half of the 19th century).
But Catholics touring the area would do well to rush through that attraction so they can spend quality pilgrimage time at nearby Mariabesnyo, whose grounds include a unique Marian museum. Its claim to fame, which doesn't extend much beyond Hungary's borders, is that it houses what may well be the world's smallest miraculous statue of Mary.
Often visited by married Hungarian couples praying for a new little one in their lives, Mariabesnyo is called the Loreto of Hungary. It's run by Capuchins who offer tours through the church, showing visitors the minuscule miraculous statue, and behind it the high altar with an replica of Our Lady of Loreto.
The shrine traces its roots to a colorful story from the mid-18th century. Antal Grassalkovich, the Count of Godollo, owned a farm in Besnyopuszta, on which the ruins of an ancient abbey church had been found atop a small hill. When his wife, Teresa Klobusitzky, was recovering from an illness, he promised her that he would build a chapel on the spot and model it after the renowned Marian pilgrimage site in Loreto, Italy.
In the spring of 1759, the count began work on the chapel. First, the old abbey ruins had to be cleared away. He hired a brick mason named Janos Fidler, who, on the morning of April 19th, had a dream in which he heard a voice say: “If you dig in the church ruins where the main altar once stood, a gorgeous thing you will find.”
Janos explained the dream to another worker, Toth Marton, from the nearby town of Isaszeg. The two dug at the place where they assumed the main altar would be, and soon uncovered a statue carved in bone and measuring just five and half inches tall.
The statue depicted our Lady granting her heart to her son. It appeared to be from the eleventh or twelfth centuries, and suggested that the Virgin Queen and Mother served God with her whole heart.
The finished chapel was consecrated on August 15, 1761. Count Grassalkovich asked the Capuchins in Hatvan to bring to Besnyo a wooden replica of Our Lady of Loreto. Certain monks had brought it by foot from Italy. The infant in the arms of his dear mother was clothed, and the count commissioned two gold-plated, jewel-encrusted crowns to be made for the statue. This was placed behind the main altar.
Today the tiny bone sculpture is kept in a case above the high altar for pilgrims to venerate. In the days of the count, it was kept in the private chapel of Godollo castle and only taken to Besnyo for special pilgrimages on Marian feast days.
In the church there is a bright pastel painting by Marton Lajos (1941) covering the entire wall left of the statue. It features Count Grassalkovich standing atop the hill, handing a white rolled scroll to a Capuchin friar, who bows his head humbly to receive it. They are surrounded by a bishop and Capuchins, some with processional crucifixes, and followed by altar boys at the back of whom stands a friar with a white Marian ensign. A server behind the bishop carries a blue pillow with gold tassels, resting place of the episcopal red biretta.
To the left of the count, Janos and Toth, both kneeling, hover over the digging place. One holds the small bone statue, encircled in saffron light. On their side townspeople watch in awe: women and children dressed in Hungarian national costume, another digger leaning against his shovel, a young man peering over a beautiful blue banner of our Lady. This figure is placed by the painter almost exactly parallel to the friar on the opposite side, as if to “frame” the long picture.
At the bottom of the hill, close to the hole in the ground, a small boy grasps two shields, one bearing the coat of arms of Hungary, the other of the Grassalkovich line.
As time passed, the chapel's popularity grew and pilgrimages there increased, so with permission of Cardinal Migazzi, the count built a church and a monastery for the Capuchins. They inhabited the convent on Dec. 7, 1763. The completed two-story church and cloister for 18 friars was consecrated by Bishop Karoly Salbeck of Vac on March 17, 1771.
Today the shrine houses an underground chapel with ceiling murals paying tribute to Hungarian history, and an interesting crypt including the elegant Grassalkovich sarcophagus. A 30-foot stone Capuchin Cross stands left of the church entrance, beyond which are two gift shops and a Marian museum.
The Stations of the Cross sweep through a long, luscious, forested path which leads to the butter-cream colored church. Here in a circular glass casing rests an Infant of Prague statue. This memorial of abortion victims was consecrated on June 16, 1996.
Pilgrims walk through the courtyard, past the church, into a gate and up a flight of wooden stairs. This leads into a Marian museum, featuring more than 1,000 Marian objects — candles, sculptures, relics, medals — from all over the world, collected by the Capuchins.
Antique and contemporary articles fill a few upstairs rooms nearly to overflowing. There are myriad representations, for example, of the Nativity scene, plus statues of Mary depicted variously as Chinese, Spanish, Kenyan and Caribbean. A glass case houses a collection of Miraculous Medals.
Americans will experience Mariabesnyo as one of those little-known, out-of-the-way treasure troves of Catholic spirituality that serve to remind the Catholic pilgrim just how many lives have been touched by deep devotion to our Lady down through the centuries. It's also a place where one is inspired to follow their lead.
Mary Regina Soltis writes from Parma, Ohio.