With more than half a million visitors each year, the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Dawn is one of Lithuania's most celebrated pilgrimage sites. The shrine, situated in the capital city of Vilnius and known in the country's language as Ausros Vartu (Lithuanian for “Gate of the Dawn”), draws many pilgrims each year to venerate the miraculous portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mary that lies within its walls.
The history of the image dates from the 16th century. At that time, city officials had built a great stone wall around the city with nine gates. One of these, on the southeastern side of Vilnius, came to be known as the Gate of the Dawn. It was there that two religious paintings had been placed in the niches of the wall. One, on the inside of the gate, depicted the Virgin Mary; the other, on the outside, showed Christ imparting a blessing.
According to the historian and Carmelite priest Hilary, the local friars of Vilnius were so devoted to the painting of the Blessed Virgin that they built a monastery near the gate in 1620. A year later, they began building a monastery church (later dedicated to St. Teresa) at the site.
In 1671, the friars continued their expansion and built a wooden chapel over the gate. As soon as the portrait was placed inside the new sanctuary, a number of miracles were reported by those who prayed there. In total, Friar Hilary recorded 17 miracles that took place between 1671 and 1761. Although the Church refused to pass judgment on the cases, word of the painting and of the favors received through Our Lady's intercession became widespread. The portrait's fame grew as, in 1688, the newly consecrated bishops of Vilnius marched in procession to the Gate of Dawn and prayed before the image for guidance.
Yet disaster struck in 1715: a fire destroyed the wooden chapel housing the miraculous painting. Fortunately, a few Carmelites were able to rescue the image from the burning sanctuary just in time; they housed the portrait in the monastery church until a new brick chapel was built in 1726 on the original site. In 1773, the picture received its first official recognition by the Church — Pope Clement XIV granted an indulgence to all who visited the shrine.
The painting had another close call in 1795, when the Russians occupied Lithuania and destroyed the walls surrounding Vilnius. Although everything was essentially reduced to rubble, the Gate of Dawn shrine remained standing and untouched. When Friar Hilary's book on the shrine was republished in 1823, the miraculous painting became even more famous. In response to this, the Carmelites began producing and distributing holy cards bearing the image of Our Lady of Dawn.
One of the defining moments for the shrine occurred in 1927. In that year, Pope Pius XI solemnly crowned the cherished image of Our Lady of the Dawn.
Up to World War II, the shrine remained a busy place. Every morning, the faithful filled the chapel for Mass; every evening, they sang Marian hymns. The greatest number of pilgrims flocked to the shrine on Nov. 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy.
The Russian occupation of Lithuania in 1944 put an end to religious services at the shrine. Convents, monasteries, and Catholic schools also felt the effects, as their buildings were confiscated or closed. Lithuanians were forbidden to practice Christianity openly. Yet the image was never forgotten and, in 1954, the Vatican honored Our Lady of Dawn with a stamp that bore the likeness of the miraculous painting.
After 45 years of persecution, the tide turned. In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union. With the collapse of communism, religious celebrations and activities at the shrine resumed. Thousands of pilgrims visited the shrine once more and, in 1993, Pope John Paul II himself came, to pray before the miraculous image of Our Lady of the Dawn.
The Gate of the Dawn shrine is located at the southeastern edge of the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius, at Ausros Vartu 12. To arrive at the sanctuary, which stands atop the gate of Ausros Vartu, enter through the door on the east side of the street, shortly before the gate. The door leads to a staircase, by which one ascends to the small chapel containing the icon of the Virgin. Pilgrims visiting the little shrine can usually come and go as they please.
Other sites to visit in Vilnius include the Cathedral (Arkikatedra Bazilika) and the Church of the Holy Spirit (located at Dominikonu 2). Pope John Paul visited both of these shrines during his historic 1993 trip to Lithuania. And once more, major religious celebrations and activities take place at the sanctuary in November, during the week of the feast of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy.
Kevin Wright writes from Bellevue, Washington.