World-class art and a miraculous statue of Mary await pilgrims to Our Lady of Svat´ Hora near Prague

One of the oldest and most sought-after Christian destinations in the Czech Republic is the hilltop sanctuary called Svat´ Hora, overlooking the ancient mining town of Prbram. The holy shrine features a renowned miraculous image of the Virgin Mary, and is also home to world-class artworks and architecture. The place of pilgrimage has become so popular that it has received the nickname Svat´ Hora, or Holy Mountain.

The origin of the shrine dates back seven centuries. According to tradition, the first chapel resided at the site in the 13th century. The knight Malovec had built it on the mountaintop in honor of the Mother of God. The story relates that he constructed the chapel in 1260 as a sign of thanksgiving to the Virgin Mary for hearing his prayers and delivering him from robbers. By the early part of the 15th or 16th century, a little sanctuary with a tower and bells had also been erected at the spot.

Shortly after the second chapel's establishment, the small church received the first of its major prize possessions. A statue, believed to have been the handiwork of the first archbishop of Prague, was transferred to the mountaintop sanctuary. The sculpture, modeled after the famous Klodzka Madonna, depicted the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus. Later referred to as the Svat´ Hora Madonna, the artwork had previously served as an altarpiece at the prelate's private chapel.

Some hermits who lived in nearby huts began to look after the church. In time, the sanctuary began to attract a great number of pilgrims, who had heard of the many favors received by those who visited the holy statue. The person who helped most of all to spread the statue's fame was the blind Prague beggar, Jan Prochazka, who went there on June 10, 1632 to pray for the return of his sight. After three days of fervent prayers, his sight was miraculously restored. As word spread throughout the village and the rest of the country about the extraordinary event, the faithful began flocking to the shrine in droves. Many processions and events began taking place at the sanctuary. Jan Prochazka himself made it his work to care for the chapel, a mission he continued until his death.

In 1647 the Jesuits in the nearby town of Brenice took over the administration of the chapel. In one of their first moves, they connected their house to the shrine—first with a series of sixteen crosses, later with wayside shrines, made of stone. To cope with the growing multitudes, the community quickly embarked on a major project. They built a larger shrine, and placed the Svat´ Hora chapel inside the main church. The premises were constructed with the idea of the entire sanctuary being a Marian castle.

With the completion of the church in the latter half of the 17th century, the shrine became the most famous one in the country. Not only did the faithful continue to come in greater numbers; droves of artists came as well. Prominent painters and sculptors were entrusted with the decoration of the new church.

Svat´ Hora then became not just the most famous place of pilgrimage in Bohemia, but also a virtual treasure chest of superb artworks. Along with adorning itself with spectacular architecture, the shrine also built up its wealth of several hundred sensational religious statues and pictures. Everyone from goldsmiths to metal workers, from stonemasons to carpenters, contributed to the extraordinary work.

In 1773, the Archdiocese of Prague took over the administration of the sanctuary for the next seventy years. Then, in 1861, the archbishop of Prague placed the care of the shrine in the hands of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). The new religious order remained here until April 13, 1950, when they were violently removed during the suppression of monasteries in the country. After forty years, they returned to Svat´ Hora by decree of the local cardinal.

With its inspiring architecture, the Svat´ Hora sanctuary continues to attract visitors from all over the world and has since set the pattern for other places of pilgrimage. In 1905 Pope Pius X conferred on it the title of “Basilica”—designating it symbolically as a royal palace of the Queen of Heaven. Today, Svat´ Hora has become one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in central Europe.

Situated at the top of a hill, the holy shrine of Svat´ Hora is within short walking distance of the small city of Príbram . To arrive by car from Prague, head south on Highway 4, then turn and head west on highway 18 to Príbram (located about thirty miles south of Prague). Although Príbram is not accessible by train, the city is easily accessible by bus from Prague and other nearby cities and towns. The main “Coronation” pilgrimage takes place every year on the third Sunday after Pentecost, and a second large pilgrimage occurs on the Sunday after the Feast of the Assumption (Aug. 15).

Kevin Wright is based in Bellevue, Washington.

----- EXCERPT: Catholic Traveler