The Hills Are Alive With the Love of Mary

Prominent on the skyline just beyond Salzburg, Austria, two cream-and-white bell towers hint at great beauty hidden below.

Indeed, the entire baroque façade of the Basilica of Maria Plain is an invitation to admire the handiwork of man — and to step inside to revere the glory of God.

You need to do some climbing to reach the shrine, but you'll be in the good company of millions of pilgrims who have ascended this hill over the centuries. Among them: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was so moved by the ambience of holiness here that he composed his Coronation Mass for the Blessed Virgin Mary on this spot in 1779.

The story of this much-loved Austrian shrine begins in the 17th century. One night in 1633, a fire destroyed a Bavarian family's bakery. The only material thing to survive the blaze was a long-cherished picture of the Virgin and Jesus by an unknown artist. In fact, the holy image, TITLEd “Maria Trost” and depicting the Mother of God lifting a veil from the reclining Infant Jesus, escaped entirely unscathed. This celebrated beginning is illustrated on a paneled door that leads to the church's choir loft.

Word of the image's miraculous staying power soon spread throughout Austria and Lower Bavaria. In 1652, a Baron Rudolf of Grimming brought the image from Regen to Salzburg, building a chapel to house it on a hill above the growing city. This chapel is known as the Ursprungskapelle and can be visited today, although the beloved picture is ornately framed above the altar of the baroque basilica. The gift of the image to the people of Salzburg (and the subsequent building of a chapel for the honoring of the miraculous painting) is depicted on another of the choir-loft doors.

Benedictine Beginnings

By the 1670s, the picture's fame had made the site an immensely popular pilgrimage destination, making necessary the erection of a larger church. Giovanni Antonio Dario took three years, 1671 through 1673, to build the Church of Maria Plain, the façade of which resembles the Salzburg Cathedral in the city below. Three years later, the bishop of Salzburg consecrated the sanctuary. At the time of the solemn consecration, care of the estate was entrusted to the Benedictine monks. The Benedictines remained in charge until 1824, when the duties were turned over to the Convent of St. Peter.

Pilgrims continued to visit the shrine and grounds, walking the 20-minute path to the church and stopping to pray at the five small chapels erected along the uphill slope. Construction of these chapels, or Kalvarienberg (Calvary mountain), began in 1686; they are presently being restored. The final chapel, the Schmerzenskapelle depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, is the largest of the five and stands at the head of hill. From the top of Calvary, the view of Salzburg, with its multitude of Catholic Church steeples, is striking.

Inlaid on the basilica's façade are marble statues depicting the four Gospel writers. Over the main door is a marble relief of the Virgin and Child, both crowned in gold.

The interior of the church, cool in the heat of a Salzburg summer afternoon, is cream-colored marble with painted accents of dark blue and gold on the chancel, statuary and side altars, all in deference to the glory of Our Lady. The altar, housing the miraculous image above the tabernacle, is separated from the congregation by large, wrought-iron gates, separating earth from the heavenly presence.

Helps and Healings

Through the past 300 years, numerous healings and helps have been credited to this shrine. In 1751, through the donations of pilgrims and patrons of Maria Plain, the original painting was enhanced with gold and jewels, molded into crowns for the Virgin and Child. Pilgrims and believers have left tokens of their love and reverence for this shrine, enabling the picture to be framed in gold and silver and helping to fund the exquisite altar housing the image, as well as the rest of the awe-inspiring interior.

In 1952, on the 300th anniversary of the fire, the Church of Maria Plain was declared a “Basilica Minor” by Pope Pius XII. Six new bells were installed in the right tower in 1959; they ring daily at 11 a.m. and can be heard throughout the valley below. The basilica was completely renovated in 1974. In 1983, Pope John Paul II visited Maria Plain and prayed before the miraculous image.

The Wallfahrtsbasilika (Pilgrimage Basilica) supports an active parish in the Bergheim suburb of Salzburg. Daily Mass is celebrated twice per day; on Sundays and feast days there are four Masses. In addition, on Saturdays, Sundays and feast days, there is recitation of the rosary. The 10 a.m. Sunday and feast-day Masses are celebrated specifically for pilgrims.

German is the main language spoken at the basilica (though sometimes there's an English-speaking priest available for confession) — but here holiness has a way of transcending verbal limitations. Just say Ave Maria!

Mary C. Gildersleeve writes

Sister Scholastica Radel (left) and Mother Abbess Cecilia Snell of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, discuss the recent exhumation of the order's foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, in an interview with ‘EWTN News In Depth’ on May 30 at their abbey in Gower, Missouri.

‘Sister Wilhelmina Is Bringing Everyone Together’: Nuns Share Their Story in Exclusive TV Interview on EWTN

On ‘EWTN News In Depth,’ two sisters shared details of their remarkable discovery — revealing, among other things, that Sister Wilhelmina’s body doesn’t exhibit the muscular stiffness of rigor mortis and how the traditional habit of their African American foundress also is surprisingly well-preserved — and reflected on the deeper significance of the drama still unfolding.