The Kalisz Shrine in Poland: A High Place of Devotion to St. Joseph

The Polish sanctuary, one of the world’s oldest shrines dedicated to Jesus’ earthly father, is also closely associated with a miracle that occurred in the concentration camp of Dachau.

St. Joseph is honored at the shrine dedicated to him in Kalisz, Poland. The revered image of the Holy Family is shown; also shown: the Chapel of Martyrdom and Gratitude in the crypt of the shrine.
St. Joseph is honored at the shrine dedicated to him in Kalisz, Poland. The revered image of the Holy Family is shown; also shown: the Chapel of Martyrdom and Gratitude in the crypt of the shrine. (photo: EWTN Polska and Solène Tadié photos; also courtesy of the National Shrine of St. Joseph)

St. Teresa of Ávila used to say that, while the saints had the power to help the people of God in certain categories of things, St. Joseph had the unique power to intervene in all of the most diverse difficulties of life.

This has been the experience of countless pilgrims who implored his intercession in Kalisz, where one of the oldest and most important centers of devotion to St. Joseph in the world is based.

Located in central Poland, Kalisz is one of the country’s oldest cities and one of its two historic capitals, with Poznán.

Inside the late Baroque-style church and its imposing white tower, located in the city center, is a mysterious painting of the Holy Family that has attracted the most fervent crowds since the 18th century.

One night in the early 1670s, an elderly gentleman named Stobienia, suffering from a serious illness that had paralyzed him, turned to St. Joseph to end his suffering and obtain for him the grace of a good death. The following night, the Virgin Mary’s Spouse appeared to him in a dream, promising him healing if he commissioned the creation of a painting of the Holy Family with the script “Go to Joseph” and offered it to the collegiate church in Kalisz.

Stobienia entrusted this work, with the details prescribed by St. Joseph, to an unknown Dutch painter of the school of Rubens. When he received the painting he commissioned, the old man kissed it in the most pious way and recovered the use of his legs.

Soon after the installation of the painting in Kalisz, graces began to abound, with the first to benefit from it being a certain Stanislaw Bartochowski, in 1673.

“Some 600 graces and miracles were recorded in the following years,” Father Jacek Plota, the shrine’s custodian, told the Register, showing a reprint of an 18th-century archive book. The abundance of reported miracles received through the intercession of St. Joseph in Kalisz has never waned, with the most recent one reported by the custodian last year.

Spiritual Meaning

The now-famous painting shows the Child Jesus with the Blessed Virgin Mary on his left and St. Joseph on his right, whose stance suggests that they are on the march. This movement initiated by St. Joseph symbolizes the return of humanity, redeemed by the cross, to God. Just above them, the Holy Spirit is represented, in accordance with Tradition, by the dove, above which sits God the Father.

The main theme evoked by this work is that of fatherhood, with the theological message that through following God the Father, St. Joseph — whose virginal fatherhood is represented by the white lily he holds in his left hand — is also a father to all the souls that inhabit this world.

“By clasping St. Joseph’s forefinger, the Infant Jesus accepts his role as a guardian, educator, while by holding Mary’s thumb, he recognizes her function as a mother,” Father Peter Krasuski, a priest in charge of guided visits in the shrine, said in an interview with the Register, adding that the way they both hold Jesus by the wrists and not by the hands serves to indicate a supernatural elevation.

Along with the Holy Family depicted horizontally, the Holy Trinity is also present in the vertical dimension of the painting. “The theology of this painting is very rich,” Father Krasuski said. “It favors adoration and contemplation.”

First Coronation of a St. Joseph Image

The popular devotion and the numerous reported miracles engendered by the presence of the precious painting in Kalisz marked the beginning of a golden age of devotion to St. Joseph in Poland that would last throughout the 18th century, inducing Polish Church authorities to recognize the painting as benevolent (imago gratiosa) in 1767 and then as miraculous (imago miraculosa) in 1770.

It was finally crowned and covered with silver in 1796 by Bishop Michał Kościesza Kosmowski, representing Pope Pius VI. This was the very first time in history that an image of St. Joseph was crowned, along with Jesus and Mary. This coronation slightly altered the original content of the painting, with the addition of two silver lilies to the left and right of Jesus and a scepter in the hands of the Virgin Mary.

The Diocese of Kujawy-Kalisz was established in 1818, and St. Joseph would later become its patron saint.

The Miracle of Dachau

But what made the miraculous significance of the painting known beyond the borders of Poland was undoubtedly the story of the priests of Dachau, who were saved from a massacre during the Second World War through the intercession of St. Joseph of Kalisz.

The Nazi-run Dachau concentration camp in Germany is known to have held a large number of priests, especially Polish ones, within its walls. It is estimated that of the 1,773 Polish priests and bishops imprisoned there during World War II, 868 were murdered by the Germans.

As the impending defeat of Germany became more and more apparent in April 1945, the head of the camp ordered its destruction by fire and the killing of all its prisoners. Suspecting the intentions of the Nazi officer, the priests of the camp, many of whom were from the regions around Kalisz, began a novena imploring the protection of St. Joseph with particular reference to this shrine.

The novena ended just a few days before the date on which the massacre should have taken place, April 29, 1945. The American army, which was gaining ground in Europe, planned to take control of the camp one day later, on April 30.

But as Providence would have it, without knowing the orders of the Nazi camp commander, a small group of soldiers was sent out to scout the camp a day earlier than planned, exactly three hours before the planned destruction of the camp

“The SS officers quickly surrendered when they saw the American soldiers because they thought it was a larger force from the U.S. Army,” Father Plota said. “After the camp was liberated, everyone was convinced it was St. Joseph of Kalisz who saved those people. The priests wrote a beautiful pledge in which they promised to spread the devotion to St. Joseph of Kalisz when they would come back home.”

“In a biblical way,” Father Plota added, “they discovered that St. Joseph could save them just as he saved Baby Jesus while running away from King Herod to Egypt.”

After the war, the Polish Bishops’ Conference proclaimed April 29 as the National Day of Martyrdom for Polish Clergy under the Nazi and communist regimes.

The hundreds of priests who survived Dachau continued to make pilgrimages to the shrine each year on this date to give thanks until their deaths. The last priest died in 2013, at the age of 100.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, a chapel was founded in the shrine church’s basement, as a thanksgiving for this miracle and to honor the memory of the martyred Polish priests in Dachau. A small museum with archive documents, priests’ personal items and other memories from the concentration camp was installed in a nearby room.

John Paul II’s Historic Visit

The popularity of the Kalisz shrine has been growing ever since, and the shrine was consolidated in the late 1960s with the foundation of Centrum Józefologiczne, the first international study center on St. Joseph, which initiated the holding of a number of events and conferences about him.

In 1978, Pope Paul VI elevated the church to the rank of a minor basilica. A few years later, on June 4, 1997, the visit of Pope St. John Paul II brought some 200,000 faithful to the site, all coming to venerate the image and honor St. Joseph. After praying at length at the feet of the statue of St. Joseph, laying flowers and kissing the altar, the holy Polish Pope recalled in his homily that the shrine was “a special place in the history of the Church and of the nation.” He then entrusted to the Blessed Mary’s Spouse all families and the defense of life in Poland and in the rest of the world.

Today, about 500,000 pilgrims visit the shrine each year. About 20 pilgrimages are organized annually so that all categories of society and the countless causes defended by St. Joseph are represented. Each month, a particularly popular Mass dedicated to couples is celebrated at the shrine, attracting husbands and wives from across the country.

It is also in Kalisz that, in 2021, the Polish bishops entrusted their entire nation to St. Joseph, within the framework of the Year of St. Joseph proclaimed by Pope Francis, once again reminding all the faithful, “Go to Joseph.”