The Two Towers on the Danube

Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows, Maria Taferl, Austria

The faithful have been climbing 800 feet above the Danube River for more than 300 years.

Their destination: a two-towered basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows.

Blessed are they who are called to this place during Holy Week.

The Basilica of Maria Taferl — Mary of the Tablet, located about 70 miles west of Vienna, Austria, in the mountain hamlet of Maria Taferl (population: 872) — is known throughout Europe as a place of prayer, praise and peace. Here many illnesses have been cured, not a few injuries healed and countless prayers answered.

The site on which the edifice sits once saw rituals of pagan sacrifice. Today, the original Celtic taferlstein (pagan-altar block) rests just outside the church. The two towers, visible from miles around, loom over this pagan stone, dramatically attesting to the victory of Christianity over paganism.

The history of this shrine is a long and beautiful story of trust in God and the intercessions of Our Lady. In 1633, a cattle herder from a local village tried to chop down an oak on a nearby hillside. The ax slipped twice, severely cutting the man's legs. As he writhed in pain, he noticed that the tree had a crucifix mounted on a taferl (flat block of wood). Realizing the sacrilege he had almost committed, he prayed to God for forgiveness and asked for the healing of his legs. The wounds ceased bleeding and he was able to get home unassisted — on healed legs. As word spread, pilgrimages to this seemingly miraculous place began. They continue to this day.

In 1641, a local magistrate had a dream. The Blessed Mother appeared to him and asked that he replace the decayed crucifix with a small statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. He readily complied. A great sufferer of deep bouts of depression, he was cured immediately of this psychological ailment.

Another 10 years passed and the faithful continued to come to Maria Taferl. In 1658, sightings of lights and white-garbed angelic figures were reported. These apparitions were often linked to accounts of miraculous healings. Finally, the bishops of Passau and Regensburg authorized an official inquiry into the cures and the reports of apparitions. In 1659, 51 witnesses were examined on oath at the nearby Pochlarn Castle. One of the witnesses to the apparitions — which seemed to be of angels descending toward the tree — was the daughter of the Protestant minister who lived across the Danube from the tree.

No official verdict came from the Church leaders, but in consequence of this investigation, building of a pilgrimage church began at the site. On March 19, 1660, eight Masses were celebrated for a crowd of more than 1,000 pilgrims. One month later, the foundation stone was laid for the “Church to Our Lady of Sorrows” — a building that is still standing, a landmark to faith and trust in Mary's intercessory powers. The high altar was built around the original tree and statue.

Pilgrims’ Perseverance

Through the years, Maria Taferl continued to attract pilgrims, even in the face of adversity. In 1755, a fire burned the original tree and statue of Our Lady, but a replica was soon installed and pilgrims continued to stream in. In 1760, the centenary year, more than 700 processions were held and 19,000 Masses were said in honor of Our Lady of Maria Taferl.

In the Josephine era (mid-1700s to mid-1800s), the era when Emperor Josef decreed anti-Church laws in Austria, pilgrimages were officially banned. Yet pilgrims continued to pray to Maria Taferl. In the 1800s, the church's silver, in clu -d ing the precious vessels and many lovingly crafted ornaments, had to be given over to the government. Yet pilgrims continued to give thanksgiving offerings to Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows. During the two world wars of the 20th century, the church continued to incur setbacks. Yet pilgrims continued to journey up the hill from the river to pray to Our Lady.

In 1947, the pilgrims’ faith in Maria Taferl was richly rewarded when Pope Pius XII raised the church to the status of minor basil-ica. The Vatican has not defined it as a “miracle site” such as Lourdes or Fatima; it has, however, commended the site as one at which hearts are blessed with deeper faith and minds converted to Christ through Mary. Pius XII mentioned the many miracles and signs in the papal brief that elevated Maria Taferl to a minor basilica.

Since that time, the shrine has welcomed more than 200,000 pilgrims each year. Some come to pray to the miraculous image, some come in personal thanksgiving, some come to admire the glorious edifice's Baroque ornamentation. Many priests were required to attend to the needs of these faithful; at one point, 25 were in residence. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate continue to attend to the shrine and the throngs of faithful it draws.

A spot not to miss is the schatzkammer (treasury). This is located behind the high altar on a floor above the main sanctuary. Here are the records of the faithful, housed in cabinets from the 1600s. The walls are covered with paintings illustrating the cures and the stories of favors received — written in longhand.

Here are the precious possessions gifted to Our Lady of Sorrows in thanksgiving for favors bestowed.

In one spot is an ancient pocket watch alongside a picture of a young priest. Seems this man was cured of a hand disease and was

thus able to fulfill his priestly vocation. The man's father, who had been making pilgrimages to Maria Taferl for his son, gave his confirmation watch as a thank-you gift for this blessing bestowed on his son.

Not far from there is a an amateur painting depicting the healing of a woman who impaled her hand on a butcher's knife. The knife is attached to the frame for further illustration. The stories of the faithful abound in this room, where the ceiling is frescoed with the history of the shrine.

What a glorious history it is. And what a beautiful place for prayer, praise and peace this is — especially during Holy Week, as we remember the darkest hours Our Lady of Sorrows ever saw.

Mary C. Gildersleeve writes from Gaming, Austria.