Cardinal Karol Wojtyła presided over the formal approval of the apparition in 1977, shortly before becoming Pope John Paul II.
The Shrine of the Mother of God in Gietrzwałd (GIETCH-vald) is about 210 km north of Warsaw. It marks the only site in Poland where the Church has approved an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Our Lady appeared in Gietrzwałd from June 27 to September 16, 1877. Two Polish peasant women testified to having seen her: Justyna Szafryńska, 13, returning from her pre-communion examination and, three days later, 12 years old. old Barbara Samulowska, praying the Rosary. Samulowska had her vision at the foot of a maple tree in front of the church. She described Our Lady as seated on a throne among angels, with Jesus on her lap. When Samulowska asked who she was, she replied, “I am the Most Holy Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception.” Asked what she required of them, Our Lady replied that they prayed the Rosary daily. Among the other questions, there were two: “Would the Church of the Kingdom of Poland be liberated and would the orphan parishes of southern Warmia have priests again?” Our Lady replied that if people prayed fervently, the Church would not be persecuted and these parishes would find priests.
These last two questions refer to the pastoral conditions that existed in 1877. In 1877, there was “Poland” only in the hearts of its inhabitants. In 1877, this small town was called “Dietrichswalde”. It was part of Prussia and was near the border of the “Kingdom of Poland”, which was simply the title applied to an administrative unit of the Russian Empire, devoid of any sovereignty. Prussia and Russia, along with Austria, had collectively swallowed whole swathes of Polish territory between 82 and 103 years earlier; a revived Poland would not appear on the maps of Europe for 41 years.
Catholics in Poland lived most freely in the Austrian partition, as the Habsburgs were Catholic – even though they wanted to subject the Church to their state. Orthodox Russia generally persecuted Catholics, and this was particularly the case in Poland after the failed 1863 uprising against Muscovite rule. Otto von Bismarck was in the midst of his own Kulturkampf (1871-1887), intended to subject the Church to the Prussian State and to prefer Protestantism to it.
Our Lady’s responses stimulated the Polish spirit because even though Poles were politically under foreign dictators, their identity was closely tied to the Church and Blessed Mother indicated that at least the Church could have enough freedom to function and have priests.
Pilgrims started coming to Gietrzwałd almost immediately. Because Gietrzwałd was part of a German diocese, local church authorities acted with reserve in the face of the claimed apparitions. The immediate reaction of the German press was that the events in Gietrzwałd were politically charged dangers to the state and the result of Polish superstition and religious fanaticism. Pilgrims and priests were fined. The local bishop, Filip Krementz, undertook an investigation, first through the pastor and then through the cathedral chapter, who reported that the seers appeared to be acting sincerely and devoutly. The events themselves brought about a profound religious and Marian revival in the parish and spread throughout Prussian and Russian Poland. Father Augustin Wiechsel, parish priest of Gietrzwałd for 40 years, promoted devotion and the religious renewal it engendered, even at the cost of numerous lawsuits and fines for promoting Marian devotion.
Of course, the apparitions would also have political consequences. Because Our Lady spoke to the visionaries in the local Polish dialect (so they could understand), Polish Catholics in Warmia began an effort in the mid-1880s to petition the Prussian authorities to allow Polish, rather than compulsory German, to be used in schools. .
Formal ecclesiastical approval of the Gietrzwałd apparitions took place on September 11, 1977, 100 years after the events, by Józef Drzazga, Bishop of Warmia. The celebration was presided over by the Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, who 13 months later would become the Bishop of Rome, John Paul II.
As for the two visionaries, Barbara Samulowska (1865-1950) has greater significance for Americans. She entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of Saint-Vincent de Paul, as she says, according to the will of Our Lady, and began her novitiate in 1884 in Paris, in the chapel where Our Lady had revealed the Medal Miraculous. She made her solemn vows in 1889, taking the name Stanisława in religion, and was sent for missionary work in Guatemala. Except for small interludes in France and Poland, she would spend almost the rest of her life working with the poor in Guatemala and Antigua, dying in the former country in 1950. Her beatification process was concluded. at the diocesan level in 2006 and is now in Rome. She is entitled “Servant of God”.
While Gietrzwałd is now associated with these Marian apparitions, the cult of Our Lady preceded them by centuries. The image of Our Lady of Gietrzwałd, on the high altar, dates from at least 1583, when Bishop Marcin Kromer called her miraculous in his diocesan chronicles. Our Lady is depicted in a dark blue robe, holding the Child Jesus, dressed in a long red robe, in her left hand. Two angels hold a banner declaring: “Ave Maria Caeolorum, Ave Maria Angelorum”. The character was first crowned in 1717.
Following the 1877 apparitions, the Prussian authorities, already ill-disposed towards the image, ordered it to be moved to a less visible location or even removed. It was eventually sited on a side altar at that time, but restored to its place of honor today.
On the last day of Our Lady’s apparitions in 1877, she is said to have blessed a local spring whose waters are believed to have healing powers for the sick. From the maple in which Our Lady appeared, a cross was made. the Gietrzwałd Sanctuary now attracts nearly a million pilgrims each year. It was proclaimed a minor basilica by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Live transmissions from the sanctuary can be found here.
In the next article, we will go to the other end of Poland to visit what was a place of childhood pilgrimage for Karol Wojtyła: Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.