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Saturday, June 20, 1998

Polish priest raises a rival for Lourdes

By NEIL BOWDLER / The Guardian

LICHEN, Poland -- In the windswept flatlands of central Poland a cathedral is taking shape that may one day rival Lourdes as Europe's great center of pilgrimage.

The massive edifice, inlaid with colored marble from all over the world, is being built to house a tiny 18th-century portrait of Our Lady -- and a copy at that.

Lichen Basilica is the dream of one man -- an aging Marian priest with a passion for architecture who has devoted himself to turning his tiny hamlet into a religious Disneyland.

The Rev. Eugeniusz Makulski's cathedral will be the seventh biggest in Europe when it's finished. "If only it was just a touch bigger," says Adam Luczak, leaning on a spade and squinting at the miracle that is mushrooming on the other side of his garden wall, "it would be the fifth biggest."

Luczak has high hopes of a boom in his religious paraphernalia business. Pilgrims will need rosaries, plastic madonnas and all manner of novelties. In the meantime, he has constructed a viewing platform in his attic in anticipation of any future papal visit.

One door up the dusty street on which most of Lichen's inhabitants live, a young woman stands behind the counter of the village shop. Just the mention of the basilica is enough to light up her eyes. "A beautiful thing," she gushes.

Similar expressions of adoration can be found in the Book Of Donors from the thousands of (mainly Polish) pilgrims who have funded the building work to date. There are, though, a couple of discordant notes: "Give the money to the poor, you thieves!" reads one entry, subsequently scribbled out. "Only a madman could build such a thing," reads another.

Makulski shrugs his shoulders. "A madman?" he asks, shuffling around the massive building site. "Why? People built beautiful things in the past."

Nor does he have much time for those who bemoan the wastefulness of constructing a temple to seat 20,000 in a rural backwater of a poor country. "I must execute the will of the donors. They gave the money for the building of a church and not a hospital for those with venereal disease. Pilgrims come to Lichen and they don't have anywhere to pray. They freeze or get soaked standing outside."

Above him, the basilica is taking shape in reinforced-concrete columns and beige-colored brick. Nearly four years into the building program, the 130-foot-high nave and transept walls are nearing completion. The circular shell of the presbytery, which is to be capped with a golden dome rising 300 feet above the altar, is racing skywards.

The front entrance, "the Portico Of Archangels," is already on view in all its grandeur: eight classical columns crowned in gold oak leaves, before a grand Vaticanesque staircase and, behind, ballustrades and windows that, in accordance with the architect's wishes, "shine in the sun like a mature blade of wheat."

Yet the bespectacled priest's pride and joy is a marble-floored chapel deep in the heart of the crypt, now furnished and able to seat 3,000. "Materials from all over the world," he beams -- green marble from Brazil, pink marble from Spain, yellow from Hungary, more green from India, white from Italy.

Just a prelude, he hints, to the crypt's 107 side-chapels, which will be dedicated to each of Poland's Roman Catholic martyrs -- "priests, monks and sacred figures murdered by the Nazis."

The basilica is a colossal offering to mark the passing of 2,000 years since the birth of Christ. This being staunchly Catholic Poland, the aim is to coax a sinning nation back to the arms of its eternal savior, the Madonna. In particular, to Our Lady, The Sorrowful Queen Of Poland -- a tiny 18th-century copy of an earlier portrait that will form the centerpiece of the shrine.

According to Lichen legend, a shepherd was guided by the Madonna herself to the portrait, which depicts a forlorn-looking figure sporting Poland's national symbol, a crowned white eagle, on her breast. The shepherd claimed that she had appeared before him in 1850 with apocalyptic warnings of bloody wars and plague if the Polish did not mend their ways. She also predicted the portrait would one day be housed in a wonderful shrine that would be built by the angels if man lacked the means.

The shepherd's apparition went largely unheeded until the European cholera epidemic of 1852, when thousands flocked to the portrait after reports of miraculous cures. The pilgrims are still coming -- more than a million of them every year.

Makulski has been dreaming of a palace for Lichen's queen since he arrived here 33 years ago. He claims to have had a vision of the future sanctuary as he drove along the dusty road that leads to the village -- of a "beautiful basilica with bright walls and countless towers capped with gold crowns against a clear blue sky."

During the 1970s and '80s, he designed and built an entire complex of churches and chapels, mixing baroque, gothic and folkloric styles to produce a strange ecclesiastical theme park.

The surreal effect is bolstered by the presence in Lichen of "Golgotha" (Calvary), a bizarre maze of rubble and colored-glass grottoes through which pilgrims are encouraged to trace Christ's journey to the cross. The basilica was left until last, because such a grand project was unthinkable during the Communist years.

Makulski rejected seven designs before deciding on that of Polish architect Barbara Bielecka. What he wanted was "a church like they used to build in the old days -- quiet, serious, traditional."

What Bielecka produced was a design that, by her own admission, was anchored in the classical traditions. "Retrospection is a characteristic of our times ... and the building cites classical forms freely and willingly."

In deference to Makulski's patriotic tastes, there are also many Polish references. The columns possess a slenderness and delicacy inspired by those of the Renaissance court of Wawel Castle in Krakow, while the huge 420-foot spire that will be erected next to the basilica bears more than an accidental resemblance to the Baroque spire that adorns the Jasna Gora monastery of Czestochowa, home of the Black Madonna.

Makulski's immediate concern is funding. Hope of support from the church itself is out of the question, he says. "Every bishop's building a church on his territory."

The Polish builders, however, are confident the money will be found. The key, they believe, is exploiting the fashion for religious tourism: they plan a three-star hotel, complete with fitness club, restaurant and health clinic for the discerning pilgrim.

Makulski, his health failing, is doubtful that he'll see the basilica finished -- he expects it to take at least 10 more years. He has no doubt, though, that his masterpiece will be completed. If humanity fails, he looks forward to supervising the reinforcements of angels promised by the Madonna.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)


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