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
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
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
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,
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
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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