Our Lady of Šiluva—also known as Our Lady of the Pine Woods—is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary housed in Šiluva, Lithuania, and its shrine is one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in the country. Referred to as ‘Lithuania’s greatest treasure’, this icon has a unique story, having played a central role the conversion of a town that was largely Calvinist.
Veneration of this icon goes back to the fifteenth century. In 1457, a man named Peter Giedgaudas, a diplomat, built the first church in Šiluva, dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. Having discovered this icon in Rome, he brought it back to this church and had it placed in the sanctuary where it was venerated for many years.
However, not even this tiny Lithuanian town would be immune from the effects of the Protestant Reformation.
In 1532, nearly the whole population of Šiluva, including the local governor, converted to Calvinism—that is, they became followers of the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) and his theology. Events in Šiluva reflected a broader move towards Protestantism in Lithuania at this time, resulting in a series of struggles over Church property throughout the country, with much of the Catholic Church’s land and property eventually being confiscated.
Many of the tensions between Protestants and Catholics during this period were over the significance of art and icons in worship. The ‘iconoclasm’ of many Protestant groups meant that churches were burned and religious objects destroyed in the belief they violated the first commandment to worship God alone.
The parish priest of the shrine, Fr John Holubka, feared that the church would be taken away, and so placed the icon of the Blessed Virgin in an ironclad box with a number of other items (including documents proving the Catholic Church’s ownership of the property) and buried them underground. Sure enough, authorities did come and seize the church soon after. It would end up being destroyed.
Decades passed, and it was only in 1608 that some children, while minding sheep in Šiluva, witnessed an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They reported to the rest of the village that they had seen a beautiful woman holding an infant and weeping. This apparition happened near the spot where the old church had been.
When people heard of this, a crowd gathered, along with the local Calvinist pastor, and everyone beheld the same vision of the woman in tears.
The pastor asked the reason for her sorrow. She answered, ‘There was a time when my beloved Son was worshipped by my people on this very spot. But now they have given this sacred soil over to the ploughman and the tiller and to the animals for grazing.’
Many people initially dismissed the claims as ‘superstition’, but when the woman vanished from sight, a change began: the Catholic faith began growing again in Šiluva.
The most famous miracle associated with Our Lady of Šiluva has to do with the buried box. Apparently, Fr Holubka had been assisted in burying the ironclad box by a man who had since become old and blind. But when he heard about the apparitions, the old man told people about what he and Fr Holubka had done, and did his best to take them to where the box was buried. Upon reaching the site, his sight was miraculously restored, and he was able to help them dig it up.
Perfectly preserved inside were the painting, some liturgical vestments and consecrated items, and several important documents. This meant the land could properly be returned to the Catholic Church, and a new church was built on the site. It was simple and wooden and nowhere near big enough to fit the number of people who had converted, especially when, in 1629, nearly 11,000 people received Holy Communion there.
So eventually work began to build a new basilica on the site, and it was finally completed and consecrated in 1775.
This was not the end of Šiluva’s troubles, however. In 1796, Tsarist Russia annexed Lithuania and made every effort to prevent people from travelling to the shrine on pilgrimage. But their attempts were to no avail because it had become such a popular site.
And when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania from 1940 to 1990, the roads were heavily controlled and transportation limited, and rumours were spread by communists of dangerous diseases in the area around Šiluva in an attempt to prevent people from processing there. Some people were even imprisoned for taking part in such religious processions.
In 1991, a year after gaining its freedom from communist occupation, Lithuania was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary by Cardinal Vincentas Sladevicius and the Speaker of the Lithuanian Parliament Vytautas Landsbergis.
In 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the shrine and prayed there.
One of the prayers associated with Our Lady of Šiluva asks for the grace to be moved by Mary’s tears and to ‘rebuild the neglected shrines of our hearts’.
O Mother of God, we long to revive the forgotten glory of your apparition, to honour you even more as our Protectress, and with your aid to win from God a spirit of living faith for all this land. Amen.
Melbourne Catholic08 May 2023
Melbourne Catholic01 May 2023