The red-roofed village of Marija Bistrica on the slopes of Medvednica mountain in Krapina-Zagorje county is the largest and most important pilgrimage site in Croatia. What steals the show here is the Marija Bistrica Church, with its Black Madonna statue, and The Stations of the Cross path up Calvary Hill.
Marija Bistrica is about 40 km northeast of Zagreb, the first written mention of the settlement Bistrica dates back to 1209 AD, as the possession of Croatian-Hungarian king Andrew II. Documents from 1334 first mention the church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Marija Bistrica has an old Marian shrine of the Black Madonna which is a place of pilgrimage and visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. The shrine in this scenic village attracts up to 800,000 visitors a year, many of whom mount the ” The Stations of the Cross” behind the church. This arrangement of the 14 stations of the cross is adorned with sculptures created by Croatian artists and leads to Calvary Hill.
Shrine in Marija Bistrica became the national shrine in 1715 when the Croatian parliament built a big votive altar at the church in Marija Bistrica. As Marian devotions grew and many prayers got answered by seeking intercession of Saint Mary of Bistrica, the shrine’s church became tight and too small so Bistrica’s parish priest Juraj Žerjavić had the church and the parish house with arcades extended and reconstructed following the designs of architect Friedrich von Schmidt and his student Hermann Bollé. The new church was built in Neo-Renaissance style.
The first large celebration in Marija Bistrica was on 15 August 1971 when the XIII International Marian Congress was held there. That year, the bishops proclaimed the shrine Croatian national shrine of Saint Mary of Bistrica.
The Queen of Croatia
The reason that The Basilica of Our Lady of Bistrica has remained such a focal point throughout the history of the town is due to the black Madonna. Officially crowned Queen of Croatia by the Archbishop of Zagreb in 1935. This not actually black, but rather a wooden relic that was created by an artist who remains unknown and was once inside a small chapel located on Vinski Hill. When the Ottomans invaded the town in the year 1545, a local priest placed her inside a church wall underneath the stained-glass window for protection. Shortly after that, he died taking her secret hiding location to his grave.
In 1588, it was reported that a bright light began shining from a certain place within the church wall, and once that location was excavated, the black Madonna was found once again. Throughout history, she was hidden again and was also inside the church when it was on fire, yet somehow she has remained intact.
It is believed that the statue was carved around 1500 AD, with the current church erected between 1879-1882. In 1880, a fire ravaged the interior of the church, saving only the altar upon which the Black Madonna rested. Thus giving further evidence to the miraculous nature of the statue. The church has been expanded several times to accommodate the many thousands of pilgrims who flocked to Bistrica to be blessed by the Miraculous Virgin Mary over the years since, explaining why it was not the small, nondescript church I had anticipated.
Now the church and the town have become Croatia’s largest Catholic pilgrimage site with up to 800,000 pilgrims each year, coming to pray to the Queen of Croatia. Starting from the first Sunday after Easter all the way through to the last Sunday in October there are thousands of organized pilgrim groups, solo travelers and locals also taking a walk to pray along the stations of the cross.
You’ll need to allow at least 30 mins, preferably longer to wander and explore the paintings, alleys and, of course, kneel at the alter with the black Madonna.
Calvary Hill and the Stations of the Cross
In the 20th century, the shrine of Marija Bistrica was complemented by the monumental Calvary on the hill next to the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Construction of the Calvary started during World War II, and the decorating began based on the ideas of Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac. The aim of the Calvary was to make an authentic replica of the Stations of the Cross where worshippers could really feel Christ’s suffering. There are fourteen stations spanning the entire hill, and are creations of famous Croatian artists including established Croatian sculptors such as Ante Orlić, Mario Ujević, Stanko Jančić, Krunoslav Bošnjak, Ante Starčević and Josip Poljan.
If you are not familiar, the concept of the Station of the Cross (which can be found all over the world) is designed for believers to reflect on the suffering of Christ as he made his way to his crucifixion. The most popular pilgrimage, Velika Gospa, is on 15 August.
Visited by the Holy Father
The most glorious day in the history of Marija Bistrica was 03 October 1998 when Pope John Paul II visited Marija Bistrica and proclaimed the deceased Zagreb Archbishop and pilgrim to Marija Bistrica, Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac as blessed.
From the early hours in the evening of the 02 October thousands of pilgrims were taking part in various religious ceremonies thus preparing themselves religiously for the meeting with the Holy Father and beatification of the Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac. The Holy Father set forth from the nunciature on the 03 October around 8 a.m. in his personal car along the road over Sljeme, through Stubičke Toplice to Marija Bistrica. A few kilometers before the entrance into Marija Bistrica he switched to “popemobile” and continued to the Church in the open. When hundreds of thousands of pilgrims noticed the “popemobile” a loud applause was heard. The Holy Father held a service concelebrating with seven cardinals, seventy bishops and more than one thousand priests.
In a holy service in Rome on 27 April 2014 Pope Francis proclaimed the Pope John Paul II as blessed who thus became the thirty-first Pole the saint within the Catholic Church.
Summer in Marija Bistrica
The manifestation Summer in Marija Bistrica offers various cultural, spiritual, sports and other entertaining activities during the summer with an emphasis on the 13 July – the celebration of the festivity of Saint Mary of Bistrica and the Day of the municipality and parish Marija Bistrica. Summer in Marija Bistrica encompasses various subcategories of events and manifestations such as: the Cycle race Four chapels, the Meeting of the retired people of Krapinsko–zagorska County, the Happy Children’s Day, Bistrica’s Door Ajar, By mountain beltway around Marija Bistrica, Bistrica night, Procession with candles from Marija Bistrica to Vinski vrh, the Folklore Days Laz, the Cycle race Selnica – Gusakovec, Sports Summer in Bistrica. The manifestation lasts from June to August.
Advent in Marija Bistrica
Advent in Marija Bistrica,a place of centuries-long tradition of pilgrimage, old trades and cultural events has always been celebrated and marked in a special way. First organized manifestation Advent in Marija Bistrica was held in 2010 and since then it has been held every December. Advent is marked by occasional cultural-artistic program, Christmas fair and numerous workshops for children and adults. Advent at the national shrine is special and its atmosphere is in the sign of spirituality, family, cultural and traditional values.
Waiting for New Year at Midday
In the very end of rich Advent programme in the small place of Marija Bistrica where is situated the most famous shrine to Virgin Mary, every year there is New Year’s party at midday. So if you want to wait for New Year twice in the same day, be sure to come to Marija Bistrica. The cheerful programme starts at 10:30 pm and it includes music performances and occasional catering offer.
Marija Bistrica is situated only 40 km from Zagreb and it is connected with the capital city with frequent bus and railway lines.
International railway and bus station are situated in Zagreb, as well as international airport, which means that Marija Bistrica is very well connected with the rest of the world. Bus connections – Bus station Zagreb (35 km), Zlatar (10 km), Stubičke Toplice (25 km). Railway connection from Zlatar Bistrica (7 km) and you can get there by bus or taxi. International airport in Zagreb is directly connected with many European cities.
If you are coming by your own car from the direction of Zagreb, the easiest way to Marija Bistrica is by motorway A2 Zagreb-Zabok towards the north of Croatia. Drive approximately 27 km and take the exit Zabok-Oroslavlje. Turn right on regional road number 24 to Bedekovčina and drive 10 km. Then turn to road 24 for Zlatar Bistrica and drive 6 km to Marija Bistrica.
If you are coming from the direction of Macalj, follow the motorway A2 to the south. Drive for about 15 km and turn on the exit Zabok-Oroslavlje.