St. Anthony of Padua( Św. Antoni Padewski) is the patron saint of innumerable churches, parishes and sanctuaries all over Poland and it is estimated that over 198 towns derive their name from the name of St. Anthony. There is hardly a church in Poland without an altar or a statue of this saint not to mention roadside figures and chapels. The chapel of St. Anthony, carved in salt in Wieliczka, one of the oldest chapels in the mine dating to the 17th century. The first mass said in the chapel for the miners, who also took him on as a patron because they searched for “white gold,” i.e,, salt, was in 1698.
Chapel of St. Anothony in Wieliczka Salt Mine from old postcard. Public domain.
St. Antholny proved to be an excellent preacher and a person with deep theological knowledge. He began to preach the word of God earnestly as an itinerant preacher. He is usually invoked in finding lost or stolen things. “Św. Antoni, dopomóż odszukać koni!” St. Anthony help us find our horse, says the old proverb/prayer that was invoked with lost (or sometimes stolen) horses.
The history of praying to St. Anthony for lost items can be traced back to an incident in Anthony’s own life when he had lost a book of psalms that was very important to him for teaching students in his Franciscan order. A novice who had grown tired of living religious life decided to depart the community and also took Anthony’s psalter with him. Upon realizing his psalter was missing, Anthony prayed it would be found or returned to him. The novice became conrite over his actions and was not only moved to return the psalter to Anthony but returned to the Franciscan Order as well. Shortly after his death people began praying through Anthony to find or recover lost and stolen articles.
St. Anthony of Padua is generally depicted in a brown Franciscan habit, having taken vows with the Franciscan order who spread his popularity throughout Poland. He is typically portrayed holding the child Jesus (who was to have appeared to him) in his arms, or a lily (symbol of a pure life devoted to God), or a book (he was canonized as a Doctor of the Church) or all three. His feast day is celebrated today, the 13th of June.
Excerpted from upcoming book: Spirit of Place: The Roadside Shrines of Poland by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Photo of St. Anthony shrine by Michał Zalewski located in Zwiartów, Lublin region, eastern Poland.
The Caravaca (Karawaka) Cross
Although there are many various shapes symbolizing the cross, the most familiar to many of us is the Latin cross, the form on which Christ was crucified. When we look at the numerous roadside shrines and crosses across Poland’s landscape, we can sometimes see a cross with two horizontal cross pieces. Typically, the upper cross beam is shorter than the lower one but in Poland sometimes the two beams are the same length. This is called a Caravaca cross, called karawaka, in Polish.
These crosses, chiefly made of wood, but in later years, of metal, were usually erected at the beginning and end of the village or town with the faith that they would prevent the entrance of the “bad air” into the town and thus protect the inhabitants from contracting communicable diseases. The two-armed (sometimes, three armed) were also called krzyż choleryczny, or cholera crosses, referring to the cholera epidemics that raged through Poland, often decimating entire populations.
From the time of the Middle Ages, here were all kinds of epidemics such as typhoid, typhus, and the bubonic plague that swept through various regions of Europe, including Poland. There was very little knowledge of what carried diseases at the time. Much of it was attributed to "bad air" and everyone turned to God with prayers to contain or reverse the epidemics and also by erecting crosses, the strongest symbol of the Christian faith, to protect them. Written on the crosses were written the words " Od powietrza, głodu, ognia i wojna zachowaj nas Panie." (From air, hunger, fire and war, save us Lord.) Help was also sought through prayer to other saints such as St. Roch or St. Rozalia who, according to folk tradition, were given special powers to negate pestilential air.
The first crosses with two horizontal cross arms as a means to protect against epidemics began in a Spain town by the name Caravaca de la Cruz and it is from this Spanish town that the Polish word karawaka is derived. The city contained a relic, splinters of the Holy Cross in the shape of a cross with two horizontal cross beams. The relic was credited with miraculous powers protecting the town from pestilence. News of this spread quickly throughout all of Spain and Europe. It reached Poland by the second half of the 17th century through the efforts of the Jesuits. Karawaki began to be erected all over the country. For that reason, it is also often called krzyż hispanski, the Spanish cross.
Besides being found at various crossroads, entrances and exits to towns and villages, the karawaki were also placed near cemeteries or often located far from the rest of the town at the site where epidemic victims had to be buried in mass graves. Such a cross at a burial site was both a protective measure to keep the disease away, but also acted as a reminder of the loss of souls and the need to remember them in prayer.
Photo from Wikipedia. Cross from Łomza(Kurpie region)
The Roadside Shrines of Poland
In this time of the corona virus, for the good of humanity, Pope Francis, the bishops and every local dioceses of America have been forced to close their doors to their congregations. In this crisis, both physically and spiritually, many faithful acutely feel the loss of Mass and the comfort of Holy Communion. This closing of doors is a first for me, as it is for the people of this country, but in the history of Poland we see that it is not.
From the times of the Middle Ages, epidemics such the plague, cholera and, dysentery raged throughout Poland wiping out entire villages, killing young and old. People stayed in their homes, afraid of venturing out further than the confines of their village. During the German occupation of Poland, churches were closed, often converted into warehouses or stables. Sacred liturgical vestments, chalices, etc., were pillaged. Priests sent to their deaths and nuns sent to concentration camps and forced labor. Many centuries-old roadside shrines and crucifix’s, such a predominant fixture of the Polish countryside, were destroyed. But the German’s didn’t manage to destroy them all and it was here, at the foot of a roadside shrine, that the people said their prayers and found comfort.
In addition, churches in Poland in centuries were not as numerous as they are today. Small villages often lacked their own church and the faithful had to travel many miles to hear Mass, either by foot or horse and wagon. If that was the case, the faithful visited the nearest shrine to pray alone or together.
It is no accident that when we look at all the little chapels, statues and crosses that dot Poland’s cities and countryside, we often see it surrounded by a fence. Very often there is a bench. The fence is to remind us, if the statue itself does not, that this is a sacred place. The bench is an invitation to sit down and pray. Every cross, every shrine of a saint, every small chapel was blessed by the church, and provides a sacred space in which to pray.
I t is no different in today’s world. Any cross, anywhere, can serve as a place to say the stations of the cross during Lent. Any figure on church grounds or at a cemetery is a place to say the rosary, to chant a litany to our favorite saint, to seek intercession in this time of crisis. We know that Poland has been doing it for centuries. And it has endured.
Photo by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Next posting: Karawaki: The Roadside Cross against Epidemics
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.