24 feb. 2015

On the outskirts of Miercurea Ciuc city, in the neighborhood of Sumuleu Ciuc, surrounded by a wonderful natural setting lush with green hills and mineral springs, stands watch since several centuries the Franciscan Monastery that is home to a wonderworking statue of Virgin Mary.

For almost 450 years now, short before the Catholic Pentecost, this place becomes the spiritual center of the believers who come in crowds to pray at the statue of Our Lady in what is the grandest Catholic pilgrimage in Central and Eastern Europe.

The monastery, belonging to Observant Franciscans, has Virgin Mary as patron.

Settled in Sumuleu Ciuc in the first half of the fifteenth century, the Franciscan friars built a Gothic church which was transformed, completed and rebuilt several times in the following four centuries.

According to the documents made available by the abbot of the Sumuleu Ciuc monastery Bojte Mihaly, the Observants, the stricter-to-rule branch of the Franciscan order, settled here around 1440, as certifies the bull of Pope Eugene IV. This document allowed "seven years of indulgence to everyone who supports with any donation the church under construction in Sumuleu Ciuc or visits it in the week of the fest of the Visitation", which commemorates the visit of the Blessed Virgin to Elizabeth (July 2). The new Gothic church had inscribed on the main façade the year 1448, the date of the construction's completion.

The history of the Sumuleu Ciuc worshipping compound is closely related to the history of the place, to the wars that took place in the area, but also to the funding shortage that affected in certain periods the restoration of the ensemble and later on, its reconstruction.

The old church was burned by the Tatars in 1661, but the statue of the Virgin and St. Anton's shrine remained miraculously unscathed. Progressively, the statue was attributed with healing powers and increasingly more people came to Sumuleu for help.

As the years passed and the Pentecost pilgrimage become increasingly powerful, the already extended church could no longer accommodate the crowds, which is why at the end of the eighteenth century the idea emerged to build a larger church. The cornerstone was laid in 1804, but then the construction advanced with disruptions due to the lack of funds, and also because of various events, such as the great hunger of 1813 — 1817, a storm that affected works, or the death of the mason foreman. The church in baroque style was consecrated on August 20, 1876 by Bishop of Transylvania Mihály Fogarassy.

"The church of the monastery is a monumental construction with a 16 m long, 14 m wide and 15 m high bema. The nave is 40 m long, 22 m wide and 18 m tall," explains architect Tovissi Zsolt, who points out that a few fragments of the ancient medieval complex are preserved, incorporated in the new construction.

The service is accompanied by an organ built in 1931 according to the design of professor Geyer József by the Timisoara-based firm "Wegenstein and Sons."

The miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary, carved in lime wood, stands at the center of the altar of the church, catching the eye as soon as one steps into the building of worship. Also known as the "Woman Clothed with the Sun" or "The Weeping Madonna", the statue represents Virgin Mary shrouded in sunrays, with the moon and the earthly globe under her feet, a circle halo of 12 stars around her head.

The 2.27 m tall statue shows Mary holding the kingly scepter in her right hand and Infant Jesus on her left arm, both wearing crowns. The literature dates the statue in the early sixteenth century. "Besides keeping alight the cult of Virgin Mary, the statue of the church is important, on the one hand, because it is the only item preserved from the initial old church, and on the other hand because only few original statues of similar size and quality have been preserved for posterity," read the documents provided by the abbot of the monastery.

To reach to the miraculous statue of the Franciscan church, one climbs several steps; at her feet there is a prayer in Hungarian and Romanian for anyone to say. Seen from whichever side, the statue gives the impression that it weeps and her soft gaze follows you everywhere. The statue of Our Lady is credited with hundreds of miraculous healing and fulfilled wishes, with myriads of metal objects suspended on the walls of the church, donated by the people whose prayers were answered, bearing testimony to that.

The greatest miracle, consider both priests and believers, is the Catholic Pentecost pilgrimage that turned 447 years and gathers every year more than one hundred thousand people across Europe or even other continents.

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The Catholic Pentecost pilgrimage is the greatest in Central and Eastern Europe, and the authorities want it included in the UNESCO heritage.

The history of the pilgrimage to Sumuleu Ciuc begins in the year 1567, when Prince of Transylvania John Sigismund Zapolya tried to force the Catholics of the Szekler seat towns of Ciuc, Gheorgheni and Casin into conversion to the Unitarian faith. The locals gathered in Sumuleu under the leadership of parish priest Istvan from Joseni and set off to battle the army of the Prince. Meanwhile, those left behind in the church — elderly, women and children — prayed to the statue of Virgin Mary to help them defend their faith. 

Photo credit: (c) Gina STEFAN / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

After they successfully fended off the attack, the men turned warriors adorned their flags with birch twigs and returned to Sumuleu where the entire community offered prayers to the Lord and Our Holy Lady, expressing their gratitude for the victory.

In memory of this historic event, every year on Pentecost Saturday, the Catholics come on pilgrimage to the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Sumuleu Ciuc and pray to the miraculous statue. Over the decades, tens of thousands of people from all over the country, but also from Europe, the U.S. and even Australia, joined the Harghita locals; they come with faith in their souls to pray to Virgin Mary. Some pilgrims walk impressively long distances and say that fatigue and bad weather cannot hinder them from completing their pilgrimage. Some believers do not take the usual route to get to the outdoor altar where Mass is celebrated, but ascend the steep hill slope also known as the "Way of the Cross", which starts a few hundred meters from the cathedral and has 14 crosses along it, symbolizing the stations on Jesus' Calvary Way.

The groups of pilgrims, carrying flags showing where they come from, sing hymns and observe the centuries-long tradition of worshipping the statue of the Virgin Mary, confessing and receiving Communion and participating in the Mass dedicated to the Virgin, performed at the outdoor altar. They also recollect at the four old churches in the area: the Salvator Chapel, the Chapel of Suffering Jesus, the Chapel of Saint Anthony and the Chapel of Saint John of Nepomuk.

"Our souls are at peace in this great celebration. Everybody sings, it's a spiritually uplifting atmosphere, it seems that angels are flying with us, it's as if the Holy Mother holds us in her arms. It's an awesome atmosphere," said this year a 60-year old pilgrim from the town of Joseni, from where father Istvan once set off to face the army of the Prince. All those who reach Sumuleu are convinced that the Virgin will help them and will strengthen their faith.

Photo credit: (c) Gina STEFAN / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

Every year, the pilgrimage has a motto inspired from the Bible and the speaker at the service is different, every time. "At the Sumuleu celebration of Pentecost the people come driven by the desire to meet with God and to pay their respects and bring homage to Virgin Mary. The motto of this year's Pentecost pilgrimage is a quote from the Gospel of Luke: 'Blessed is the womb that bore You.' The Pentecost message this year is that we should show solidarity with life and not dive into a culture that leads to perdition, and for this we should pray especially to mothers," said the provost of the Franciscan cathedral, Urban Erik, during the pilgrimage this year. 
As the scale of the event expands with every year, the local authorities and representatives of the Franciscan Order took action for the pilgrimage to Sumuleu Ciuc to be included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

The documentation sent to UNESCO states that "the congregation of the believers in Sumuleu Ciuc provides researchers of the intangible heritage with one of the most complex frames for the study of mentalities and religious practices today. Not in the last place, the pilgrimage is — and may stay in the future — an effective instrument to enhancing, developing and promoting the local heritage in its entirety."

Whatever the decision on the inclusion on the UNESCO list will be, the Pentecost pilgrimage to Sumuleu Ciuc and the Franciscan Monastery will keep on drawing every year tens of thousands of faithful seeking a bit of comfort and spiritual tranquility. AGERPRES 

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