During the Reformation, a painting of the Virgin and Child, placed in the first chapel to be built in the Lithuanian town of Siluva in 1457, came under threat when local Calvinist authorities ordered the confiscation of all church property.
The parish priest had other ideas! He believed that Calvinism would be short-lived, so in 1532, he decided to protect their church’s possession and to wait things out. Helped by a parishioner, he hid the title deeds to the chapel site, the vestments, sacred vessels and painting of Our Lady within an iron-bound wooden box, which they buried near a large rock, planning to recover the precious items as soon as it was safe. Calvinism, however, proved to be of longer duration than the priest had anticipated. He died without having a chance to retrieve the precious articles. Eventually only his helper, blind and almost one hundred years old, remembered the little church’s existence.
One day in 1608, in the fields close to Siluva, small children played as their sheep grazed. Suddenly they heard crying. Looking towards a large rock, they saw a strange light surrounding a beautiful young woman and her baby. She sobbed brokenheartedly. As the puzzled children stared, the pair disappeared. The youngsters rushed home to tell the town’s Calvinist pastor and their families what had happened. The pastor accused them of lying, but the children’s parents and neighbours were unsure. They needed to investigate further.
Next morning, the townsfolk gathered around the rock where the children had seen the young woman. There was nothing there...except for one angry pastor. Accusing them of “Romish superstition” and of “following Satanic influences,” he scolded his parishioners – and then stopped in amazement. There, on the rock, just as the children had described, was the young woman with the baby.
The pastor spoke first. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “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,” she replied, and vanished.
The townspeople decided that the woman and child were Mary and the infant Jesus, coming to recall them to their earlier faith. The site of the apparitions soon became a place of pilgrimage from across Eastern Europe, eventually requiring successively larger churches to accommodate the pilgrims. It is recorded that on the feast of Our Lady’s Birthday, 8 September 1618, more than 11,000 people received Holy Communion.
Rumours of the apparitions eventually reached the blind old man, who asked to be taken to the site. Immediately when he reached the rock his sight returned. He told his story to the amazed townsfolk. No longer blind, he pointed to where he and the priest had buried the wooden chest. The villagers dug and there it was, unharmed, with its contents intact, including the large paining of Our Lady and the Child.
Suppression and revival
In 1795, Russian forces occupied Lithuania and suppressed both religious freedom and the Lithuanian language. Restrictions were relaxed only after an uprising in 1904. Pilgrimages to Siluva resumed in 1905, and during that first year of freedom more than 30,000 people visited the shrine.
During the Communist era, pilgrimages were suppressed and the press forbidden to mention Siluva. Armed police blocked and patrolled the approach roads, banning cars within a radius of four miles of the shrine. The KGB followed vehicles travelling towards the town, fining or arresting their drivers and passengers. Pilgrims risked severe penalties. A Soviet monument replaced the statue of Our Lady in the town centre...and still the people kept coming.
On 8 September 1991, Lithuania was entrusted to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Act of Entrustment is preserved at the shrine of Our Lady of Siluva, where on 7 September 1993, during his own pilgrimage, Pope John Paul II prayed.