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Aglona and Aglona Basilica
The most important Catholic spiritual centre in Latvia and the sacred site on a global scale, where every year on the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – on 15 August – hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive from all Eastern Europe, is located in Aglona, a picturesque Latgalian town surrounded by lakes.
Aglona Catholic Basilica is one of the most impressive churches in the Baltic States, and many legends are told about the miracles that have happened here.
Spiritual Centre for the tribes of the Balts
Scientists believe that in Aglona the nations of Balts have lived almost two thousand years before the Christ. Name “Aglona” has originated from the word “fir” (“egle” in Latvian language Latgalian dialect) – in ancient times this area was covered in thick fir forests, lakes and rivers.
Aglona has been the sanctuary of the ancient Balts tribe – letgali. However, this area was first mentioned in written documents in relation with the Lithuanian king Mindaugas – who was murdered here in 1236 along with his sons Rukli and Rupeiki, and buried on 12 September. Nowadays the country established by Mindaugas is considered to be the dawn of Lithuania. But there are scientists who are confident that Mindaugas’ intentions were even more extensive – he had planned to unite also other tribes of the Balts in a Christian country. By the way, the Queen mentioned in this legend, is Mindaugas’ wife Marta. She was the daughter of Madelani lord of the manor, but Madelani Castle Mound with the ancient town, which was a significant political and economic centre of that time, is located in the middle of Aglona district.
The formation of Aglona Catholic Church centre
In 1697 Landlady Ieva Justine Sostovicka with the support of the Livonian Bishop Nikolajs Paplavskis invited the Dominicans of Vilnius to form a monastery and a school in Aglona. The Sostvicki couple presented 17 villages with 90 houses for this new project – “In honour of the God and for the blessings of the Latvian nation”. In 1688 Prior of the Vilnius Dominican Monastery – father Remigijs Mosokovskis arrived in Aglona to build a monastery and a church in one of the letgali sanctuaries. Dominicans placed the painting of Our Lady in Aglona Church created after the sample of the icon in Trakai Church (Lithuanian). Several legends have been told about this icon, but all of them tell the same that the original has been switched and that the icon in Aglona is not the copy, but the real icon itself. The Church in Aglona was formed following the example of Trakai Basilica and it was dedicated to the honour of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well. In Aglona the third St Dominic Order was formed in which women as well as men were accepted, who were not willing to refuse their secular lives, but were following the Regulation of the Order, repented of their sins and devoted themselves to the work of mercy.
When the simple wooden church erected in 1699 was destroyed, from 1768 to 1780 a masonry monastery building was erected instead of it as well as an imposing Baroque style church with two 60 meters high towers. In 1824 Dominicans ordered expertise of the spring located next to the monastery. The analysis carried out in St Petersburg State Medical Academy proved that water from the holy spring could be used for medical purposes therefore a simple hospital was quickly erected for 10 patients. There was also a parish school in Aglona, where children were fully equipped with everything necessary for studies and life. In the 20s of the 19th century a Holy Seminar was opened in Aglona.
By including the present-day territory of Latvia into the Russian empire retaliation of Aglona monastery begun, although it was the only of the eight Catholic spiritual monasteries in Vitebska province, which was not closed. But the residents of it were driven away and the monastery was turned into a peculiar prison – the prisoners of it were the most active and non-compliant priests, as well as it was the last residence for old and sick priests. During the World War I the battalion headquarters, as well as an infirmary was located in Aglona Basilica monastery, but in 1918 when the bosleviki came in hopes to find hidden gold they vandalized the basements of the monastery and basilica and looted the burials.
During the first independence period of Latvia from 1918 to 1940 the Spiritual Seminar was established in Aglona, which was one of the best higher education institutions, gymnasium for men and later on – also gymnasium for women. In 1940 with the establishment of the Soviet rule, the properties of the Church were nationalized and transferred to state management, but the Catholic Priests were evicted and persecuted. During the World War II the persecution and cruel violence towards Catholic believers continued – it turned out that religious beliefs exposed danger to both sides – the Soviets as well as the Hitlerian Germans. During the Soviet rule the elimination of traditions and beliefs was highly prioritised.
In 1980 when the Catholics of Latvia marked the 200th anniversary of Aglona Basilica, the Roman Pope John Paul II awarded it the title of “Basilica Minoris”, but three years later promoted His Excellency, Bishop Julian Vaivods as the Cardinal. In 1989 for the first time in 50 years pilgrims were travelling from Riga to Aglona, who completed the whole way of several hundreds of kilometres on their feet singing and praying. On 15 August 1989 during the Celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the first time after many years the euharistical procession took place outside the church enclosure, but in the garden a public service was first held in Latvian language.
The Holy Site, the Holy Spring and the Healing Icon
A lot of miracle stories have been told about Aglona. For example, a peasant named Kristaps Mateisans from Spiki village was taking his child over the Lake of Cirulitis to Aglona to christen him. While rowing over the lake, a huge gale was rising and the waves tumbled and tossed the boat, but the peasant was navigating the boat and did not notice that his child fell into the lake. When he realised the disaster, Kristaps started to call out loud Our Lady of Aglona. And at the very moment the child turned up on the bank – the people standing there had pulled him out of the lake safe and sound.
The icon painted on oak in the 17th century is also considered to be the miracle-worker. Godlike and healing force is attributed to the sulphur water of the spring that runs from the Egle Lake located nearby. The faithful travel to Aglona in pilgrimages, especially on Whitsun and on the Day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The events organised each year on 14 and 15 August within the Catholic Church celebration can definitely be considered as national level events, because they are visited by hundreds of thousands of believers form various Christian faiths.
The equipment objects in the Church were made in the 18th century, the side altars – at the beginning of the 19th century. Here a wide collection of paintings, sculptures and art values is stored, including the famous icon “Our Lady of Aglona – the Miracle Maker” (of 17th century), which is uncovered only at official events during religious celebrations. People believe that it has a healing power.
Awaiting for the planned visit of the Pope to Latvia, in the 90s a sacral square in front of the church was made, that serves for processions, as well as for the Cross Road and worshippers during the major public service. The square is shaped so that it has a confined sacral space which forms an ensemble with Basilica. In 1993 the holy site of Aglona was visited and consecrated by the Roman Pope John Paul II.
Pilgrimages to Aglona
15 August is the celebration day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This event is not mentioned in the Gospel, but Church traditions hold definite statements about this fact. In Aglona this is the major celebration of the year and usually every Latvian Catholic, who is willing to celebrate it in honour of Our Lady along other faithful brothers, attends it. Hundreds of thousands of believers pray together, renew their relationships with Him and find peace in God. The church is trying to do everything to make this celebration more available to people, so that everyone could have a chance to bail from the springs of life, i.e., from the Euharististical Table and from the God’s Words in the Holy Writ.
One of the most beautiful and surprising traditions in the present-day Latvia is the pilgrimage to Aglona, where believers from the whole country take part to celebrate 15 August. The longest road is covered by the Catholics from the city of Liepaja, whose journey takes more than a week to reach Aglona. When 15 August approaches all roads of Aglona area are crowded with larger or smaller groups of worshippers, who come singing, carrying flags and crucifixes. The night service touches the bottom of heart and overwhelms everyone, who experiences it at the square of Aglona Basilica, standing side by side with other brothers and sisters of faith.
The Hill of the King
The Hill of the King – a garden of sculptures for the Christ victor, angel, cross and characters of the twelve tribes, carved in oak – is located on the bank of the Aglona Lake, which is not far from Aglona Basilica, on the road leading to Dagda. The neatly arranged garden of sculptures is located on the plot of land owned by a businessman - he had planned to build the house here. The sculptures are carved in old oak wood. The largest sculpture – the Christ – is made of 600 years old oak tree, the perimeter of which was 4.5 m and the height – 14 m.