The Catholic heart of Croatia

From Marian healing sites to a glittering exhibition of saints’ relics, discover the spiritual riches of this European nation

Zagreb, Croatia. Photo: phant/iStock

Fr. Petar Brezarić didn’t know what to make of the mysterious woman who approached him during Sunday Mass. Clad in blue and carrying a candle, she asked that he and his parishioners of Sts. Peter and Paul, a church in the village of Bistrica in northern Croatia, pray for her sight to be restored. But Fr. Brezarić couldn’t see anything wrong with the woman’s vision; she walked without any assistance. 

Several years after this incident, which occurred in the late 1670s, another priest at Sts. Peter and Paul uncovered a wooden statue of Mary and Jesus that had been mostly concealed in the church walls. It was a famous 15th-century Black Madonna that had been revered in the region and hidden from invading Turks. 

On July 16, 1684, the day after the statue had been found and replaced on the altar, a local noblewoman brought her paralyzed daughter to the church. After they circled the altar three times, the girl was healed. On that same day, legend has it, the Virgin appeared to seven Christians who were imprisoned under Ottoman rule in Kaniža, Hungary, and later freed. “Do not fear, my children; have faith,” she said. “I have been blind for over 40 years and have regained my sight in Bistrica today.” More than 1,000 miracles were recorded in Bistrica during the next century.

Today Bistrica’s famous statue is housed at Marija Bistrica, the largest Marian shrine in Croatia. The site is just one of the country’s many Catholic destinations. More than 85 percent of Croatia’s citizens are Roman Catholic, and spiritual sites — including the sampling that follows — can be found everywhere from major cities to resort towns and national parks. 

Marija Bistrica

Each year, approximately 1 million pilgrims visit Marija Bistrica, located about 25 miles from the capital of Zagreb on the slopes of Medvednica Mountain. They pray before the Black Madonna and climb the hillside Way of the Cross. They light candles beneath a statue of Mary that overlooks the outdoor altar where St. John Paul II preached on Oct. 3, 1998. On that occasion, he proclaimed Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac — a martyr and archbishop of Zagreb (1937–1960) who helped save Jews during World War II — as blessed. 

Some pilgrims come to thank Mary for blessings. Andrea Kozina, a resident of the nearby village of Bedekovčina, visited with her family after surviving complications from the birth of her newest daughter. Other visitors simply seek peace. “If you need to pray, you can do it wherever you want,” says Mario Svatoš, who bikes to the shrine each week from his home near Zagreb. But Marija Bistrica’s spiritual significance and natural beauty make the site “really special.” 

Family fun: Browse for traditional souvenirs near the shrine. This region is known for honey biscuits, mead, wooden children’s toys, pottery, and candles. You can also find licitar, glazed biscuits that decorate Christmas trees and are given to loved ones on special occasions.

Marija Bistrica has been a national shrine in Croatia since 1715. Photo: Julie Butters


Video (ABOVE): France has Lourdes, Portugal has Fatima. Croatia’s most famous Marian pilgrimage site is Marija Bistrica. Video courtesy of Marija Bistrica Tourism Board.


Gold and silver of Zadar

If it weren’t for the nuns of St. Mary’s in Zadar, some of Croatia’s most precious religious treasures might have been lost forever. Strategically positioned on the Adriatic Sea, Zadar was under Italian rule during World War II, and Allied bombing destroyed most of the city. But local leaders had entrusted many of the city’s Catholic valuables to the Benedictine nuns, who hid them under the monastery grounds. After the war, the city decided to publicly display these and other religious objects in the reconstructed monastery. “It’s not only our treasure; it is a treasure for the whole city and the whole country,” says Sr. Cecilia, 68, a native of Zadar. 

The exhibition, which spans the seventh to the 18th centuries, boasts paintings and sculptures, saints’ reliquaries, and church vessels among its riches. Some of its most distinctive items are exquisitely decorated reliquaries bearing pieces of the Holy Cross and relics of saints such as Mark, Mary Magdalene, and John the Baptist. 

Family fun: Stroll along Zadar’s Riva, the popular promenade along the Zadar Channel, and enjoy a free “concert” courtesy of the Sea Organ. The installation features broad steps that are fitted with pipes and whistles and lead down into the water. As air and water move through the pipes, the whistles produce otherworldly sounds. For a day trip, travel an hour south to Krka National Park. Famous for its seven waterfalls, the park also houses two Christian monasteries.

The belfry of St. Anastasia’s Cathedral in Zadar offers striking views of the Adriatic. Photo: Julie Butters


Video (ABOVE): The coastal city of Zadar, dubbed the nation’s “capital of cool,” offers historic churches and ruins, a lively café scene, and waterfront art installations. Video by Marin Gospić; © Zadar Tourist Board Croatia 2017.


Rijeka and the Shrine of Our Lady of Trsat

Today the busy port city of Rijeka proudly celebrates its Christian heritage. Visitors from all over the world come to pray at the Shrine of Our Lady of Trsat, whose origins date back to the late 13th century. During Advent, Rijeka’s streets bustle with religious ceremonies and processions. In mid-June, this culturally diverse city — the third-largest in Croatia and the European Capital of Culture for 2020 — hosts a three-day celebration in honor of its patron saint, the early Sicilian martyr Vitus. These events hold special meaning for local Christians who remember a recent past when they were not so free to express their faith.

Alenka Šuljić-Petrc, a Croatian Catholic and local tour guide, grew up in 1980s Rijeka, when it was still a “red city” under Yugoslav Communist rule. She recalls hiding her catechism books from view when she rode the city bus, and she said that Communist spies in her grandmother’s apartment building tracked residents who welcomed priests into their homes. When independence came for Croatia in 1991, Šuljić-Petrc said, religion again became “an everyday part of Croatian life, and something that was prohibited became a way to show that we are different: We are not communists; we are Catholics.”

One of the most celebrated spiritual sites in Rijeka is the Shrine of Our Lady of Trsat. According to legend, angels brought the Virgin Mary’s Nazorean home to Trsat in 1291, then whisked it away to Loreto, Italy, in 1294. To console the Croatian faithful, who had established a shrine in Trsat, Bl. Urban V gave them a painting of Mary and the baby Jesus originally attributed to St. Luke. 

The image, still housed at the site, is considered miraculous because of the many prayers that Our Lady of Trsat is believed to have helped answer. The votive chapel is filled with gifts from those who have survived illnesses, storms at sea, and other disasters. But not every prayer is granted. 

Br. Marko Dominik Ricov, a Franciscan seminarian who served at Trsat’s monastery from 2017 to 2018, said he reminded the disheartened of Jesus’ prayers to be spared crucifixion. 

“We may think his prayer wasn’t answered,” Br. Ricov said, but Jesus received something more important — the persistence to do God’s will. “It’s really good to be close to Mary,” he said, “so that you will not flee from God in your times of greatest pain.”

Family fun: Walk from the shrine to Trsat Castle, a 13th-century fortress offering beautiful water views. Downtown, stop into the Cathedral of St. Vitus, which houses a reputedly miraculous crucifix. Walk toward the waterfront to explore the vibrant sights and smells of the city market.


A statue of St. John Paul II at Trsat commemorates the pontiff’s 2003 visit. Photo: Julie Butters


Video (ABOVE): This overview of Rijeka offers glimpses of St. Vitus Cathedral, Trsat Castle, and Trsat shrine. Video by Goran Ražić; Rijeka Tourist Board.


Zagreb’s cathedral and Stone Gate shrine 

Tucked into the dark recesses of Zagreb’s eastern gate, one of the most revered sites in Croatia could easily be overlooked. Here at the Stone Gate shrine in Croatia’s capital, believers come to light candles, pray for special intentions, and give thanks for healing before a painting of Mary and Jesus. In the 17th century, the artwork belonged to a pious local woman, Widow Modlar, who lived in wooden housing at the gate. In 1731 a devastating fire destroyed her home and many other buildings in the area — but left the painting untouched. The widow had the chapel constructed in thanks for this reputedly miraculous event. 

In contrast to the shrine, Zagreb’s cathedral is impossible to miss. With twin spires rising roughly 344 feet, the neo-gothic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary towers over the city. Inside is the tomb of Bl. Alojzije Stepinac. During Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 visit to the cathedral, he called the cardinal, who opposed Nazism, fascism, and communism, an “advocate of God in [Croatia] because he tenaciously defended the truth and the right of men to live with God.” A museum dedicated to Bl. Stepinac sits next door to the cathedral.  

Family fun: Take the funicular to Zagreb’s medieval Upper Town to stroll its quaint streets and admire the colorfully tiled roof of St. Mark’s, one of Croatia’s most iconic churches. During Advent, don’t miss Zagreb’s Christmas market, considered one of Europe’s best. For a side trip, travel two hours south to Plitvice Lakes National Park, a popular UNESCO World Heritage site. Set aside at least a day to explore its many turquoise lakes and enchanting waterfalls.

Covering roughly 116 square miles, Plitvice Lakes National Park is the largest park in Croatia. Photo: standret/iStock


VIDEO (ABOVE): Zagreb is famous for its Advent celebrations, including a world-renowned Christmas market. Video courtesy of Croatian National Tourist Board.

Editor’s Note: Julie Butters traveled to Croatia courtesy of the Croatian National Tourist Board.

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