It was easy to miss—a pale glint before the dark shade of a stand of trees, like a jewel in its setting. I walked through the June sunlight and squinted through the wildflowers at the edge of the trail. The cross was painted white and blue, the color of Mary’s mantle. A tiny gilt image of Christ at the top nestled halfway behind a swaying pine bough. The bright red-orange silk of a few artificial blooms gleamed in the sun at the shrine’s pedestal, where initials were engraved above the year 1947.
I thought, “1947—but someone had set down those silk flowers not long ago?”
My family and I had hiked for hours on the Trail of the Eagles’ Nests in southwest Poland without encountering another soul. We were sweaty and getting peckish, so we moved on. Ahead, the trail widened into a dirt road, and soon we were walking on the paved streets of a small village. The Virgin Mary looked out on us from another shrine, this one a roofed, wooden box (kapliczka, or “little chapel”) affixed to a tree in front of someone’s home. A candle stood in front of the glass pane before her; beneath, carefully tended flowers grew in trays.
It’s rare to find a neighborhood in Poland—rural or urban—devoid of public symbols of Catholicism. Wayside shrines, the smallest and humblest of sacred buildings, are also the most widespread. Made from wood, brick, stone, or plaster, and adorned with ribbons, flowers, and glass lanterns on church holidays, they appear at crossroads, town and field boundaries, in city parks, front yards, and niches in old homes. For people who live in the communities where they are found, each shrine bears the interlocking meanings it has accrued over time—sometimes centuries—from the founder’s individual prayer or intencja, to the employment of Catholicism by right-wing politicians in recent years.
While here in the United States, we associate roadside shrines with untimely deaths and car accidents, in the Catholic tradition shrines may be established for a wide variety of reasons and dedicated to many different heavenly patrons. Polish founders set up shrines for the salvation of the dead, but more frequently to express gratitude or penance, commemorate a specific act of divine grace in their lives, or invoke protection for the living. A friend of mine mentioned an acquaintance who recently established one in thanks for getting into university. Some shrines bear inscriptions hinting at the day-to-day joys and struggles of past and present generations of local people: the safe recovery of a daughter from illness, the return of a son from war.
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“In the neighborhoods of Krakow, there are shrines from the period of WWI, about a hundred years old,” Grzegorz Graff, folk sculpture curator at the Ethnographic Museum of Krakow, tells me. “I live not far from a neighborhood that used to be a village near the city of Krakow, and the Austro-Hungarian army destroyed the whole village. After the war, the people returned and rebuilt the village, and they founded a shrine with the inscription: ‘This shrine was established… thanking the Mother of God for her care and for the inhabitants’ happy return to their native land.’”
Shrines make a community’s history present in a tangible way, telling stories which sometimes interact with a broader national narrative but are always local and often highly personal.
In Poland, wayside shrines are founded with a specific intention in mind, sometimes engraved in writing. How are they “read” by people in Polish communities today? During the pandemic with its attendant travel restrictions, I created an online survey designed to reach Poles of any age, background, or faith, wanting to hear as many voices as possible. “How do you feel when you see a wayside shrine?” I asked my respondents. “What do these shrines mean to you, if anything? If you had the chance, would you ever establish one?”
“I always read when it was established, who was the founder, if this family still lives in the neighborhood,” writes one Catholic man.
Even without an inscription, a shrine encourages passersby to think about the prayer for which it was established. “To me they are the witnesses of the past, they mean tradition,” an older woman says. “I try to imagine who built it, what was the intention, and when it was built because usually… even the oldest people don’t know their history.”
“I feel at home when I see them,” one young woman responds. “They make me think of previous generations. About my roots and simple everyday religiousness.”
For a middle-aged Catholic woman, shrines remind passersby that now, just as then, “you will also die and someone will also remember you, and the Lord will also take you to Himself… When I see them, I feel a link with the past and a sense of empathy toward all suffering, striving humanity.”
Wayside shrines have a long history, tracing back to pre-Christian traditions as well as Catholicism. Graff describes pagan shrines being replaced with the sign of the cross in the early days of Christianization. In Poland, wayside shrines are often found in spaces that may have been considered sacred before the advent of Christianity.
“Many were under old trees,” recalls Agnieszka, a middle-aged woman with a rich laugh, describing her hometown near Rzeszów to me over the phone. One was on a linden tree, today associated with the Virgin Mary. “In the summer, they flower and they smell very nice, and even the flowers are medicinal, for a cough. You keep the flowers and dry them for the flu.”
Planted gardens and flowers laid at shrines also reflect the link between nature and holiness in Christian traditions. “Wayside shrines are one of the great examples where nature and culture meet, because shrines are always in and surrounded by nature,” says Zuzanna, a landscape architect. “Building a shrine, people don’t cut everything down around it. Instead it’s always combined with nature, as kind of a tribute to nature or to that spot.”
On the other hand, spiritually dangerous places required an opposing force. Graff tells me, “In folk beliefs, if a place was inhabited by a demon or a devil, establishing a shrine guaranteed it would go away.” In Slavic folklore, the physical danger posed by a millpond or stream interwove with that of an angry wodnik or rusałki, types of water spirits. A shrine at the riverbank dedicated to the drowned St. John of Nepomuk (św. Jan Nepomucen) offered protection in this unsettled place.
Wayside shrines are frequently located in such “in-between” spaces: the edge of a forest, at the town boundaries. “If I wanted to set up a shrine, it would have to be in an area that needed ‘taming’ (oswojenie—‘making one’s own’),” one woman explains. “A crossroads, a wilderness, a place far from home. There are simply fewer and fewer of these places.”
“Yes, I would set up a shrine for the purpose of allowing people to pray close to where they live,” a young Catholic woman writes.
Especially in a small town without a church, a wayside shrine or “little chapel” offers the Catholic community a space for religious devotion. Some of the oldest shrines date from the seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation, when the Church sought to fortify Catholic piety at the village level. “Then, the founders weren’t individuals, acting alone, but rather the parish or some village group,” Graff explains. If individuals established shrines prior to the nineteenth century, they tended to be nobles. “Generally, the peasants were freed in the nineteenth century. They were given land, and they got richer. And many of them wanted to manifest this, in a sense. These purely peasant-established shrines start to appear from this time.”
The end of serfdom allowed farmers to acquire the means to set up a lasting structure on their own account. “Of course,” Graff adds, “these shrines also express their faith—so there we see such inscriptions as, for example, ‘This shrine was founded by Jan with his wife Katarzyna, asking for prayer,’ that is, asking the passerby to pray.” This type of inscription makes clear that, once established by an individual, wayside shrines take on their own role in a community, interacting with the many souls who pass before them.
“You know, in the time before TV, in the rural, farm communities, you eat in the evening, at about eight,” Agnieszka says, remembering her hometown “In spring or summer, after their work was done, everybody went and said some prayers. This was the shrine’s use in every season, but especially in May, when they bring flowers and say the prayers, the litany to the Mother of God, sing some songs, and otherwise just a meeting in the community. Sometimes they would stop at one shrine and then go to another. It was like this.”
In the Roman Catholic Church, the month of May is dedicated to the Virgin Mary; however, Poland is one of the few European countries where the custom of singing Maytime hymns, majówki, at wayside shrines still survives.
“Here in Europe, in May, everything’s green. May is probably the most beautiful month of the year,” Krzysztof Ligęza tells me. For the past eight years, Ligęza has photographed Maytime gatherings at Poland’s wayside shrines in almost a hundred locations. In the lengthening spring evenings, neighbors go to local shrines, many coming directly from work. “Women, older people, and kids mostly attend. It takes up to half an hour, and they pray certain prayers and sing certain songs, like the litania loretańska (Litany of Loreto). It’s all organized by the neighbors and families.”
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In springtime, the custom of blessing the fields on Cross Days (Dni krzyżowe) brings the faithful together at rural shrines and crosses. The parish priest in his vestments leads a procession from the local church, stopping at selected shrines to pray and sing hymns. “They’re organized before the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. During the next three days, the faithful raise their prayers of thanksgiving, for a fruitful harvest, and prayers for blessing the farmlands,” Ligęza says, describing the service with a photographer’s eye. “It’s spectacular when that whole procession goes up the mountain or down the valley. That gathers more people than normal. It’s like an official affirmation from the Church of the custom of praying at the shrines.”
On any day, the sight of a wayside shrine nestled in the landscape provides some Catholic passersby with a sense of God’s presence and an invitation to prayer and reflection. “Whenever I pass a shrine, I make the sign of the cross and quietly say a short prayer,” one young man writes. “The shrines remind me of Jesus, of Mary—how they hope for our salvation and are a support for us here on Earth,” one Catholic woman says. “I’m closer to God,” writes another. “I smile,” one older woman responds simply. Women especially describe feeling comforted by the sight of a shrine by the roadside. “They give the feeling that someone is watching over us.” “I somehow have the feeling that I’m safe on the street.” “Many problems and daily matters become simpler,” reflects one young woman. “I stop and think about the meaning of life.”
In recent years, the role of wayside shrines has changed somewhat. They are increasingly likely to be seen as tourist attractions, historical rather than religious objects. However, in southern Poland especially, people continue to establish new shrines. “To this day—let’s say you’re traveling in a bus, and people are sitting next to you,” Graff says. “We pass a place where there’s a shrine, and someone in the bus will cross themselves.”
For some Poles, the everyday familiarity has rendered the shrines they see in their neighborhoods all but invisible: just another part of the scenery. The space around them in which religious neighbors gather to sing majówki is the same lawn, road, or sidewalk through which people in the community pass on a daily basis. “I feel nothing special. It’s just there the same way as a streetlamp or a tree,” one young woman writes. For others, the invocation of Catholicism in public space—so direct, personal, and ubiquitous in the case of wayside shrines—stings.
In Poland, wayside shrines have long been imbued with not only devotional but also political meaning. During the period of the Partitions, when Poland disappeared from the maps of Europe, Orthodox Russian and Protestant Prussian authorities sought to suppress the custom of building and tending to shrines, viewing Catholicism as politically suspect—that is, associated with movements for Polish independence. In the Communist period, Catholic Poles who established shrines risked losing their jobs or going to prison, despite the willingness of many in the local party to turn a blind eye.
“What Poland has—what Polish culture and history have—is a cultural trope of Catholicism as resistance that is incredibly powerful in a rhetorical and symbolic way,” explains Dr. Laurie Koloski, associate professor of modern European history at the College of William & Mary.
Today, the long-standing association of Catholicism with Polish identity, embodied in its most exclusive form by the phrase “Polak-Katolik”—Polish and Catholic—can be seen to serve the purposes of the socially conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which has been in power in Poland since 2015. “PiS uses Catholicism as effectively as they do because it works,” Koloski continues. “It helps them appeal to people on the basis of ‘true Polishness.’ Fundamentally, it’s an effort to re-narrow ideas of what it means to be Polish.”
“The shrines mainly remind me that freedom from religion does not exist in this country,” one woman writes. “I treat some as interesting historical objects, but not many.” Certain other non-Catholic respondents, some LGBTQ+, expressed similar feelings. In an increasingly polarized climate, the sight of a Catholic shrine in the neighborhood can provoke a sense of alienation from the communal space it occupies, rather than comfort. One young woman describes shrines as “a painful reminder that I cannot have one moment of peace from Catholicism, even when I don’t pass a church on my way home.” In Poland, many non-Catholics are better described as no longer Catholic. A queer activist Polish friend expressed some surprise that I would even research roadside shrines. “Roadside trauma?” she jokes.
While a few responses were negative, mixed feelings were more common. “In one sense, when I see a wayside shrine, the street becomes more homey and colorful,” one young woman writes. “But it also reminds me of how the Church has strong influence over Poland, and then I don’t want to look at it anymore.”
Yet each shrine gradually becomes part of the life and texture of the community, simply by being there. “There may be a sense of nostalgia clinging to them,” one woman recalls about growing up in the city of Katowice. “A whiff of childhood, I guess. One was a meeting point recognizable to everybody in the area. That is, you could agree to meet ‘under the cross’ and everybody would know the place intended.” Young people, I am told, used to go to the shrines as an excuse to hang out, crossing themselves when someone drove by. Answering my survey, one young man writes that the shrines in his town come in handy as PokéStops in Pokémon GO.
“Only one shrine has significance for me,” says a young woman who self-describes as “more or less Catholic.” “The one my grandma (babcia) used to go to. A beautiful view of my hometown stretches out from there.”
For those who grew up in one of the many Polish communities dotted with wayside shrines, the sight can evoke closely held family memories before anything else. “They really remind me of my childhood, but not negatively,” a non-binary teen says. “Even though I have some bad associations with religion and churches from being raised in a Catholic home, these shrines make me feel nostalgic.” “My small daughter took flowers to the shrine in our neighborhood almost every day,” an older Catholic woman recalls.
More than specific memories, the shrines themselves create a sense of “being at home.” One woman, who tells me that she would like to establish a shrine in gratitude to St. Jacob, the patron saint of pilgrims, writes, “When I see a shrine, I feel that I’ve arrived at home, and it feels familiar.” The word swojski—“familiar, homelike”—appears in a number of responses; it contains the possessive pronoun swój or “one’s own.” At shrines, to the regret of some landlords, townspeople feel “jak u siebie”—as if they were at their own place. In that sense, wayside shrines, established for and tended by neighbors, are a powerful affirmation of community people’s right to public space. One man writes movingly that, seeing a shrine in his neighborhood, “I have the feeling that this land, Poland, is ours, in this human, rather than administrative, capacity.”
“I feel good that I am Polish, and our heritage is not just a flag or castles. It may be found almost everywhere,” one Catholic man, a tour guide, describes.
Respondents of various backgrounds and ages spoke of wayside shrines in the same breath as their homeland. When abroad in countries that don’t share this tradition, the shrines, or their absence, stand out. One older woman, who makes frequent trips back to Poland from her home in New Jersey, describes her emotion upon seeing a wayside shrine as “extremely happy.” Would she ever create such a shrine in her own neighborhood? “Yes, definitely.”
The same young woman who spoke critically of the Church’s influence also writes, “When I’m missing Poland—because I don’t live there permanently—I’m reminded of the shrines once in a while, because in other countries you don’t come across them.” Wayside shrines still have such cultural and personal significance that she would establish one given the chance, claiming space in her own way: “But a kind of shrine without Catholic influence. One which has no link to Christianity, and rather maybe a shrine connected to the Slavic pagans.” In fact, more than one respondent expressed a similar desire to “claim” or “reclaim” wayside shrines, something so characteristic of Polish culture, in a non-traditional way.
“After graduation, when I completed my MA in Polish studies, I left Poland and I went to look for a job in the U.K.,” Ligęza, the photographer, tells me. He speaks about the importance of “knowing your little homeland.” “I spent almost six years in the U.K. I did enjoy living there, but I compared the culture and the landscape and found there was a major point missing. They don’t have as many shrines and religious statues as we do here in Poland. When I got back, I started to look more carefully, thinking of my identity.”
“I haven’t thought of the shrines like that for many years,” one young woman answers, when asked what significance wayside shrines hold for her. “To me it’s more of a reminder of what kind of country ours is.” However, she adds, “They are familiar to me, and I always like to look at one when I’m on my way home. Beautiful flowers grow right beside it.”
Chela Aufderheide is a recent graduate of the College of William & Mary, where she specialized in history and Russian and post-Soviet studies. Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program. She wishes to thank the 135 Poles who took her survey and friends Bacha and Miron for answering her translation questions.
The survey was distributed via the author’s social media and Polish contacts, as well as via a Polish Facebook group devoted to wayside shrines. Many respondents were kind enough to pass it on to their own friends and family members and thus reach a wider range of people. In this way, it functioned as a tool to hear more voices rather than provide statistically representative data.
More of Krzysztof Ligęza’s work can be found on his website, including the online version of his portfolio Axis Mundi: Roadside Shrines & Crosses.