The history of Máriabesnyő dates back to the Celtic period, when archaeological finds show that the area was inhabited and artefacts from the time of the conquest of the region have been preserved. The name 'Besnyő' and other sources also indicate that the area was inhabited by the Besenyő people in the 11th and 12th centuries, who later assimilated. With the Tartar invasion, the area became uninhabitable, as the repopulated people disappeared again during the Ottoman occupation.
In the 18th century, Antal Grassalkovich, the landowner of Gödöllő, bought the area, which was then considered a wasteland, and continued the large-scale construction work he had already begun in Gödöllő. Owing to the Count, the church of Besnyő, the Capuchin monastery and the Grassalkovich family crypt were built here. There are several wonderful stories about the birth of the church, one of which is about Terézia Klobusitzky, the third wife of the Count, who was saved by divine providence from an accident caused by runaway horses pulling her carriage, but whose prayer stopped the animals in this area.
The Hungarian Loreto
Construction of the church began in 1759 on the model of Santa Casa in Loreto, Italy. According to legend, this small house was the home of the Holy Family in the Holy Land, which was later raised and moved by angels, making Loreto one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Italy. The count's family brought a one-metre high statue copy of the Virgin Mary in cedar wood from Loreto, which became known as the "Saracen Virgin". Afterwards, János Fidler, an assistant stonemason, found the statue of Mary, which was only 10 cm high and made of bone, during the construction of the church in Besnyő and which later became famous throughout the country. The story goes that a dream had previously shown the mason the exact location of the miraculous object deep in the soil. The statue, which dates from around the 13th and 14th centuries, was ornated with diamonds by the Grassalkovich family: the heads of the Virgin and the Child Jesus are decorated by crowns of precious stones, while Mary's waist is adorned with a belt.
A shrine statue is a miraculous object, usually in the image of Christ, Mary or a saint, and which is associated with a place, making it a pilgrimage. There are many Marian shrines around the world, including the aforementioned Loreto, Lourdes, Mariazell, Syracuse, Guadalupe. In Hungary, the most important Marian shrine is Máriabesnyő.
The Madonna cult of Besnyő
The church was consecrated in 1761, and as more and more believers came to pray to the Virgin Mary of Besnyő, the cult of the Virgin Mary grew. Therefore, Grassalkovich invited Capuchin monks to come here to meet the needs for spiritual care. The Capuchins belong to a branch of the Franciscan Order, whose main ambition is to return to the poverty of St Francis, and their main activities are nursing the sick and providing spiritual support in times of war. The Capuchin convent was consecrated in 1763. They were the first inhabitants of Mariabesnyő, and a year later, the secular population was also present. The Count had seven houses built and staffed, who were called “hétháziak” (seven houses dwellers), who helped to accommodate the arriving pilgrims, and who also cleaned and maintained the houses. The Capuchins set up the first pharmacy in the area in the monastery, whose first qualified pharmacist, Frater Joakim, also treated the sick.
The miraculous shrine statue attracted even more pilgrims, so the count started building a larger church, which was completed in 1769. The church included a chapel modelled on the one in Loreto, a sub-chapel and a crypt, which eventually became the burial place of the Grassalkovich family. In 1771, the Count was laid to rest here, followed by Terézia Klobusitzky a decade later. Their deaths brought an end to a very prosperous period in the history of Besnyő.
Miraculous healings and railway pilgrims
In terms of feasts, the most important were the feasts of the Assumption of Mary (15 August) and the Nativity of Mary (8 September), but the feasts of the Annunciation of Our Lady (25 March), Pentecost, Trinity Sunday and the Visitation (2 July) were also notable. In September 1863, a large celebration was held to mark the 100th anniversary of the monastery and the shrine, attended by 50,000 people. In the first half of the 20th century, the annual number of guests reached 100,000 to 130,000, although there were occasions when war or cholera epidemics made it impossible to hold the feasts.
According to the Hungarian Ethnographic Dictionary, a place of pilgrimage is defined as a spring, well, image or statue associated with legends of popular beliefs, supernatural visions and miraculous healings, as well as a chapel or church built next to or around it. It was believed that God was more receptive to prayers and confessions and more open to requests at certain places, such as a place of pilgrimage, and it was therefore common for believers to attend and pray at pilgrimage feasts in the hope of having their wishes fulfilled or of being cured of illnesses.
In Máriabesnyő, one such miraculous recovery was the story of a butcher from Gödöllő, whose hand was paralysed in an accident. After doctors were unable to improve his condition, he prayed to the Virgin Mary of Máriabesnyő, after which he was able to use his hand again.
Interestingly, in 1936 the Royal Hungarian State Railways had a red marble statue of Mary erected at the new Máriabesnyő railway station, a ten times larger replica of the original shrine statue. At the inauguration, the workers pledged to organise an annual pilgrimage of railway workers to Máriabesnyő, during which thousands of people visited the shrine and the statue of Mary in the station in the following years by special trains. Similar organised pilgrimages were also organised by medical institutions, such as the St. Roch's Hospital and the St. John's Hospital.
From 1905 onwards, every year in May, a pilgrimage for men took place, with trains from Budapest railway stations transporting thousands of men to Máriabesnyő. The idea behind this was that a Jesuit monk was trying to encourage men from the big city to practice religious life, the rituals and to visit the shrine of Mary. After the Second World War, the number of pilgrims decreased, and in 1985, only a few elderly men represented the once famous men's pilgrimage.
Not far from the church lies the cemetery of Máriabesnyő, where people were buried as of the first half of the 19th century. For a long time, it was the final resting place of the servants of the church and the convent, the "seven houses dwellers". As Máriabesnyő became more and more developed, the cemetery had to be extended several times. It is the burial place of Prime Minister Count Pál Teleki, and his grave is marked with an inscription and a lily of the Scouts in memory of his work for Scouting.
A rarely mentioned language memory
One of our language memories is connected with the settlement, the “Máriabesnyő fragment”, a 15th century codex fragment, a manuscript of the tortures of Christ. Gábor Jablonkay S.J. found it in 1909, in the binding of another volume of the Jesuits of Nagyszombat, which formerly belonged to the library of the Capuchin Order of Besnyő - hence the name. Linguistically, it contained nothing new, but it enriches the repertory of works of old Hungarian literature.
Translated by Zita Aknai