World Aug. 19, 2015

Salt mine church exposes Poland's Catholic roots

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

St. Kinga's Chapel is 101 metres below ground level. Its altars house relics of St. Kinga, the patron saint of salt miners, and St. John Paul II, who visited the mine before he became Pope. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

WIELICZKA, Poland—Signs of Catholic faith are everywhere in Poland. Go shopping in the busy capital, Warszawa, and you'll see nuns at the train station. Climb the Tatra Mountains and you'll take in the view next to a looming black cross.

Descend to the depths of the Wieliczka salt mine and you'll see religion literally carved into the country's bedrock.

Below the surface

Thousands of tourists descend to Wieliczka's vast underground network of tunnels every day. They will only see about 0.5 per cent of the nearly 300 kilometres of salt-slick passageways as they tour this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The country's Catholic roots reach these depths. The large, chandelier-lit Chapel of St. Kinga is 101 metres below the surface. Its walls are decorated with depictions of Biblical scenes like the Nativity, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion, all cut out of salt.

The chapel, where Mass is still said every Sunday, is named for St. Kinga, a Hungarian princess who is the patron saint of salt miners.

Pillars of faith

St. Kinga was born to King Bela IV in 1224. She married Boleslaw V, who later became the prince of Krakow.

(That Polish city, a 25-minute train ride away, is already flying banners in anticipation of Pope Francis's visit for World Youth Day next summer.)

According to tradition, the reluctant bride-to-be threw her engagement ring into a salt mine in Hungary. The ring travelled with underground minerals until a miner surprisingly discovered it in Wieliczka. A large salt carving depicts the moment he knelt on one knee to return it to her. She's been popular with salt miners ever since.

St. Kinga and her husband made vows of chastity. After he died in 1279, she sold her possessions, gave the money to the poor, and joined a Poor Clare monastery.

St. John Paul II canonized her in 1999, and her feast day is July 24. Both he and St. Kinga have special places in the chapel; its altars have relics of them and their likenesses are cut into its walls.

Further down the dark, chilly passageways stand other carved figures of saints and historical figures, like Polish-born astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik (better known as Nicholas Copernicus) and King Kazimierz the Great.

Pillars of salt

Salt was chiselled out of this vast store from the 13th to the late 20th century. It was hauled out in pillar-shaped chunks with the help of ropes, pulleys, wagons, and horses. Miners didn't use gunpowder to blow sections of rock apart until the 18th century.

There was a time when salt was so valuable that kings owned and controlled this mine as they would their own fortunes.

They would slow production if they thought they were getting too wealthy too quickly or when they worried they would deplete the supply. One salt pillar could buy an entire town, including the wages of all the people who lived in it.

In the Middle Ages, nearly 350 workers were pulling 8,000 tons of salt a year out of Wieliczka. At the start of the 16th century, those numbers were up to 2,000 miners and 30,000 tons a year.

Excavation stopped in 1996 for fear the mine and the whole city above it would eventually collapse. The only salt coming out of Wieliczka now is what's left after outflowing water evaporates.

Miners' devotion

It was the faith and courage of the miners that kept them going in this dangerous underground workplace. Workers carved tiny shrines and altars into the rock deep inside the mine's nine storeys of tunnels. In larger spaces they built simple chapels marked by hand-carved wooden crucifixes. Some of these are on display in the mine's museum.

In the late 1860s, and then again in 1992, there were catastrophic floods in the mine that took years to clear up. Fires were also a real threat.

Guides say this is why miners would greet each other by saying "Szczesc Boze," or "God bless," as a short prayer for safety. "Good day" was reserved for people who worked in the sunshine.

Today, up to 327 metres below the surface, guides and workers still follow that tradition of faith.