Thursday, June 20, 2013

Church of Mary the Queen on Bled Island - Slovenia

The Church of Mary the Queen, also known as the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary, or Our Lady of the Lake, is located on a small island in Lake Bled, known as Blejski Otok, in the picturesque Julian Alps of northwestern Slovenia. It has such a beautiful setting that photographs of it are regularly found in travel magazines and it is surely the most recognizable place in Slovenia. Bled was the summer residence of Marshal Tito, back when Yugoslavia was a country and Slovenia was just a province, along with the other Yugoslavian provinces of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia (and Serbia's  autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina).
Church of Mary the Queen on Bled Island
Bell tower viewed from the row boat.
View from the island.
Bled Castle and the Julian Alps from the island.
The usual way to reach the island is by pletna, a large gondola-like row boat with a canopy. The rower typically waits for about 10 people before leaving for the island and gives you about 30 minutes on the island. Another option, the one we chose, was to rent a rowboat. It is about half the price for two people and you get the pleasure of meandering back and forth through the lake while you learn how to row the boat and also watching your companion gets splashed by in-artfully placed paddle strokes.
Row boat with church in background.
One of the docks on the island. A pletna in the background.
Back steps up to the church.
There has been a church on the island since the 10th century (which replaced a temple to the Slavic goddess Ziva), but the present building was completed in 1698. It has two sections of wood pews, a chandelier over the main aisle, and an altar of wood, carved and gilded, dating from 1747. The central altarpiece is of the Virgin Mary, seated, with the donor of the Bled estate, Henry II, and his wife, Kunigunda, at her side. There is also a lectern on the left side, three side altars (consecrated to St. Sebastian, St. Magdalena and St. Anna) made at the end of the 17th century, and most important, a rope in front of the altar attached to a bell, known as the "wishing bell." The bell tower was built in the 15th century, but has been renovated several times due to earthquakes and a lightning strike in 1688. It currently has three bells. The Provost's house and a smaller building behind the church were used as guesthouses. The church was originally Catholic. Property in Slovenia was nationalized between 1945 and 1963. In 1991, a Denationalization Act allowed citizens to apply for return of property that was nationalized. The Catholic Church made a claim for restoration of the island on Lake Bled and it was not until October 2008 that an agreement was reached that allowed the island to remain state-owned, while the church was given to the Bled parish of the Ljubljana Archdiocese. I have not been able to determine if regular church services are held there, or just weddings. 
Door to the church.
View of altar from the back door.
Gilded altarpiece of the Virgin Mary.

Paintings on back wall of church.
Paintings on back wall of church.
From back wall of church.
Baptismal font.
Carved portion of wood door.
Carved wood.
Provost and guest house.
We were told that if we rang the bell three times with one pull our wish would be granted. This adds an element of skill and luck or both to the process. I'm not sure if the wish works if you practice the bell-ringing multiple times and pick the best pull. At any rate, I'm not sure we were ever successful in the one pull, three ring ideal before we had to turn the rope over to a group of Japanese tourists. The literature ties the bell ringing tradition back to the legend of a young widow Poliksena who lived at Bled Castle, whose husband was killed by brigands. She paid for a bell to be cast and taken to the chapel on Bled Island, but while the bell was being transported by boat, the boat overturned and the bell sank to the bottom of the lake. The distraught widow moved to Rome and entered a convent where she spent the rest of her life. After her death, the pope donated a bell for the church. Now those who make a wish and then ring the bell to honor the Virgin (presumably Mary and not the young widow) will have their wish come true. The literature makes no mention of three rings with one pull, so maybe our wishes still have a chance.
Judy ringing the bell.
Bell tower.
There is another tradition that if a groom carries his bride (in Slovenia a legal civil marriage must be conducted by a government official before a ceremonious one in the church can be performed) up the 99 steps (built in 1653) from the lake to the church, and if she remains silent while he does so, they will have a happy marriage. I suspect that the happiness part may be due to the exhaustion of the groom and the silence of the bride.  A site with some great pictures of the island and church, including the pletnas and the 99 steps, is here.
A look down the 99 steps toward the main dock.
Religion in Slovenia

The 2011 census reveals that 57.5% of Slovenes are Catholic, 5.1% are Muslim, 4.1% are Orthodox, .8% are Lutheran, .3% are other Christian, 21.1% are atheists and the balance are either believers without religion or didn't want to answer. The Roman Catholics have six dioceses, including two archdioceses in Slovenia and it appears that the primary Orthodox Church in Slovenia is the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Muslims in Slovenia are ethnically 74% Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and 11% Albanians. 

The LDS church was established as a legal entity in Yugoslavia in 1975 and in 1999 the Slovenia Ljubljana Mission was created out of the Austria Vienna South Mission. A report (I don't know the time frame) showed LDS church membership in Slovenia at a meager 411 with four congregations. Slovenia is now covered by the Adriatic North Mission, located in Zagreb, Croatia, which has missionaries in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia.


  1. I trust you carried a silent Judy up the 99 steps to test the theory.

    I love how even the back steps to the church are a picturesque work of art.

    1. I figure that if I tried carrying Judy up those 99 steps she would not have remained silent, I would not have survived, and we would not currently be married.

  2. Yeah, I think that about sums it up. Just being rowed out to the lake with frequent well-placed splashings was a bit hazardous to our union. However, all was forgotten in the romance of the little island and its church. The bell to that rope we were pulling must have been in the church and not in the bell tower, right?