Aglona Basilica of the Assumption is the leading Catholic Church in Latvia and one of the most important pilgrimage spots in north-eastern Europe. Few people today know that the site of this highly venerated religious site was once extremely important to pagans as a place known for its healing powers. Many centuries ago, Baltic tribes called this area home. But it was the events of 1236 that really made Aglona both famous and infamous, when King Mindaugas of Lithuania, along with his two sons, were murdered and buried here. In 1688, a prior from Vilnius came to Aglona and built a church and monastery. Firstly, a wooden church arose in 1699 and the following year Dominican fathers constructed a monastery.
Fire destroyed the original buildings in the 1760's. To replace them, an abbey and a giant white Italian baroque-style basilica arose between 1768 and 1800. Aglona quickly became the center of Catholicism in Latgale as well as some areas of what is now modern-day Lithuania. In 1800 Bishop Benislavski consecrated the basilica. Its two towers measuring 60 meters in height. Either through divine intervention or in knowledge of early pagan stories about the mysterious healing powers of the water flowing from a spring in the settlement, the resident Dominican fathers sent water samples from the spring to St Petersburg State Medical Academy in 1824. Scientists and doctors concluded that Aglona's waters did indeed have healing properties and not long afterwards a small hospital for a dozen patients arose close to the spring.
Aglona Basilica today
Aglona gradually developed over the next hundred years but took on a less "religious" significance after Latvia became a part of the Soviet Union. However, gradually, things changed and the church reached an important milestone in 1980 as it celebrated its 200th anniversary. This prompted the pope at that time, John Paul II, to award Aglona the status of basilica. Six years later, Aglona was the focal point for Latvians to celebrate 800 years of Christianity in their country.
In 1989, pilgrims walked to Aglona from Riga, the first time this has happened in five decades. And the same year, a sacral square arose in front of the basilica for large public services, including the eagerly anticipated visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1993. In 1995, Aglona basilica officially became a sacred national treasure as the country's parliament passed a new decree "The Sacred Site of National Importance in Aglona".
Feast of the Assumption
The Feast of the Assumption on August 15 attracts tens of thousands of people from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Russia and beyond. Pentecost is the second most popular time to visit. The church houses an extensive and impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, and artistic treasures. But of greatest interest to most visitors here is the historic icon of the Aglona Mother of God which is hidden inside an oak frame placed on the main altar.