Is the campaign for the recovery of a Virgin Mary statue futile?


On Monday Roman Catholics from all over the Czech Republic gathered at the Old Town Square in Prague. They were campaigning for a 17th century column topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary be returned to the site - exactly 85 years after it was torn down by Czech patriots in 1918. But does the campaign have a chance of succeeding and do such symbols hold relevance to Czechs today? Kay Grigar visited the old town square.

The column topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary, photo: CTK
A crowd of several dozen singing at the site of the Virgin Mary's statue. The statue was torn down about a week after the declaration of independence of Czechoslovakia at the end of WWI. On the 3rd of November 1918 a group of zealous Czech patriots gathered on the square to remove what they saw as a hated symbol of Hapsburg Austrian rule. The column had stood on the square nearly 250 years, erected by Austrian Emperor Ferdinand the 3rd to mark the defeat of Swedish protestant forces at the end of the 30 Years War. It was never put back.

But after the fall of communism in 1989, a society was formed that was determined to undo what they saw as a historic act of barbarism. Karel Kavicka, president of the society for the recovery of the Mary Column, addressed the crowd on the Old Town Square.

"This is the place where ten years ago we commemorated the tearing down of the column and after a mass in the Tyn Church we laid the foundation stone on the site. Back then we engraved an inscription in the stone: "The Virgin Mary used to stand here and will stand here again."

But even 85 years after Czech independence, this is still a sensitive issue. Blahoslav Hajek from the Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren.

The column topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary, photo: CTK
"We Protestants living in this country think that this campaign is an unfortunate step, but on the other hand we don't want to create tension. It's up to Prague city hall whether or not to put the statue back. We won't be very pleased if it is re-erected, but on the other hand we are not going to lobby against it or try to influence the decision."

The problem is a historical one. Although the Catholic Church is the strongest in the country, Czechs are a largely secular nation, and the once all-powerful Catholic Church is looked on by many with a degree of suspicion. The dozens of stunning Baroque churches built around Prague in the 17th and 18th centuries are a symbol not only of faith, but also of the counter-reformation, after the Czech protestant aristocracy was virtually wiped out.

The mainstream in the Catholic Church itself is also aware of these sensitivities, and has distanced itself from the campaign. Larry Cada is an American Catholic theologian living in Prague.

"What the church is trying to do now, is to set off in new directions and face the future and it is not interested in trying to restore the kind of union of the Catholic Church with the government that existed before Czech independence, during the time of Austro-Hungary. It's impossible to do that anyhow historically because the Hapsburgs are no longer the rulers in Vienna and besides that the Catholic Church has a whole different approach that it wants to have in its formal relationship with the government of the Czech Republic. So rebuilding this column its similar to the idea of people wanting to restore kings."

The city hall has yet to make a decision on the whole matter. However it decides, it has insisted that its decision will be based entirely on conservation and not religious grounds.