Poland's Swiety Krzyz - marking a turbulent millenium

Swiety Krzyz Monastery

The Swiety Krzyz or Holy Cross Monastery in southern Poland recently celebrated its Millennium. Through its history, this place has been a favorite pilgrimage center for Polish royalty, a retirement home for priests, and a grim Nazi-run prison for Russian prisoners-of-war. Since 1006 it has housed relics cherished by Catholic pilgrims, the cultural contributions of Benedictine monks, and the scars of Poland's historical struggle for existence.

Some places in Poland are able to house the violent history of the country's struggle for existence together with an object of quiet awe and prayerful meditation. Swiety Krzyz is one of those places.

Sitting on top of the Lysa Góra mountain in the Swietokrzyzkie National Park of southern Poland is a sanctuary so important, the entire area has claimed its identity around it.

The Swiety Krzyz abbey was established by Italian Benedictines in the early 12th century. Tradition holds that the monastery was constructed to house a fragment of the True Cross - a piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified. Hence the name of the monastery here. It was destroyed multiple times at the hands of invaders, and stubbornly, repeatedly rebuilt. Now after all that it's safely in the care of the Polish national park service - and back in the hands of Benedictines.

Jacek - "being around here is something incredible, because, I don't how it is in English, to jest laska, it is a gift to be here. Because there's no history of Polish and Swiety Krzyz, it is one thing".

Dominik - "yes, we feel like we continue that spirit life in this Saint Cross. And in this place, you can feel that spirit, you can feel that spirit".

Dominik is 21; Jacek only 19. Young novices like them are preparing for a life of prayer and service as Benedictine monks. And they live here at the Swiety Krzyz.

Dominik and Jacek took me around for a look at Swiety Krzyz. The main cloisters are a core of corridors making a single square around an enclosed courtyard. If you look carefully at the walls and ceilings, you can find evidence of what this place has experienced.

Dominik - "The ceiling is in two styles. Gothic style and Baroque style. Because like history in Poland, history of that place is very difficult. You know, many times has been damaged, that building has been damaged. And built again".

The abbey church is attached to one side of the cloisters. Regular groups of pilgrims - thousands of them - make their way here throughout the year. They help keep this place alive and active.

The center of attention at Swiety Krzyz, however, is the Olesnicki Chapel housing the fragments of the cross. Mikolaj Olesnicki endowed the building of the chapel in 1620. Six pieces of what believers hold to be the True Cross are held inside rococo reliquaries on either side of the main altar.

Jacek - "And you can see on the walls frescoes which tells us the history of Saint Cross".

"King Stefan of Hungary received the relic as a gift from the Pope. He in turn passed it on to Poland".

In the middle of the chapel, a short but extremely steep flight of steps lead down to a crypt. There a collection of open-faced coffins covered by clear glass show the corpses of the Olesnicki family who enabled the construction of this chapel. They're also kept company by the remains of an unnamed participant in the 1863 Uprising against Russian rule, and of the Polish hero Jeremi Wisniwiecki who died in 1651.

Dominik - "maybe first time you feel strange, when you see that body, but in Poland culture, we have many place where we can see that body. I think that for different culture, for people from different countries, that may be strange".

Jacek - "when I was here the first time, the first impression, I was scared, but now it is something, I don't know, maybe these bodies create a climate of this place".

There is a sign posted one side of the crypt. It helps give some meaning to the mummified remains here:

Kim jestes, tym ja bylem. Kim ja jestem ty na pewno bedziesz...

Which means, "Who you are, I was. Who I am, you surely will be."

So standing here in this crypt in the company of the long dead is a meditation on our own mortality - life, death, and the idea of some religious faiths that bodies are simply temporary cases for the souls inside them.

After one thousand years, Swiety Krzyz encases not just relics and remains, but a whole set of history.

With the help of donations it's getting from visiting pilgrims, as well as some funding from the European Union, it just may keep its place on top of the Lysa Góra mountain for a thousand more.