Art Culture History

The Assumption of Mary Parish Church in Stara Cerkev

Stara Cerkev (German Mitterdorf) is one of the oldest settlements and the first centre of Christianity in Kočevska (Gottschee) region. It was settled before the arrival of German-speaking farmers-tenants in 1330s. The village was named after the oldest church in Kočevska region, which stood there before 1339.

According to the legend, the residents of Stara Cerkev and Slovenska vas originally intended to build a church on a hillock between the two villages, yet the stones they had brought there would miraculously appear at the current location every morning. They believed that the stones were moved by angels, so they stopped trying and built the church at the present-day location.

The Assumption of Mary Parish Church in Stara Cerkev, January 2021. Photo: Anja Moric.
The Assumption of Mary Parish Church in Stara Cerkev, January 2021. Photo: Anja Moric.

The first church

The original church was a low-built Gothic structure with six altars. It was well known as a pilgrimage church, since every year numerous pilgrims thronged there, particularly on the Assumption on 15 August. In his The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola, Valvasor named it “Unserer Lieben Frau zu Altkirchen” (Our Lady of Altkirchen), and an Urbarium from 1574 named it “Liebfrauenkirche zu Mitterdorf” (the Church of Our Lady in Mitterdorf). Until 1788, the church was under the parish of Ribnica and later it became an independant parish.

Inside the church bell tower. The Assumption of Mary Parish Church in Stara Cerkev. Photo: Anja Moric.
Inside the church bell tower. Photo: Anja Moric.

The second church

Over time, the old church building has become too small as the population has increased, which is why, as was reported in 1822 by the priest Martin Rankel, it has been expanded with two side naves. However, the altar was not visible from there, therefore people sitting in pews chatted during the mass. In 1818, the church was demolished and in just five months, without any proper planning and expert supervision, a second church building was built. Only the belfry remained from the original church. The building constructed in this manner could not serve its purpose in the long run. In 1848, it was already badly dilapidated so that during every storm it was feared that the belfry would collapse, and occasionally pieces of plaster would fall on the faithful during the mass.

The third – present-day church

In 1853, the church was demolished and, according to the plans of the architect Silvestro Venchiarutti, started to erect the third one, i.e. the present-day church. It was blessed on 12 October 1855 and the prince bishop Anton Alojzij Wolf consecrated it on 21 June 1857.

A rooster adorning the top of the cross on the bell tower of the Church of the Assumption of Mary. During the 2021 renovation, it was replaced with a replica. Photo: Anja Moric.
A rooster adorning the top of the cross on the bell tower of the Church of the Assumption of Mary. During the 2021 renovation, it was replaced with a replica. Photo: Anja Moric.

The Fresco of the Assumption

Upon entering the church, the view is mainly attracted by the fresco of the Assumption on the rear wall of the presbytery above the main altar. In 1854, it was painted by Domenico Fabris from Osoppo in Friuli. The fresco depicts Mary, who, accompanied by angels, ascending the sky to God the Father. He is accompanied by two angels who hold the crown and sceptre. The apostles, gathered round the tomb, gaze to the sky. On the arc above the fresco, there is an inscription in German: “Gegrüsset seist du Königin Mutter der Barmherzigkeit” (Hail Thee Queen Mary, Mother of Compassion). The fresco was restored in 2020 by the Restoration Centre under the direction of the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia (ZVKDS).

Fresco of the Assumption of Mary after the restoration work in 2020. Photo: Anja Moric.
Fresco of the Assumption of Mary after the restoration work in 2020. Photo: Anja Moric.

German inscriptions are reminiscent of the former inhabitants.

In the interior of the church there are even more German inscriptions that testify to the former multilingualism that characterised the Kočevska region, e.g. at the triumphal arch: “Gelobt sei Jesus und Maria” (Praise Be to Jesus and Mary), under the stained glass windows and paintings of the Stations of the Cross from 1938. On a memorial plaque affixed to the outer north wall of the belfry, there is also a consecration inscription in German to the casualties of the 1st World War. The Assumption of Mary Parish Church in Stara Cerkev is one of the rare churches in Kočevska region that was not destroyed during the post-war ideological turmoil. Moreover, some statues and paintings from the razed surrounding churches were housed in it.

German inscriptions on the interior arcades of the Church of the Assumption of Mary in Stara Cerkev. View from the church choir. Photo: Anja Moric.
German inscriptions on the interior arcades of the Church of the Assumption of Mary in Stara Cerkev. View from the church choir. Photo: Anja Moric.

A mysterious little bell

The belfry of the Assumption of Mary Parish Church conceals a mystery that remains unsolved to date. I.e. a mysterious Latin inscription on a small bronze bell that several experts tried to unravel in vain, and which probably reads as follows: “Iuve Maria Consolatrix, Regina sanctorum.” (Help Mary the Comforter, Queen of All Saints). The bell weighs only 33 kg and is supposed to be the oldest in Kočevska region. Some believe that it was brought here by German farmers-tenants in the 14th century, but it is more likely that it originates from the 16th century. Every time a child’s life passed away in the parish, the sad song of the bell – Knell – sounded already in the church building of 1818.

Today the little bell rings no more. Besides it there are three additional iron bells in the belfry that were cast in 1922 in Jesenice. The C bell weighs 1990 kg, the E bell weighs 980 kg and the G bell weighs 712 kg.

The small bell once rang at the death of a child, but today it remains silent. Photo: Anja Moric.
The small bell once rang at the death of a child, but today it remains silent. Photo: Anja Moric.

Sources:
– Gottscheer Zeitung
– Gottscheer Kalender
– Eppich, Josef. 1930. Kirchen- und Pfarrgründungen im Gottscheer Gebiete; Josef Erker, ur. Jubiläums-Festbuch der Gottscheer 600-Jahresfeier: aus Anlaß des 600-jährigen Bestandes des Gottscheer Landes, str. 47–67. Gottschee: Festausschuss der Gottscheer 600-Jahrfeier.
– Resman, Blaž in Seražin, Helena. 2010. Umetnostna topografija Slovenije: Upravna enota Kočevje: Občine Kočevje, Kostel in Osilnica. Ljubljana: Založba ZRC.
– Rus, Jože. 1939. Jedro kočevskega vprašanja; Janko Mačkovšek, ur. Kočevski zbornik: razprave o Kočevski in njenih ljudeh. str. 131–173, Ljubljana: Vodstvo Družbe sv. Cirila in Metoda.
– Simonič, Ivan. 1939. Zgodovina kočevskega ozemlja; ur. Janko Mačkovšek, ur. Kočevski zbornik: razprave o Kočevski in njenih ljudeh, str. 45–130, Ljubljana: Vodstvo Družbe sv. Cirila in Metoda.
– Zupan, Gojko, Ferenc, Mitja in M. Dolinar, France. 1993. Cerkve na Kočevskem nekoč in danes. Kočevje: Župnija in Muzej.

Are you interested in the cultural activities of Gottscheers? Read our previous post, in which Urška Kop writes about the beginnings of the Gottscheer folklore group of the of the Society of Native Gottschee Settlers.

This post is also available in: Slovenian

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