Polish priest battles to build biggest church of century

CRITICS of the scheme say it is bombastic and over-sized, a crude symbol of the way in which the Catholic Church wants to stamp its authority on the life of Poland. Some argue it is a distasteful flaunting of clerical wealth while many Poles suffer hardship during the transition to a free- market economy. But the man who dreamed up and is personally supervising the construction of the largest church to be built in Europe this century is undeterred.

In his black cassock and clutching his blue rosary beads, Father Eugeniusz Makulski strolls among the concrete columns now groping upwards from the foundations and checks the handiwork of the site's army of labourers.

"I have seen this church with the eyes of my soul," explains the 67-year- old priest. "I have imagined it in its every detail."

When it is completed, the church - or rather basilica - at Lichen will have a seating capacity of 7,000 and will rank among the largest in the world. At a height of 325ft, its dome will be taller than those of the cathedrals of Milan and Toledo. At 255ft wide, it will be broader than the Notre Dame in Paris. And at 395ft, it will be longer than the cathedrals of Barcelona and Pisa. Only St Peter's basilica in the Vatican will be greater in all dimensions. But then St Peter's does not boast the 420ft tower envisaged in the Lichen design.

Father Makulski is determined. For nearly 200 years, first during the partition of the country, then under Communism, Poles have not been able to build grandiose religious buildings, he argues. "Our occupiers (Russia, Austria, Prussia and Germany) wanted us to be spiritual dwarves. Now we can catch up. This is a grand project. And it is only projects on this scale that put human beings in touch with the spiritually grand."

The idea of constructing the basilica at Lichen first surfaced almost 20 years ago. Father Makulski had already been the parish priest for a decade and was keen to build something which, to his mind, would reflect the importance of the place at which the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared on two occasions in the 19th century

Lichen, a small village roughly two-thirds of the way between Warsaw and Poznan, had long since become a place of pilgrimage in a country which, even during the Communist era, retained its deeply Catholic traditions. People flocked to see its allegedly sacred painting of the Madonna or to be healed in its reportedly curative waters.

Father Makulski's idea was to fund the project entirely through donations from the million pilgrims who visit Lichen each year and for whom the basilica would essentially be built. Not surprisingly, his building applications were turned down by the Communist authorities, horrified at the prospect of sanctioning such a massive place of worship.

Thwarted in his bid for a basilica, the priest had to content himself with more modest goals, putting up several smaller shrines (including one to Pope John-Paul II) and an extraordinary construction entitled "Golgotha" depicting the Stations of the Cross carved into little inlets on a hill.

His endeavours almost cost him dear: the authorities charged him with illegal construction and sentenced him to seven years' jail (subsequently suspended). He nevertheless clung to his dream of the Lichen basilica, which suddenly became a possibility following the collapse of Communism in 1989.

Although the building work has now been in progress for more than a year, it is still unclear just how much the project is going to cost - or where all the money is going to come from.

Father Makulski says that although the scheme has received the official blessing of the Polish Catholic Church and even the Vatican, it is not receiving any formal funding. Everything is paid for in piecemeal fashion from pilgrims' donations, he insists.

Thus in 1990 the land for the site was purchased. A couple of years later, it was seven million bricks. ("I'm glad I bought them then - they'd be a lot more expensive now," he says). In 1994 the contract was signed for the first stage of construction, the foundations. At the moment the front and back of the main church are beginning to rise, while in the basement, marble slabs are going onto the walls.

Father Makulski - parish priest, site foreman and fund-raiser extraordinaire - is clearly enjoying watching the work in progress. But it does seem an extraordinary way to go about financing and managing what could eventually be Poland's most prestigious religious building. Final completion of the project, moreover, is far from certain.

The original aim was to have the basilica ready by the year 2000 to coincide with the commemoration of two millennia of Christianity. Even Father Makulski concedes that is now "wishful thinking".

In his less optimistic moments, the priest predicts that he personally will not live to see the basilica in its full glory. But having got this far, he believes his dream will eventually be realised.

"In medieval times it sometimes took up to 200 years to build cathedrals," he says. "Well, I am an old-fashioned priest. The design of this basilica reflects old-fashioned values. And it is being built in the old-fashioned way."

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