Church on a hill
30. April, 2020

Church on a hill

When you drive through Slovenia you can notice a big number of church steeples peeking out of the villages or through forests on the top of the hills. As a guide I have been asked so many times: “Why are there so many churches in the hills over here?”. The reason is that churches were mostly built for strengthening the community. A lot of them were build in the times of Turkish sieges and they served as a protector. But how can a church protect its people? Easily – by sitting high, you are on a lookout The roada back then were gravel and the dust coming behind the horses was visible far. When the danger approaches, the churches start ringing the bells that are heard all the way down to the valley and people have time to hide – their wealth, their goods and their kids. Especially the latter was of interest to Turkish army. When they kidnapped the kids, they were educated as soldiers and sent to military missions elsewhere in Europe. But enough of this tragic stories from the past.

At the moment we have about 2900 churches in the country that has 2 million inhabitants. Not all of them are open all the time. Some of them have services only once or twice a year. But many of them are a popular hiking destination for local people. We say in a joke that every major municipality has a church up the hill that serves as a sacred spot for the community. Even if people are not religious or hike up because of religious reasons, they are a visited on daily basis. The hill church in our capital city of Ljubljana is so popular on weekends that needs to have a two – way traffic: one way for up the hill, one way for down the hill. Stories like that never end in Slovenia.

View from the back of the church
We have a church like that also in our municipality of Žirovnica. It is called the church of Saint Lawrence. Growing up I many times went to the remnants of the old church with my grandfather. We took a picnic up and enjoyed our hike. It lies high above our village of Zabreznica and it is our village’s local church. We don’t have one down in the valley. If we want to go to the church we need to hike up. And it is a good hike because the church lies 180 metres above the village. I used to dread that hike. But lately it has been my venture every day – either early in the morning or later in the afternoon. Sometimes I walk up alone, sometimes with my son or we go as a a family. During the times of the quarantine we hiked up and had breakfast up there on a beautiful bench overlooking the valley too.
Breakfast with a view
Every time we hike up we sign in to a special book. You can find those at every mountain hut, mountain top or at other hiking destinations. At the moment for year 2020 I have 30 entries (in a row). Some other villagers have already more than a 100. I guess I am a long way from there? Once you are up there you can also ring the little bell and make a wish. If your wish doesn’t comes true, at least you can signal your family that the hike was successful and you manage a few steep hills and over 190 stairs. Of course walking up makes a tour guide interested and that is why I started searching for some historical information – just in case if all of a sudden a group of guests appear from out of nowhere and I can explain them the story.
Do not forget to sign in
Some people believe the first church was built there between 5th and 6th century. But a more recent information says that the actual first church was built in 1373. Then, during the time of Turkish invasion, it was rebuilt. Up until 1642 there were daily services in the church but a story goes that the local priest got tired of walking up the hill every day to ring the bell and give prayers and he asked villagers to head out to a neighbour village church for their daily communions. Slowly the church was decaying. The tooth of time left its mark and church disappeared in the rabble and forrest. In 1990 a small cross was built on the sight of the church and that caused a commotion among villagers to built a new church with the foundations of the old one. In 1992 villagers started bringing up the materials and church was built solely by the volunteers from the village. I am proud to say that even my dad took up a few bags of material for making concrete. In the phase of the building a lot of archeological artefacts from the antique times were found and church was declared an important spot from both cultural and archeological perspective.

Church is rarely open – services are now held only three times a year – but there are interesting artefacts inside. One of them is the statue of Saint Lawrence, a patron saint of the church, that used to stand in a small chapel in the middle of the village. When the new big parish church in the neighbour village was built, villagers didn’t allow the statue to go into it, because it belonged solely to the village of Zabreznica. They believed he was their protector and it would be a bad omen to move him elsewhere. His old chapel, that was ruined because of the new road, was no longer there, so villagers decided to built a new one and have the statue inside of it. But once the church up the hill was built, statue found his home in it instantly. He is still there today, guarding the villagers.

A small chappel along the way
Who is actually Saint Lawrence? He served pope Sixtus II. They both lived in the 3rd century when roman emperor Valerian didn’t believe in Christianity and has gotten all Christians killed. Sixtus II was killed in the catacombs, while Lawrence was supposed to give all church wealth to the Roman prefect. Lawrence asked for the three day delay with which he tricked the prefect and has brought to him all orphans, widows and beggars, “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown”. The prefect was furious because of the deception and got Lawrence tortured, he had a great gridiron prepared with hot coals beneath it and had Lawrence placed on it. After the martyr had suffered pain for a long time, the legend concludes, he cheerfully declared: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!” This is also why Saint Lawrence has a patronage for the poor, cooks, chefs and comedians.