Photo credit St. Kinga’s Chapel website https://www.wieliczka-saltmine.com
I grew up in the Arkansas River Valley a few miles away from a Benedictine Monastery. The Monastery was founded there to serve the German-speaking immigrants who were building the railroad through that part of the country. Over the years as the descendants of those original German settlers spread through the region, each little town got its own little church.
These churches did not grow there by some decree from the bishop who sent in official diocesan builders. Rather, these rural people chipped in as volunteer builders at the end of their full days putting bread on the table for their families.
My grandfather was a farmer, yet his name is inscribed on the plaque at the entrance of the church with the other builders.
For all the grand Cathedrals in our world, there are countless grassroots churches that got there by the hands of the people who lived, worked, and worshipped on that particular piece of earth. We who are made in the image and likeness of God, are compelled to carve out the sacred within our own time and place. While I love my Arkansas River Valley churches, the most amazing of these grassroots churches I have set foot in is half a world away in Wieliczka (vee-lit-ska), Poland.
St. Kinga’s Chapel lies 330 feet below the earth, carved out by Polish salt miners putting bread on their tables during the 13th Century. The miners spent their days and nights in the mine. Their choice was either to have no church or to literally carve a sacred space out of rock and salt.
Throughout the mine, miners sculpted dozens of statues out of the native rock that was already in place. They carved them near their living quarters or workspaces to remind themselves that God was near. They carved them near sites of accidents to intercede for the souls of fallen friends. They also carved four different chapels, but the crowning achievement is St. Kinga’s. With 36-feet-high ceilings and crystal salt chandeliers, you lose all sense of the weight of earth over your head. The walls are covered with bas-relief sculptures depicting favorite religious scenes. The 5,000 square feet of floor is stone polished smooth and shiny with perfectly symmetrical grooves cut to give the illusion of tile rather than bare rock.
Wherever you look in this remarkable chapel, you are filled with the sense of the sacred, the tradition of the Church, and the faith of those Christians who have gone before us.
When my son was seven, he told me that he wanted to be the first priest on Mars. To be honest, the idea isn’t that far-fetched. If the day comes that humans do build a colony on Mars, I am confident there will be a priest who goes along because where the people go, there goes the Church. Wherever life takes us, we find whatever ways we can to carve out the sacred and encounter God in the most sacred of spaces—Home.