The surrounding countryside of Mirenski Grad was always populated and observed by the people that crossed this area while travelling from the Roman Empire towards the barbarian world and vice versa. In the 5th century, the migration brought here the Ostrogoths whose burial site was discovered in Japnišče.
Therefore, in the 5th century, the Miren’s southern hamlet of Japnišče was already populated and the nearby hill was the closest panoramic viewpoint for the inhabitants. It offered them safety and ensured control over caravans travelling across the Roman trade route. The name of Japnišče was first mentioned in Urbarium, only in 1450, under the German name Jaknitsch, and it was reported that this hamlet was a county and had its own mayor. From the same period, in 1488, the first records about the Church of Our Lady on the hill above the town of Miren are found. The parish priest mentions in his complaint that he allowed the chaplain of Renče to hold a mass every Saturday in Our Lady’s Church on the hill above Miren.
The first written records of the church on the hill above Miren date back to 1488. Probably, we can see this same church in the photographs from 1913. It is the small church next to the imposing new church in the background. Apparently, this church was rebuilt several times. Already in the fifteenth century, it boasted three altars, showing its important status. According to the visitation report by the abbot Bartholomew da Porcia of Rosazzo, the church had the main altar with a carved and gilded image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Holy Spirit altar with a painted image of the Holy Trinity, as well as Sts. Fabian and Sebastian altar. However, the visitation report by the bishop Karl Attems in 1750 mentions that the main altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary is made of marble and that the two side altars are dedicated to St. Apollonia and St. Mary Magdalene.
In 1866, the Miren parish priest Janez Elersič used pilgrims' donations to build a larger church of the current size, and it was dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. In the Soča article from 1875, there is a request for financial support for purchasing bells for the new church on Grad next to the Holy Stairs. The former chaplain Jožef Pipan in the book Življenje preblažene Device Marije in njenega prečastitega ženina sv. Jožefa (The life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her most chaste spouse St. Joseph) cites that in 1889 in the small church of Grad a carved figure of Holy Mother adorned the main marble altar, while the two side altars were dedicated to St. Apollonia and St. Mary Magdalene. This is one of the last records written about the old church standing next to the new church of Grad. In 1914, the old church was officially demolished, probably because it was too small to accommodate crowds who gathered here to worship God, especially at feasts.
The following year, 1915, during World War I, the large church commissioned by Elersič was also virtually razed to the ground. The restoration work and cleaning began only in 1924 when the church of Grad was approved to be equal to parish churches, and therefore received the right to war compensation. The renovation of the church and the mission building started with a celebration of Holy Mass, which was held next to a hut in front of the demolished church on 25 August 1924. After one year, the church was arched and therefore, in 1925, the parish priest Pahor announced that the Kvatrnica Feast would have been celebrated already in the new church on Grad. However, the construction proceeded slowly. Only in 1927, it was finally completed for God’s service. The two bell towers were finished in 1929. In 1931, the church was paved and electrical wiring was installed. The altar designed by the architect Ivan Vurnik was completed in 1932, however, only half of his plan was realised due to lack of financial resources.
During World War II, the church was severely damaged again. The Lazarist began restoring it in 1955, but it was consecrated only on 13 July 1986. Today the church is one of the largest in the Diocese of Koper. The aisles are divided from the nave by six stone columns, of which the last four are built in the wall. It is interesting to note that the aisles are without windows and therefore all the light enters from the nave providing enough illumination because of the Mediterranean sun. Entering the portal three arcades open under the choir offering a monumental view towards the main altar, which has an altarpiece made of marble pieces of the previous altar. The artist Tone Kralj wanted to emphasise the fact that the new sanctuary was rebuilt on the ruins of the former church. At the top of the altarpiece stands a statue of Pieta, also made by Tone Kralj. His works are also all mural paintings, the Stations of the Cross in oil on hardboard, and The Mysteries of the Rosary in simple drawing technic on the clerestory walls. In 1970, the church acquired another Kralj’s art piece, a marble statue of Mary with Jesus, which now stands on the altar in the left aisle.
Feast days and celebrations on Grad
We do not know when the first celebration of Kvatrnica (Ember day) took place on Grad. The first known record about Ember days dates back to 1570 when the abbot Porcia visited the church of Grad. The visitation report says that the Eucharist was celebrated on the feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary every Sunday after the Ember days, on the day of the consecration of the church and the second Sunday after St. Michael. However, there is no information if the autumn Kvatrnica was already a pilgrimage gathering at that time. In any case, over the centuries Kvatrnica was not a feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, but the September Ember day, which was a celebration of thanking God for the gifts of nature, especially at grape harvest, and a request to receive blessings.
The oldest known record about Kvatrnica on Grad dates back to 1881. In Soča newspaper is written: “The pilgrimage site of Grad at Miren is renowned throughout the Goriška region. The autumn Kvatrnica is the main feast; when flocks of people gather here from Goriška and Friuli region, as well as from Trieste and Vipava.” The hermits, who arrived on Grad in search of solitude, started to spread the worship of the Old Lady of Sorrows. In 1755, they built the Holy Stairs and the Calvary with the statues, which at the same time resulted in an increasing practice of devotion and the arrival of a larger number of pilgrims.
The Miren parish priest Janez Elersič who was very devoted to this feast used pilgrims’ donations to build a larger church and dedicated it to Our Lady of Sorrows in 1866. Probably, the hermits who had settled here in search of solitude left this place because it had become too lively.
In 1866, when the new church was built and dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, the celebration of Kvatrnica merged with the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Because Kvatrnica was a festivity of a wider surrounding area, various celebrations were associated with this pilgrimage gathering. Gorica and Primorski list newspapers reported in 1904 that at Miren a concert performed by a military band and choirs from Miren and Rubje was organized, and at the end of the program, there was also a huge fireworks display.
In September 1907, marking the 150th anniversary of Holy Stairs and the 50th anniversary of the Stations of the Cross a huge crowd gathered on Grad. Gorica newspaper mentions that there were over 15,000 people on Grad for the entire three days.
The following year around twelve thousand pilgrims gathered at the feast of Kvatrnica, which is an unimaginable number for the present time. It was similar all the following years. In Primorski list from 1908 is written; “Mirenski Grad with the celebration of autumn Kvatrnica retains its powerful attractiveness.”
During World War I the church was destroyed and for this reason, Kvatrnica could not be celebrated.
After the war, a wooden military barrack was converted into a chapel which was transferred from Miren to Grad in 1922. After eight years of interruption, it welcomed pilgrims to come again to worship Our Lady of Sorrows. In the Goriška straža newspaper is reported that after the war, in 1925, at Kvatrnica were held six celebrations of Eucharist and the litanies in the afternoon. The faithful slept for a few days on the church pews at Grad. Some of them arrived already on Saturday on foot, by bike or by carriage, and many locals even took the shortcut by wading through the Vipava River.
After this year, we have no written documents about Kvatrnica for a long period of time, because a lot of material was destroyed in World War II. In the Miren parish newspaper Zvon sv. Jurija is written: “In 1943 and 1944 Kvatrnica was not celebrated. After World War II, the celebration was held for two years, however, it was not as crowded as before. In 1947, there was no ceremony, because the authorities rejected it. In the following years, however, the number of pilgrims increased again. When the border was opened in 1955, pilgrims from the neighbouring countries could also visit us." However, it is impossible to imagine the number of crowds that flocked here before World War I.
Who maintained the church and the hill?
In 1750, when the hermits left Grad, they asked for a priest to replace them to take care of the spiritual service, as many people were visiting Grad. In 1765 a permanent curacy came to life, which unfortunately ceased operating after Emperor Joseph II’s reforms.
The question was who would take care of Grad, as it was often visited by pilgrims, especially since the Holy Stairs and the Calvary were set up. The parish priest Rojc came up with the idea to invite the Lazarists.
The parish priest Rojc was sorry that the church did not have its own chaplain and could not have been open all the time. On 1st November 1912, an agreement was signed whereby the church of Grad, as well as the chaplaincy and all the properties possessed by the church, were handed over to missionaries’ administration. The missionaries pledged to take care of God’s service on Grad, to provide spiritual exercises and to organize parish missions.
In August 1913 a sales contract was signed for the land on which in the same year the Lazarists laid the foundations stone for the Mission building. At first, the Lazarists resided in the chaplaincy until a year after their arrival, in 1914, they moved to a new Mission building meant for spiritual exercises. After its destruction in World War I, it was renovated and reduced by one floor in 1924. During World War II, in 1944, the Partisans burned it down.
It was only after the arrival of the superior Alojzij Trontelj, who came on Grad directly from prison in 1953, that serious restoration work began after World War II. The Mission building came first. For seven years, Trontelj cleaned up the rubble, covered the walls with blankets, removed the material and cleaned the bricks. During that time, they lived in severe poverty and without financial means. Alojzij Trontelj proposed to the Yugoslavian Province of the Daughters of Charity to take over the renovation and the building. In 1960 the first Daughters of Charity settled into the building and completed the renovation by 1961.
The Daughters of Charity named the renovated building the House of Our Lady. It became a retirement residence for elderly nuns that had returned home from all over Yugoslavia. They lived here until 2015 when they moved into a smaller house by the cemetery. The building then passed to the Lazarists and is today home to the Mirenski Grad Family Centre, run by the St. Vincent de Paul Volunteer Association. The Family Centre provides various activities for children, youth and families. Part of the building is used also for homeless resettlement programmes and spiritual retreats.
After WWII the Lazarists moved back to chaplaincy and devoted themselves to spiritual retreats and catechist training courses. The need for a new building for spiritual retreats led to the construction of the Gnidovec Spiritual Retreat at the site of the former outbuildings and stables in 1970. Due to increasing needs, some additions were made to the building in 1981: a new conference hall was added following a design by France Kvaternik, and the dining room was expanded. In 1991 part of the attic was converted into a chapel for the guests of the Gnidovec Spiritual Retreat.