This mingling of past and present can be seen along Route 777 in Poland in the little town of Swiniary. Erected at the edge of a wheat field in the shadow of a great
willow tree, the roadside shrine consists of a very large crucifix surrounded by a wooden picket fence. The crucifix is adorned with stalks of wheat. Thin streamers of red, blue, yellow and white descend from
the top of the crucifix to the edge of the small fence, creating an overall effect of jubilant color and celebration.
In ancient times, branches of the willow tree were used to bless cattle when sent out to the pasture for the first time in the spring. The colors of the streamers
signify various religious themes—the red streamers representing the suffering of Christ, the blue and white streamers associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The oldest kapliczki were carved from wood and date back to the 15th century. The height of their development came later during the Counter Reformation in the 17th
century. The church began issuing decrees demanding that parish priests ensure the sign of the cross was represented in all villages to demonstrate that Catholics had nothing whatsoever in common with heretics
In the 19th century, as the affluence of the Polish peasant grew, the shrines began to take on a more secular, personal purpose and began to be built at the expense
of individuals, families and sometimes entire villages. The shrines were built to express needs or gratefulness: to thank God for blessings received, to ask for the undoing of misfortune, asking for a return to
health, protection against calamity, gratefulness for the establishment of a new home, success in the harvest, the satisfactory conclusion of an important task and protection from fire, flood or epidemics. The
wayside shrines were also located at the sites of battles, in front of graveyards and at the site of crimes. These shrines were expected to contribute to the salvation of the dead and also to protect the living
from wandering souls. Every small hamlet, village or town had their own shrine. It could be a large crucifix, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or a particular saint. St. John Nepomucen for instance, can be
found near rivers and streams since he the patron saint invoked against floods.
The variety of different types of shrines throughout Poland could be a lifelong study. They stand as a testament to the faith of the Polish people but also as
a study of their character, their hopes and dreams and their history as well.
Catherine Hodorowicz Hennessey studied in Poland under a grant from the Kosciuszko Foundation in 1999 while a student at the
University of Pittsburgh.