By: Petra Janša
Before the feast of All Saints, we were called by the parish administrator and legal representative of the Parish of St. Peter near Maribor – Malečnik mag. Sebastian Valentan and invited us to see the renovated, almost 300-year-old catacombs, which have so far been known to only a few.
The photographer and I went to Malečnik on the feast of faithful souls, on the morning of November 2nd, and in the evening, as before, a mass was donated for the first time in more than a hundred years. We enter the catacombs through a special entrance on the outer right side of the parish church of St. Peter in Malečnik, where the inscription: Bog se smili kreš. Verne duše vicah 1857 (God have mercy on faithful Christian souls in purgatory). At the top of the staircase, an ancient stone tombstone with a figurine of death and a monogram of Mary awaits us. Then we descend nineteen steps to the unique catacombs (tombs or crypts) in Slovenia. Back in 1730, they were erected by the then parish priest of Malečnik, dr. Janez Sittich (pastor 1724–1759). The catacombs are 12 meters long and 4 meters wide.
Frescoes and secret tunnel
“Priests are buried there, lay people here, more deserving locals of Malečnik,” explains Mag. Valentan on arrival at the catacombs. “I see that the frescoes of skulls are painted in Slovenian national costume? To wear the skulls of an abbey?” I ask him. “Yes. Just yesterday, dr. Šerbelj (Dr. Ferdinand Šerbelj, art historian, op. Cit.) Said that they really have two abbes on their heads and we don’t know why,” he says. “Probably because they are Slovenians,” I added. “I can. Two sisters are buried here. The inscription next to the skulls is in German,” says Mag. Valentan, who confirms to me that opposite we can see a fresco of a man’s skull, also painted in national costume, with a hat on his head.
“Were the catacombs intended only for graves, or were Christians also hiding from unfaithful rulers here?” – “We do not know that. But there is a secret tunnel here, which we intend to open under professional guidance,” he shows us the stone cover on the floor in the middle of the room. “The tunnel is supposed to lead under the river Drava to the other side of Maribor. This is going to be a big story. This is the peculiarity of the catacombs.” – “What does this tunnel look like?” – “We know nothing,” says Mag. Valentan and continues:
“Here we can see a stone altar with the relics of St. Cross. The last time a mass was given here was a hundred years ago. We have data from Slovenski gospodar from 1931, which will now be almost 100 years ago, where it was written that holy masses were once offered here.” – “Only on the feast of All Saints?” I ask. “Probably only on faithful souls a day, but maybe on other occasions as well. We don’t know that,” he replied.
Ossuary in the catacombs
“The glazing of the ossuary or the wall where the ossuary is, is new. It was made by Mr. Rafko on the model of the Swiss catacombs.” – “In the shape of a cross?” – “Yes, that’s right.” – “Whose bones are in the ossuary?” – “People who were buried around the church where a cemetery once stood. Then it was dug up.” “Aren’t those the bones of the people in the catacombs?” “No. These are walled up. In these niches. Here graves are full.” – “And these empty niches?” – “These are still waiting?” – “Waiting for whom?”- “Residents. It is written in the chronicle.” In the catacombs of Malečnik, which are almost below the entire surface of the parish church, there are as many as 64 grave niches or crabs (from the word rake = baptism) on all four sides, of which 14 are walled up.
“The inscriptions in Latin are interesting. Today, people do not know Latin, but they see frescoes of skulls with red and black burettes (priest’s headgear) and they know that it is a consecrated person,” Mag. Valentan continues with his presentation. As we could read on the parish website, in the niches behind the altar rest the earthly remains of the following priests: John Ferdinand Knechtl pl. Knechtelshofen (+ 6. 6. 1708) from the venerable family of Maribor, Janez Jurij Barthalotti (+ 6. 12. 1724), Urban Vincenci Böchaimba (+ 22. 7. 1730) from Jarenina (Jahring – Iaring), dr. John the Baptist Sittich (+ 4. 1. 1759) and Jožef Dornik (+ 14. 7. 1868). Barthalotti’s tombstone inscription ends with the words, “Quod bene fecit, habet,” meaning: What he has done good, he has. At the end of Sittich’s tombstone we read: “reqVIesCat teMpLI reaeDIfICator,” which in translation means: Let the builder of the church rest. The highlighted capital letters from this inscription are at the same time Roman numerals (chronogram), which give the year 1759, i.e. the year of his death (6 + 100 + 1000 + 51 + 501 + 1 + 100 = 1759). On Böchaimb’s tombstone, a Latin inscription reads: Reverend Mr. Urban Vincenc Böchaimb, resigned as pastor of Jarenina, Master of Philosophy, died July 22, 1738, aged 66 years. Here he rests and lays the foundation for eternal peace every quarter.
They rest in the catacombs
As far as it is known, the following people rest in the catacombs: Georg Schmuz (+ 1724), Filipp Knechtl (+ 1743), Margaretha Bratschgo (Bračko) (+ 1730), Lucia Purgan, Helena Piebek and Margaretha Siebenbürger (+ 3. 3. 1740). “Did people bury people in urns at that time?” – “No, that was before and it is now again.” The entrance to the catacombs was originally from the church, on the right side next to the altar of St. Janez Nepomuk, where the first step can still be seen on the church floor. Because Emperor Joseph II. ordered all crypts (tombs) that had an entrance from the church to be built in, with many costs and great effort the parish priest and honorary canon Marko Glaser had the thick church wall break down and build an extension and entrance on the outside of the church in 1857
While the photographer was photographing the interior of the catacombs, I further asked mag. Valentana how the idea to reopen them came about. “Did the parishioners suggest this?” – “They responded to my initiative.” I asked one of them, who was with us that day, if there was a special smell in the catacombs when they opened it, and he replied, that it was stuffy. The room itself was full of sand. This one was driven out and the catacombs cleaned, just as they now look to be suitable for viewing and ritual. “It’s a respectful attitude towards space,” he added.
About the parish church
I must write that before visiting the catacombs, the parishioners kindly received us and took us on a short tour of the parish church, where we had already seen through the floor niche into the catacombs, similar to the one in the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. Otherwise, the original church in Malečnik was Romanesque and was built on the same site. However, as the Drava flowed past the hill where the road now stands, floods and the undermining of the hill threatened the foundations of the church. The people of Šempeter organised the procession requests and the danger passed. The position of the parish church before 1730 was a few meters further towards the Drava, so that the bell tower of the present church stood in the middle of the front. It can still be seen on the bell tower that the first church was much lower than the present one; its length extended only to the present presbytery. Some still existing signs indicate that it was built in the Gothic style.
The Turks burned and plundered
An interesting fact for today is that in 1532 the Turkish Sultan Suleiman II. For the second time rushed with a large army in front of Vienna. However, because he learned that the city was heavily protected, and because the Kisek fortress under the command of Nikolaj Jurišič had already defended itself heroically during his journey there, he returned through Styria. Along the way, he ravaged, burned, and plundered everywhere. A section of the Turkish army crossed the Drava between Maribor and Melj. On this occasion, the Turks also visited the Parish of St. Peter and the parish church and burned its branch on Gora. Soon after this accident, the parish church was repaired and fit for the service of God. In 1535, Bishop Leonhard of Lavantine, the plenipotentiary of the Archbishop of Salzburg, came to St. Peter near Maribor. There, he consecrated the bells and blessed the cemetery. He also consecrated both churches: St. Peter and the Mother of God on Gora.
The present church
The present church was built by dr. John Sittih, who was pastor here between 1724 and 1759. The construction or style of the church is Romanesque. It has 7 altars, the large altar is dedicated to St. Peter, made in 1736 by Matija Leituer from Maribor. It was set up and painted by Jan Valentin Karcher in 1739. It is similar to the altars in Maribor, Ruše and Vuzenica. There are two images on the altar: the main image is Christ giving St. Peter keys – higher ecclesiastical authority. The oil was painted in 1737 by the painter Franc Ignac Flurer from Graz. Another, smaller image is the conversion of St. Paul of the same painter. Above the altar is the Holy Trinity, surrounded by heavenly angels.
On the right side, in the main altar, are large carved images of St. Nicholas and St. John of Nepomuk, and on the left St. Rupert and St. Valentina.
As a godsend
After the tour, the photographer and I were invited for coffee and croissants in the rectory, a beautiful building that needs serious renovation, as the building has neither central heating nor a bathroom. But it seems that with the arrival of Mag. Valentana a new wind has blown, or as one of the parishioners told me, he is a gift from God to them, for now the parish will breathe even easier. As we have learned, the parish has a parish pastoral council, an economic council and Caritas. Catechesis for primary school students is taught by two catechists and Mag. Valentan. “Mr. Pastor” has already hung flags above the entrance to the parish, Vatican, Slovenian and European. We can also see the parish coat of arms, compiled by dr. Tadej Jakopič.