The Hill of Crosses is located 12km outside the city of Šiauliai in Northern Lithuania. For almost 200 years Catholics have been placing not only crosses, but also crucifixes, rosaries, statues of the Virgen Mary and along with carvings of Lithuanian patriots, here with the number today surpassing 100,000. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared here, holding an infant Jesus, and asked believers to cover this holy place with icons. Today, the hill has become a symbol of Lithuanian endurance in the face of the numerous threats that Catholicism has had to deal with throughout the history of the country.
For many centuries Lithuania belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1795 the third and last partition of the commonwealth took place with Lithuania, along with parts of Poland, becoming part of the Russian Empire. Both Poles and Lithuanians, unsuccessfully, attempted a rebellion against the Russian authorities in 1831 and again in 1863. Both of these uprisings are connected with the beginning of the hill as many families could not locate the bodies of loved ones, so they started erecting symbolic crosses on the site of a former fort to create a memorial to the missing. The Russian Tsars attempted to supress Lithuanian identity by limiting religious expression, so families were forbidden to honour the dead with proper burial services in cemeteries. In 1918, Lithuania, along with Poland, regained their independence, the Hill of Crosses became a place for Lithuanians to pray for their country, loved ones who were lost in the fight for independence, and for peace.
The end of WWII brought another Russian occupation. So, from 1944 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, many Lithuanians travelled to the hill to show their patriotism and their allegiance to their identity, religion and heritage. The resistance was peaceful, although the Soviets banned the Hill as “off limits” as well as removing many of the crosses and bulldozing the site several times.
The new and independent Lithuania received a visit for John Paull II in 1993 who declared the site a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice. The event started a series of vents which, in 2000, saw a Franciscan hermitage opened nearby. The interior of the hermitage is decorated with images of La Verna, the mountain in Italy where St. Francis received the stigmata, thus creating a link with the Hill of Crosses
UNESCO recognizes cross making as an intangible cultural heritage and a “symbol of national and religious identity”, uniting the nation in the face of adversity. Today, the hill remains under nobody’s jurisdiction and people are free to place crosses, many hand made, and other artifacts there as they see fit.