Like many other places in Hrvatsko Zagorje, bistrica is first mentioned in 1209 in a charter in which King Andrew II of Hungary determines the boundaries of Count vratislav’s feudal lands. Although it is possible that a parish existed in bistrica even before, it is first mentioned in 1334 as the parish church dedicated to apostles Peter and Paul.
The history of Our Lady of bistrica begins at vinski vrh where the divine statue of the black Madonna of bistrica – the shrine’s trademark even today – first stood. The statue dates back to the 15th century, it is the work of an unknown folk master, and it was originally worshiped in a wooden chapel at vinski vrh. This lasted until 1545. As the chapel was without defense and in the direct line of the Turks’ advancements (on May 4, 1545 in the nearby Konjščina the Turks defeated viceroy’s Nikola Zrinski’s army), the then parish priest secretly buried the statue, already famed for its miraculous powers, under the church choir. Soon after the priest died and took the secret of the blessed virgin’s hiding place to his grave. Only in 1588 the statue was rediscovered again: a strange light that could be seen from under the choir made the parishioners excavate there and find Mary’s statue completely intact. Antun Plavašić, who served as the parish priest from 1574 to 1590, put the miraculous statue back on the altar where it was worshiped with special devotion. renewed Turkish danger of 1650 was the reason to hide the statue yet again. It was now almost completely walled in behind the main altar; only Mary’s face could be seen.
Frequent warfare made pilgrimages almost completely impossible and the miraculous statue was once again forgotten. The statue was rediscovered again when the blessed virgin miraculously appeared in the shape of an unknown blind lady in a blue dress. St. Mary first appeared before Petar Brezarić, who served as the parish priest from 1676 to 1679, with a burning candle in her hand and told him to pray for her being able to see again. The apparition took place again that same day in the nearby Podgrađe while the priest and his chaplain were riding in a carriage toward Malenić Manor. but not even this apparition led to the rediscovery of the statue. It happened only thanks to Martin borković, the bishop of Zagreb, and a Paulist. Ever since this last discovery of the miraculous black statue on July 15, 1684, Our Lady of Bistrica has been worshiped without interruption until present days. Sudden popularity of the statue and the shrine was the result of the first miracle that took place on July 16, 1684, at the celebration of St. Margaret’s day: Katarina, a disabled girl, miraculously walked again. The statue was placed on the side altar, and the news of the miracle spread through the whole of Zagreb Diocese, as well as through Styria and Hungary. That was how mass pilgrimages began.
Andrija Ifšić, the parish priest from 1688 to 1719, particularly contributed to the rise of pilgrimage spirit by choosing not to serve as a dean and instead dedicating himself to spreading the veneration of Our Lady of Bistrica. At the time of plague pandemic he had a crucial influence on the Croatian Parliament, which on October 20, 1710 vowed to build a new main altar for Our Lady of Bistrica. The parliament made this official by passing the decision on May 28, 1711, and fulfilled its vow four years later. This raised the shrine at Bistrica to an “earthly” level. The shrine was becoming ever more admired, so in 1721 the Croatian Parliament decided to build a road from Kašina via Laz to bistrica, and in 1753 part of the road from Zagreb via Sesvete to Kašina was reconstructed. At the same time the old parish church was remodeled in the baroque style. Juraj Branjug, the bishop of Zagreb, consecrated the church on May 13, 1731, and on the occasion changed the name of the parish, which was from then on no longer called after the apostles Peter and Paul, but was dedicated to Our Lady of the Snow. At the same time the Croatian Parliament passed the decision to rename bistrica, as the village was called until then, into Marija Bistrica.
In the first half of the 18th century, the parish church and its premises were constantly being built and expanded, which testifies to the parish’s economic significance, made possible by the visits of pilgrims from all parts of Croatia, Styria and Hungary. The portico with fortyone arches, built on Father Pavao Gojmerac’s order in 1748, was decorated with wall paintings depicting miracles that took place in bistrica as well as Mary’s answers to pilgrims’ prayers. It presented a fascinating scene for the visitors. Petar Berke’s book, published in 1765, also speaks of the power and popularity of the shrine. Serving as a chaplain in Marija Bistrica, berke was responsible for German pilgrims (the Syrians). “Marvelous Treasures of the Celebrated Croatian Kingdom: Miraculous Apparitions…” is a history of the shrine written in a luscious kajkavian dialect (after its Croatian edition the book was published in Graz in 1775, and in 1985 it was reprinted by Msgr. Lovro Cindori). Popes benedict xiv and Clement XIII issued charters to Marija Bistrica, which was particularly celebrated among bishops of Zagreb, most notably by Maksimilijan Vrhovac. The traditional schedule of feast days dates back from his time (he served as bishop from 1787 to 1827), while at the time of Illyrian movement Marija bistrica becomes an important spiritual and cultural center.
Today’s appearance of the basilica dates back to the end of the 19th century. Father Juraj Žerjavić, Cardinal Josip Mihalović, and Minister Iso Kršnjavi founded a committee for the renovation of the shrine and the committee chose the renowned architect Herman Bollé to carry out the reconstruction. The works began in 1879. In 1880, just before the Assumption of the blessed virgin, a fire broke out in the church and completely destroyed its interior. The main altar with the miraculous statue was the only part of the church that remained intact. The Sisters of Mercy looked after the statue during the renovation. The new marble altar, another gift from the Croatian Parliament, was consecrated by Cardinal Mihalović in 1883. On the occasion, Pope Leo XIII made a donation of a gilded stand for the statue. In 1935, with the permission of the Chapter of Canons of St. Peter’s basilica in rome, Pope Pius xi awarded Marija Bistrica the title of basilica (basilica minor). On this celebration of 250th anniversary of the statue’s rediscovery, Mary was presented with a crown resembling the crowns worn by Croatian kings. With this symbolical act, the blessed virgin became the Queen of the Croats.
Thirty thousand pilgrims gathered to celebrate the occasion, and the sermon and consecration was led by the young coadjutor archbishop, blessed Alojzije Stepinac. Even bigger gatherings took place under the blessed virgin’s fold: Marian and Eucharistic Congress of 1971 brought together as much as 150,000 pilgrims and thus sent a strong message on the Croats’ religious and national awareness within the communist Yugoslavia. The same year Pope Paul vi presented Marija Bistrica with a golden chalice, and the shrine was officially declared “Croatian National Shrine of Our Lady of Bistrica – The Queen of the Croats”.
Still, the most important event in Marija Bistrica was again the doing of blessed Alojzije Stepinac. In 1998 Pope John Paul II beatified the cardinal who took a vow for Croatian people before Mary. In honor of the Pope’s visit, the main square in Bistrica was given his name.