Many Czechs are familiar with the old expression Panenko Skákavá, which literally means Jumping Virgin Mary, but few know about the origin of the phrase. Jumping Virgin Mary, or more precisely, the Virgin Mary of Skoky, is the patron of what used to be one of Bohemia’s most famous Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites. In this edition of Spotlight, we visit Skoky, now an extinct village with a run-down Baroque church that once attracted large crowds of believers.
Known in German as Maria Stock and in Czech as Skoky, the village with its Baroque church was one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in Bohemia. People from near and far came to pray to Maria Hilf zu Stock, or Virgin Mary the Helpful from Skoky. Skoky literally means “Jumps” in English; hence Panenka Skákavá, or Jumping Virgin Mary.
Today, only the dilapidated church remains on a hill overlooking the deep valley of the Střela River. The village disappeared after its German-speaking inhabitants were expelled after the Second World War, along with some three-million other ethnic Germans.
The church is now being taken care of by the members of a local NGO called Under the Roof. The head of the association is Jiří Schierl. He took me around.
“The fate of Skoky was very sad and its agony lasted for several decades, from 1945 until now. Before WWII, Skoky was a German village. After 1945, the Germans were expelled, and the village was re-populated with people who came from eastern Slovakia. But there weren’t enough of them, and they soon began leaving. The final straw for the village was the construction of the reservoir on the Střela River below us here in 1968. The last inhabitant left Skoky in 1982. She was an old lady who stayed here even after they built the lake, and died here.”
The church belongs to the Premonstratensian monastery in Teplá, some 60 km away. Pilgrimages to Skoky were held even in the communist era, and the church survived in good condition until the 1990s, when it became an easy target for thieves. Augustin Kováčik is the monastery administrator.
“Until 1990, the church was in relatively good shape. It had a nice Baroque interior from the 18th century. We have managed to save the painting of the Virgin Mary and two statues, St Anne and St Joachim, which we now have in the convent. But most of the rest has been destroyed. The worst thing was when they stole three pillars from the Baroque altar.”
The Premonstratensians recently received an EU grant to renovate the Teplá monastery. However, Agustin Kováčik says that they cannot really afford to look after the church as well.
“We cannot really protect the church. It’s difficult to get to; since they built the lake, there is only one poor forest road that goes there. Ideally, someone could live in the former inn that’s next to the church, but it would have to be fixed first. If someone lived there, perhaps the church would not suffer so much.”
Today, the church stands in the middle of the forest that covers what’s left of the village. Only a small cemetery is still there, with several dozen graves. Just two buildings have survived – an old barn, and another house that used to be one of the village inns. There were plans to renovate it and turn it into a visitors’ centre, but it is now privately owned and its owner would not hear of selling it.
Skoky was a tiny place even before it became a famous destination for Catholic pilgrims. Only around 180 people, most of them farmers, lived in the village before the war. The first mention of the place appeared in the 16th century, though it had no church back then. Every week, people had to walk to the nearby town Žlutice for Sunday mass. In winter, many of them did not make the trip at all. A local priest then made the locals build a chapel so that they could pray without having to leave the village. Jiří Schierl explains.
“The church was built between 1736 and 1738 but it was preceded by a small chapel built some 30 years earlier. The chapel had a copy of the miraculous painting of the Virgin Mary from Passau, in Germany, and the painting was the reason why pilgrims started to come here.”
“The church in Skoky has several unusual features related to its function as a church for pilgrims. For example it has two sacristies; its altar had a specific design to allow pilgrims to revere the painting of Virgin Mary, and another interesting thing is the cellar beneath the church where the pilgrims could store their food. The painting of Virgin Mary the Helpful of Skoky is a 1717 copy of the painting in Passau by a local painter. The painting is supposed to have healing powers.”
Jiří Schierl’s group now organizes two big events every year, with traditional pilgrimages in May and July. They open the church on several other dates throughout the year. He says he and his friends from the association wanted to help bring more people into the region and then thought the best way would be to try and save the church in Skoky.
“Our main activity focuses on Skoky, although that was not why our association was established. Our original goal was to promote tourism in the Toužim area. We would like to give Skoky back its original role, and to make it live again. We want to preserve the cultural heritage Skoky represents.”
Jiří Schierl, who is a train driver by profession, lives in the nearby town of Toužim. All of this area was inhabited by Germans, and re-populated after their expulsion.
“I also have some German ancestors; I live near here in Toužim, where our association is based. So I have a personal connection to these places and the whole region. In fact, I recently found out that one of my ancestors was here as one of the Premonstratensian monks, and was the administrator here at the church of Skoky. But there are still many prejudices in relations between Czechs and Germans. In recent years, there has been certain thawing but we still live to a large extent in the old patterns.”
Mr Schierl says that some of the descendants of Skoky’s original population still come today, but Czech-German relations remain a sensitive issue.
“We of course work together with people who were born here in Skoky, and with their descendants who live in Germany. We also cooperate with the local branches of the Union of Germans living in the Czech Republic, with whom we organize the religious activities. More than anything, I am ashamed about what is here, about what our predecessors left here, and about how we handled our common cultural heritage.”
Today, Skoky or Maria Stock is as isolated and remote as ever. To get there on foot, you need to walk around much of the lake, and then take the only road that is still there. But the local enthusiasts are working to re-connect Skoky, and its precious heritage, to the outside world.
“People would mainly come here by crossing the river. But there were many other roads from all directions because pilgrims from all over the area used to come. Our favourite path is the one we made up ourselves. It is a reminder of Skoky’s pilgrimage tradition. We built this pilgrimage path, a miniature version of Santiago de Compostela, although it is dedicated not to St Jacob but to Virgin Mary. It links the monastery in Teplá with Skoky.”
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