Hardly any other pilgrimage site in the world can look back on such an impressive past. According to records, Mariazell was founded on December 21, 1157. An inscription above the main portal, giving the date 1200, means that we can assume that the building of the Romanesque chapel began at this time. The first documentary evidence of ‘Cell’ is from the year 1243. A letter of indulgence, dated 1330, from Archbishop Friedrich III of Salzburg, is given as the source for the Church of Our Beloved Lady of Cell as a much visited place of pilgrimage. By 1344 the community had received the rights of a market town.
Of great importance for Mariazell was the awarding of a plenary indulgence by Pope Boniface IX in 1399. It was granted for the week following the octave of the Assumption of the Virgin and led to the cultivation of penitential rites and processions, which continued after the indulgence was revoked and are documented well into the baroque period. The stream of pilgrims constantly increased.
There were already around two dozen stalls for the sale of votive offerings by around 1400, and approximately one-hundred years later Mariazell was known internationally as a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims from the regions of what are today Bavaria, Bohemia, France, Italy, Croatia, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, but above all, Austria and Hungary, were even then actively seeking the help of the Mariazell Mother of Mercy.
Mariazell enjoyed a special heyday after the end of the Counter Reformation as a national shrine of the House of Habsburg, which not only placed its personal fate under the protection of Mariazell, but the entire country and its inhabitants. The example given by the ruling family moved the members of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and finally the peasantry, to make pilgrimages to Mariazell.
The Gothic church could no longer accommodate the great number of pilgrims and Abbot Benedikt Pierin of Saint Lambrecht decided upon a baroque expansion that gave the church its characteristic appearance.
The bestowal of city status in 1948 was not due to the size of the community, but its importance as an ecclesiastical and cultural centre acknowledged far beyond the borders of Austria. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is now possible for pilgrims from Austria’s neighbouring countries to the south and east to again come unhindered to Mariazell.
With inhabitants numbering only 2000, one can nevertheless assume over one million pilgrims and visitors will come to Mariazell annually.