A corner of paradise behind a pilgrimage church

The village of Štípa in Moravia boasts a baroque pilgrimage church. The area behind the church, however, remained unused and untidy for many years – until several local families set about renovating it.

According to parish priest František Sedláček, groups of volunteers began to form around the Štípa parish as early as the 1970s.

“I heard about that from residents. I have been here for the last 17 years, but local people were already involved in the repairs of the rectory and creating a community before then. The older ones spent time with the younger ones, and various groups formed, such as altar boys or choirs. People helped one another, fathers worked together with their sons and volunteering was passed on.”

František Sedláček

3-meter-high yew trees and an ugly house

It’s just that when you get a lot of people together, it’s hard to reach consensus. “We were trying to figure out how to start. I knew a landscape architect, Ferdinand Leffler, so I asked him if he would help us by creating an initial design of the site. He did and his initial site design gave us the guidance we needed: we knew what we were going to demolish, what we were going to plant where and where we were going to create the seating area,” says Lubomír Hnilica. But the rest of the work was up to the volunteers. They do whatever they can themselves. “For us, this is the way to do it fastest, cheapest and to our own liking. We did a lot of things ourselves, knocking down partition walls, chipping off the old facade, planting all the flower beds…,” adds Lubomír Hnilica.

Trees instead of a construction site

The group transformed a disused farm building into a multifunctional hall for fifty people, where local families, visitors and pilgrims can meet. Modern restrooms have also been added, in which everything works on a photocell and water from the property’s own well is used for flushing. The flower beds are irrigated using harvested rainwater. “When we renovated the hall, we looked outside and said we wanted to look at something nicer than a construction site. So we brought in soil, did a lot of landscaping and also managed to get a grant to buy 63 trees (to commemorate the 630th anniversary of the first written record of Štípa). These now have 63 patrons, mostly local families who planted a tree themselves. Each tree has a sign with the name of its patron,” says Lubomír Hnilica.

Most of the material was purchased using donations. “At the parish pastoral and economic council we discuss what is currently needed. Occasionally we do a public collection, and that money usually goes towards the big repairs,” the parish priest explains. According to Lubomir Hnilica, it helps when people see tangible results. “They see that we work here on weekends, that we’re always building or renovating something and that it serves everyone. When they see that, of course, they are more willing to contribute.”

Who will build the gazebo?

Another idea that emerged was building a gazebo. “But it was a big building, 8 metres wide. We couldn’t have done it ourselves, we needed to have a steel structure made,” says Lubomír Hnilica. The group therefore looked for ways to pay for the gazebo, and they came across the Via-Česká spořitelna small grant program and Petra Ernestová, who works at Česká spořitelna bank. As the crow flies, I live about three kilometers from the church in Štípa. And my distant cousin has a music school next to the church. Everyone knows everyone here,” says Petra Ernestová, laughing. Michaela Blahová, who is one of the local volunteers and who used to be a town council member in the city of Zlín, told Petra about the need to pay for the gazebo and the idea of using a grant. “The restoration of the area is amazing. I was happy to help them, I studied the grant conditions and took the matter into my own hands,” says Petra Ernestová. In the end, they received a grant of CZK 97,200 ($4,262) for the construction of the gazebo.

The gazebo now stands on the site and Lubomír Hnilica proudly describes how they created the wooden ceiling themselves and their friends built the roof and the cladding pro bono. The only thing that is still missing is the floor. There wasn’t enough funding for that. “We’ve made the preparations for the floor and hopefully we will be able to raise money through a fundraising drive on Via’s online fundraising portal, Darujme.cz.”

The right number of volunteers

How many people are actually involved in fixing up the area behind the church? “I have 48 addresses on my mailing list, but usually only one family member is on it. We have work days in the autumn, from September to November, and then in the spring, from March to May. We have a system already fine-tuned; we fill out an online spreadsheet. So we know how many people are coming and what needs to be done. It’s not good if not enough people come, but not too many either,” says Lubomír Hnilica.

Various events have already been held in the area behind the church. In September, the main pilgrimage event will take place here. “Thousands of people come. Volunteers will welcome them, prepare refreshments and provide accommodation,” says the parish priest. There is also an Advent afternoon, a garden festival for Mother’s Day and the Night of the Churches is also celebrated here, when the whole area is illuminated and a tasting of the monastery’s wines and beers takes place.

The landscaping of the grounds is not yet complete, but the park behind the church is already fulfilling its main purpose – locals gather here in the shadow of the church to relax, have fun, and chat – all thanks to the hard work and enthusiasm of their neighbors.