Remember Miss Mary Ann from the children’s TV show Romper Room? If you’re from my generation, you might remember how she looked through her “magic mirror” and identified who she saw out in her TV audience (“I see Tommy and Mary. I see Frank and Amy…”). I used to wait for Miss Mary Ann to see me, to say my name, to acknowledge my presence. She never did despite my best attempts to situate myself right in front of the television set.
Croatia is making up for Miss Mary Ann! I hear my name all the time and I think that people are calling me when they’re not. “Mala” in Croatian means little or small. It’s also an endearing term used for babies or small children, as in “little one”.
So I wasn’t too surprised to hear of a festival called “Mala Gospa” but I had no idea what it was. “Mala Gospa” translates as “little lady” and acknowledges the birth of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Nativity of Mary. Even though there is no known date of Mary’s birth, it is celebrated on September 8th. It struck me how foreign such a celebration was to my Catholic upbringing. I felt lucky to be in Gromača, the little village where my grandfather (Ðedi) and some of my cousins were born, to participate in this feast day. (The feast part is a whole other story)!
People from Gromača and other small villages gathered in the center of the town around what appeared to be a permanent installation of an icon of Mary. The village only has about 140 inhabitants so I was surprised to see about 50 people gathering for the procession to the church. I was grateful for a cousin who held my hand and guided me through some of the rocky terrain and tenuous stairs. I broke my leg three months ago and walking is slow and unsteady at times but I did not want to miss this! There were prayers and singing during the procession until we got to one of the smallest churches I have ever seen. Inside, the iconography of Mary was so pronounced. Unlike the large crosses that hang on the altar of every single Catholic church I’ve seen, the little church in Gromača has a large portrait of Mary (holding Jesus, of course), instead. That struck me. I wonder if this reverence for Mary is true in small villages here or the way Catholocism has been shaped in Croatia generally.
But, the Catholic church is still deeply patriarchal. I noticed how the men were the ones to carry the banners during the procession and take up the front rows of the church. I have a lot to learn so if you have any thoughts or information, I’d love to know more.
Hvala, Croatia. It’s good to be seen.