November 16 is the feast of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy, of the Gate of Dawn
In 1363, Grand Duke Algirdas of Lithuania conquered Kherson (now in Ukraine), and brought back its holy icon of the Mother of God as a present for his wife, Luliania, who installed it in the new Trinity Monastery in Vilnius. After the Tatar attack in 1503, the people of the Lithuanian capital surrounded the city with a wall.
On the eastern gate “Aušros Vartai”, (Gate of Dawn, in Lithuanian); “Ostra Brama”, (Sharp Gate, in Polish & Russian), an icon of the Savior looked out toward the enemy homelands of Russia and Mongolia, and inside, the Virgin from Kherson looked in toward the people of Vilnius.
In 1626, an adjacent Carmelite monastery took responsibility for maintaining the Virgin’s image and conducting services in her honor. During the 1655-61 war with Russia, citizens prayed before Our Lady’s image to plead for help, and many saw the same image in the sky over the city. After the Polish-Lithuanian victory in 1661, a chapel was built on the gate for the Virgin’s icon, which the jewelers of Vilnius sheathed in gold and silver.
But in 1702, Protestant Swedes occupied Vilnius and forbid public veneration of the Virgin’s image, which was injured by a bullet in a battle for the Gate of Dawn. A few years later, after the Russian army defeated the Swedes, a great fire destroyed the wooden chapel on the Gate, but the Carmelite monks saved the picture and rebuilt the chapel in stone. After Russia took over Lithuania in 1795, the tsar had the walls of Vilnius torn down, but left the Gate of Dawn, long a site of devotion for both Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Between the World Wars, Lithuania came back under Catholic Poland. On 5 July 1927, the icon was canonically crowned “Mother of Mercy” by Pope Pius XI. The chapel was later visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993. It is a major site of pilgrimage in Vilnius and attracts many visitors, especially from Poland.The Soviet regime, too, respected the holy shrine — though it is said they had plans to build a highway through it, halted by Lithuania’s independence in 1991 — and even allowed pilgrims in from other Communist lands. Some art historians believe the present icon is not the original Virgin of Kherson, but a work of the 1600s..
Catholics in Lithuania and surrounding countries celebrate the Black Madonna of Vilnius on November 16. The Orthodox commemorate the Ostrabramskaya on January 8 (December 26 in the old calendar).
PRAYER TO OUR LADY OF THE GATE OF DAWN
O my Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, I offer myself entirely to Thy grace and to Thy overwhelming mercy today and forever, but mostly at the hour of my death do I dedicate myself to thee. To thee do I dedicate my body and soul, all my happiness and hope, all my sorrows and sufferings! I offer my life and the end of my life to Thy holy hands so that through Thy merits all my deeds and acts go according to Thy holy will and according to the will of Thy sweetest Son! Amen.