A place full of History
For over nine centuries, Oelenberg Abbey, the only remaining monastery of the many which used to exist in this country, has kept the great monastic tradition alive in Alsace. Situated on one of the last hills of the Sundgau, 15 km west of Mulhouse, the abbey has shared the joys and misfortunes of this region.
In 1046, Heilwige of Dabo, the countess of Eguisheim and mother of Pope Leo IX, founded on the hill (berg), along a stream (oelen), a priory of regular canons of Saint Augustine. This was most probably for her son Gerard ‘s soul to rest in peace. He had died tragically in the course of a quarrel with the count of Ribeaupierre. Leo IX consecrated the church in 1049 and laid down there relics of the martyr Saint Romain. Very prosperous in the 13th century, the monastery was left in ruins by wars of the 14th century. Its decline continued until the 16th century. In 1626, the abbey became a property of the Jesuit college of Freiburg im Breisgau, then it belonged to the University of this same city in 1774. At the time of the French Revolution, the abbey buildings were sold to a industrialist from Mulhouse. The building was then sold on to a priest in 1821; the former monastery became then a girl boarding school.
In 1825 it came back into the hands of an important group of Cistercian monks commonly called “trappists”, who were back from exile. They were coming from Darfeld, in Westphalia, where they had found temporary shelter after a lot of peregrinations. A community of trappist sisters later joined them and remained there until 1985 when they moved to Ergersheim, not very far from Strasburg : it is nowadays the abbey “Our Lady of Altbronn“.
The monks started farming the land. They went through difficult times: famine in 1846, fires and epidemics. Nevertheless the monastery became prosperous. An intense activity was prevailing. In addition to the farm and the mill, there was a brewery, a cheese factory, a bakery & a printing press; almost all the trades were represented. Dom Ephrem Van der Meulen, the abbot from 1850 to 1884, built up a rich library. Oelenberg founded a monastery in Germany, in the diocese of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1862: Mariawald, near Heimbach. At the beginning of the 20th century, the abbey was sheltering 200 monks: 80 priests and 120 brethren converts. Oelenberg was by then a very famous religious, intellectual and economic centre.
The First World War was to destroy this expansion: the buildings were bombed and the monks had to scatter. The reconstruction was difficult. A group of monks of German origin went in 1925 to settle down in Austria at Our Lady of Engelszell, between Passau and Linz, on the banks of the Danube. They gave this ancient secularized Cistercian abbey a new life. Oelenberg suffered a second destruction in 1944-45, as bad as the previous one. The Strasburg diocese and its congregations contributed generously to the reconstruction, while monks coming from Zundert (Netherlands) helped the highly distressed community to come back to life and hope. A new stage was now starting.
The patrimonial and artistic point of view
Only parts of the old buildings remain: the lower part of the choir in the 12th century chapel, the transept of the former abbatial church (1486) and its baroque nave (1755). A procession cross from the 12th century, a large 14th century crucifix and two lovely statues of Our Lady from the 15th and 18th centuries are equally preserved.
In the former Jesuit church, the Chapel of St Michael has Gothic vaults and Romanesque openings. Three keystones are there still preserved with coats of arms dated from 1486. The Chapel of St Leo still has in its chevet some parts remaining from the 13th century. Some capitals with palmettes can still be seen. One of which represents two heads separated by a cross and with the letters S.P.A. and S.P.E. (St Paul and St Peter).
Another chapel called “du Mont des Oliviers” was an isolated building in the 12th century. It was later integrated into the other buildings and used as a cellar until 1895. At which point in time, it was dismantled and rebuilt stone by stone into the present noviciate in 1921. Its lower parts are Romanesque; the keystones of the vault are Gothic. In the chapter there is a recently restored exposed painting from the 18th century representing the scene of the “Lactation of St Bernard”. It comes from the Cistercian abbey of Lucelle along with three other relics from the same era. The abbey of Lucelle disappeared at the French Revolution.
Three relics from Oelenberg can be seen at the parish church of Reiningue. The oldest of which, a present from Pope Leo IX, is an 11th century casket made of partly gilt silver. It contains relics of St Romain, St Laurent and others saints. Lastly, a relic bust of St Romain, dated from the 14th century, contains a relic of the skull of the saint.
Nowadays, the monastery owns a large library with more than one hundred thousand books.
Between difficulties and projects
Our house is big and there are many outbuildings. For six years we have been involved in necessary and urgent renovation work to improve our environment and make it more in keeping with today’s needs and norms: repair work at the hostelry and kitchen, refitting of community rooms, modernisation of the mill, and renovation of septic tanks… We keep searching & thinking up solutions for the parts which are classified as National Heritage. Some day, we will perhaps be able to open some historical and cultural “treasures” of our monastery to the public.