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Abbey of Echternach

Benedictine monastery, founded in 698 by St. Willibrord, an English monk

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Echternach, Abbey of (also EPTERNACH, Lat. EPTERNACENSIS), a Benedictine monastery in the town of that name, in the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg and the Diocese of Trier. It was founded in 698 by St. Willibrord, an English monk of Ripon, who became the Apostle of Friesland and first Bishop of Utrecht. Although a bishop, he ruled the monastery as abbot until his death in 739. The abbey stood near Tier on land given him for the purpose by St. Irmine, Abbess of Oeren and daughter of Dagobert II. It had many royal and other benefactors, including Pepin and Charlemagne, who conferred upon it great privileges. In 859 the monks were displaced by secular canons, as was so often the case with the early monasteries, but in 971 Emperor Otho I restored the Benedictine life there, bringing forty monks thither from the great Abbey of St. Maximin at Trier, one of whom, Ravanger by name, was made abbot. The monastery became very celebrated and was, during the Middle Ages, one of the most important in Northern Europe. It continued to flourish until the French Revolution, when it was suppressed, and the monks dispersed. The buildings put up by St. Willibrord were burnt down in 1017, and a new abbey was then erected. The church was Romanesque in style, but Gothic additions and alterations were made in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1797 it was sold and became a pottery manufactory, but in 1861 it was reacquired by the townspeople, through whose generosity and devotion it was restored and made a parish church. The reconsecration took place with great solemnity in 1868, and since that date the work of restoration and decoration has continued steadily. It is popularly called “the cathedral”, though not the seat of a bishop. The conventual buildings, originally erected in 1017-31, have been frequently rebuilt and added to, and they were entirely modernized in 1732. At the suppression they became State property and have for many years served as barracks. The library was noted for a number of precious MSS. of very early date which it contained; some of them are now in the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris.

The Dancing Procession.—The Abbey of Echternach owes much of its fame, especially in modern times, to the curious “dancing procession” which takes place annually on Whit Tuesday, in honor of St. Willibrord. The cult of the saint may be traced back almost to the date of his death, and the stream of pilgrims to his tomb in the abbey church has never ceased. The Emperors Lothair I, Conrad, and Maximilian may be numbered amongst them. The tomb stands before the high altar, and has been recently entirely renewed. On it is a recumbent effigy of the saint, and amongst other relics preserved there are a mitre, crosier, and chasuble said to have been used by him. The origin of the procession cannot be stated with certainty. Authentic documents of the fifteenth century speak of it as a regular and recognized custom at that time, but for earlier evidence there is only tradition to depend upon. The legend is that in 1347, when a pestilence raged amongst the cattle of the neighborhood, the symptoms of which were a kind of trembling or nervous shaking followed by speedy death, the people thought that by imitating these symptoms, more or less, whilst imploring the intercession of St. Willibrord, the evil might be stayed. The desired result was obtained, and so the dancing procession to the saint’s tomb became an annual ceremony. Nowadays it is made an act of expiation and penance on behalf of afflicted relations and especially in order to avert epilepsy, St. Vitus’s dance, convulsions, and all nervous diseases. The function commences at nine o’clock in the morning at the bridge over the Sure, with a sermon by the parish priest (formerly the abbot of the monastery); after this the procession moves towards the basilica, through the chief streets of the town, a distance of about 11 kilometers. Three steps forward are taken, then two back, so that five steps are required in order to advance one pace. The result is that it is well after midday before the last of the dancers has reached the church. They go four or five abreast, holding each other by the hand or arm. Many bands accompany them, playing a traditional melody which has been handed down for centuries. A large number of priests and religious also accompany the procession and not infrequently there are several bishops as well. On arrival at the church, the dance is continued around the tomb of St. Willibrord, when litanies and prayers in his honor are recited, and the whole concludes with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Though curious and even somewhat ludicrous, the people perform it in all seriousness and as a true act of devotion. It usually attracts to Echternach a great concourse of tourists as well as pilgrims, and as many as ten thousand people generally take part in it. The procession took place annually without intermission until 1777. Then, on account of some abuses that had crept in, the music and dancing were forbidden by the Archbishop of Trier, and in 1786 Joseph II abolished the procession altogether. Attempts were made to revive it ten years later but the French Revolution effectually prevented it. It was recommenced, however, in 1802 and has continued ever since. In 1826 the Government tried to change the day to a Sunday, but since 1830 it has always taken place on Whit Tuesday, as formerly.


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