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Abbey of Einsiedeln

Benedictine monastery in the Canton of Schwyz, Switzerland

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Einsiedeln, Abbey of, a Benedictine monastery in the Canton of Schwyz, Switzerland, dedicated to Our Lady of the Hermits, that title being derived from the circumstances of its foundation, from which the name Einsiedeln is also said to have originated. St. Meinrad, of the family of the Counts of Hohenzollern, was educated at the abbey school of Reichenau, an island in Lake Constance, under his kinsmen Abbots Hatto and Erlebald, where he became a monk and was ordained. After some years at Reichenau, and the dependent priory of Bollingen, on Lake Zurich, he embraced an eremitical life and established his hermitage on the slopes of Mt. Etzel, taking with him a wonderworking statue of Our Lady which had been given him by the Abbess Hildegarde of Zurich, He died in 861 at the hands of robbers who coveted the treasures offered at the shrine by devout pilgrims, but during the next eighty years the place was never without one or more hermits emulating St. Meinrad’s example. One of them, named Eberhard, previously Provost of Strasburg, erected a monastery and church there, of which he became first abbot. The church was miraculously consecrated, so the legend runs, in 948, by Christ Himself assisted by the Four Evangelists, St. Peter, and St. Gregory the Great. This event was investigated and confirmed by Pope Leo VIII and subsequently ratified by many of his successors, the last ratification being by Pius VI in 1793, who confirmed the acts of all his predecessors. In 965 Gregory, the third Abbot of Einsiedeln, was made a prince of the empire by Otto I, and his successors continued to enjoy the same dignity up to the cessation of the empire in the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1274 the abbey, with its dependencies, was created an independent principality by Rudolf of Hapsburg, over which the abbot exercised temporal as well as spiritual jurisdiction. It continued independent until the French Revolution. The abbey is now what is termed nullius dicecesis, the abbot having quasi-episcopal authority over ten parishes served by the monks and comprising nearly twenty thousand souls. For the learning and piety of its monks Einsiedeln has been famous for a thousand years, and many saints and scholars have lived within its walls. The study of letters, printing, and music have greatly flourished there, and the abbey has contributed largely to the glory of the Benedictine Order. It is true that discipline declined somewhat in the fifteenth century and the rule became relaxed, but Ludovicus II, a monk of St. Gall who was Abbot of Einsiedeln 1526-44, succeeded in restoring the stricter observance. In the sixteenth century the religious disturbances caused by the spread of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland were a source of trouble for some time. Zwingli himself was at Einsiedeln for a while, and used the opportunity for protesting against the famous pilgrimages, but the storm passed over and the abbey was left in peace. Abbot Augustine I (1600-29) was the leader of the movement which resulted in the erection of the Swiss Congregation of the Order of St. Benedict in 1602, and he also did much for the establishment of unrelaxed observance in the abbey and for the promotion of a high standard of scholarship and learning amongst his monks.

The pilgrimages, just mentioned, which have never ceased since the days of St. Meinrad, have tended to make Einsiedeln the rival even of Rome, Loreto, and Compostela, and constitute one of the features for which the abbey is chiefly celebrated. The pilgrims number from 150,000 to 200,000 annually, from all parts of Catholic Europe. The miraculous statue of Our Lady, originally set up by St. Meinrad, and later enthroned in the little chapel erected by Eberhard, is the object of their devotion. This chapel stands within the great abbey church, in much the same way as the Holy House at Loreto, encased in marbles and precious woodwork, elaborately decorated, though it has been so often restored, rebuilt, and adorned with the offerings of pilgrims, that it may be doubted whether much of the original sanctuary still remains. The fourteenth of September and the thirteenth of October are the chief pilgrimage days, the former being the anniversary of the miraculous consecration of Eberhard’s basilica, and the latter that of the translation of St. Meinrad ‘s relics from Reichenau to Einsiedeln in 1039. The millenary of St. Meinrad was kept there with great splendor in 1861. The great church has been many times rebuilt, the last time by Abbot Maurus between the years 1704 and 1719, and one of its chief treasures now is a magnificent corona presented by Napoleon III when he made a pilgrimage there in 1865. The library, which dates from 946, contains nearly fifty thousand volumes and many priceless MSS. The work of the monks is divided chiefly between prayer, the confessional, and study. At pilgrimage times the number of confessions heard is very large. The community numbers about one hundred priests and forty lay brothers, and attached to the abbey are a seminary and a college for about two hundred and sixty boys, both of which are taught by the monks, who also direct six convents of nuns. In 1854 a colony was sent to America from Einsiedeln to work amongst the native Indian tribes. From St. Meinrad’s Abbey, Indiana, which was the first settlement, daughter-houses were founded, and these in 1881 were formed into the Swiss-American Congregation, which comprised (in 1906) seven monasteries and nearly four hundred religious. Dom Thomas Bossart, the fifty-third Abbot of Einsiedeln and formerly dean of the monastery, was elected in 1905.


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