It was filthy, cramped and in major disarray, but when art historian Eva Lindqvist Sandgren entered the library in Altomuenster Abbey, off-limits to all but the German monastery’s nuns for more than five centuries, she immediately knew she was looking at a major treasure.
The dusty shelves held at least 500 books, by her estimate, including
precious illuminated manuscripts from the 16th century, chants used by
the uniquely women-led Bridgettine Order and processionals bursting with
colorful religious and ornamental decoration in their margins.
Unlike most Bridgettine libraries, the tomes had survived the
Protestant Reformation, the 30 Years War and Germany’s “secularization,”
when the state took most church property. It represents the most
complete collection of the order known today.
“I had entered a time capsule,” said Lindqvist Sandgren, a senior lecturer at Sweden’s Uppsala University.
Surprised by the spontaneous decision by Altomuenster’s last
remaining nun, Sister Apollonia Buchinger, to open the library, 20
scholars including Sandgren made plans to return and meticulously
catalog the remarkable collection.
But before they could, the Vatican ordered the abbey in the Bavarian
town of 7,500 closed and locked up the library, which also contains some
2,300 statues, paintings and other works of art.
If plans go ahead to close it down, all of the abbey’s property - the
books, the artworks, the city block-sized abbey, and the acres of
forests and fields that make up the monastery grounds would be turned
over to the dioceses of Munich and Freising.
Altomuenster is the end of a subway line from Munich, one of
Germany’s most expensive cities, and its land alone is thought to be
worth tens of millions of euros (dollars) - assets that Apollonia thinks
the dioceses are eager to get their hands on.
Since 1496, the former Benedictine abbey in Altomuenster has housed a
female religious order founded by Saint Bridget in Sweden in the 14th
century. It is one of three monasteries of the original branch of the
scholarly, monastic order operating today.
But with its numbers in
decline, Sister Apollonia now lives there alone.
The Vatican requires at least three nuns to train novices to become nuns, prompting the decision to shut the abbey down.
The Franciscan nun the Vatican put in charge of the closure, Sister
Gabriele Konrad, says the collections are just being kept safe, but
she’s refused to grant the scholars or anyone else access to the books.
“The value of the library is the ensemble, because it’s never been
taken apart and probably nobody’s removed a significant number of books -
it’s a working library,” said Corine Schlief, an art historian at
Arizona State University who visited the library with Sandgren.
“If this should be taken apart and divided up between books that
collectors would give tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for and
those only of interest to scholars, it would lose a lot of its value.”
Schlief, Sandgren and other academics have written an open letter to
the Vatican, Gabriele and the Munich dioceses - which will inherit
Altomuenster’s property once it’s closed - urging that the library be
kept together and made available to the public and offering to catalog
Volker Schier of Arizona State University, another expert, estimated
the Altomuenster collection represents around 80 percent of all known
Gabriele and the Munich dioceses insist there is no plan to sell the
books, and that their experts are perfectly qualified to handle them.
Scholars had known previously there was a library and had been able
to ask nuns to bring them specific books to study in common areas of the
But in October 2015, with such a large group of Bridgettine
academics visiting, Apollonia decided it made more sense for them just
to look for themselves.
After the Vatican, a month later, ordered the monastery closed and
Apollonia appealed for more time, the 62-year-old nun with rosy cheeks
appealed to the public for support, starting a blog, a Facebook page and
a Twitter account to generate interest. She also gave The Associated
Press unprecedented access to areas in the labyrinthine monastery
previously restricted to nuns.
Sister Apollonia is convinced that, with help from other Bridgettine
Orders to bolster her numbers, she can again start training her own
novices. She currently has one postulant, a 38-year-old who left a law
career last year, but she cannot advance to become a novice without more
nuns to train her.
“They say there are too few, but there are some other women who want
to join,” Apollonia said, expressing hope that perhaps the Vatican
might be reconsidering the order to shut down.
The Vatican office in charge has refused to comment on its plans.
Gabriele says the decline of Altomuenster has been going on for
decades and previous attempts to bring in others had failed. Two
Bridgettines from Mexico came in 2012, only to return home after two
weeks because they were homesick.
Munich-Freising Vicar General Monsignor Peter Beer, Cardinal Reinhard
Marx’s deputy in charge of administration, dismissed speculation of any
land-and-treasure grab by the dioceses. He said for cultural, social
and religious reasons it was the dioceses’ responsibility to preserve
monasteries when they close.
“There’s a false impression that we’re taking in riches and gems and
gold and everything imaginable - that’s nonsense,” he told the AP at his
office in Munich. “We are taking on costs more than anything.”
His office also downplayed the library’s potential value or
historical significance, telling the AP it includes “a large number of
antiphonaries from the 18th century, most in very used and some in
damaged condition,” and that six antiphonaries - books containing
religious chants - from the Middle Ages have “already been studied by
That’s made the group of scholars who wrote the open letter and
others even more suspicious. From the hundreds of photographs they took,
they know there’s much more - including an illuminated manuscript from
the 1500s in Belgium, which might be expected to fetch $105,000 (100,000
euros) or more if sold to a private collector, said Schier.
Schier noted that even financially insignificant books are
historically important. Ledgers, cookbooks and even antiphonaries help
tell how the nuns lived over the centuries.
“Altomuenster is the holy grail,” he said.
Beer bristled at the offer of help from the group of scholars.
“You can be assured that we do not need any help from the U.S.A. to
understand how to treat cultural assets of significance for Europe. We
have a slightly longer history and slightly longer experience,” Beer
Referring to the letter from American and European academics, he
added, “It’s a little irritating to have things thrown out in public in
an open letter without the facts.”
The dioceses plan to digitize all books dating from before 1803 and
make them available online for researchers - but Schlief says that’s not
“Digitization is laudable, but it never replaces the books
themselves, which now need to be carefully studied and catalogued,” she
For her part, Apollonia said if the Vatican decides to give her more
time in the monastery, she’d be more than happy to open the library to
the scholars again.
“They need to be made available to the public,” Apollonia said.
“Maybe we could charge a fee and it could be a source of income.”