Czech monks fight to save 800-year-old monastery | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 16.02.2011
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Czech monks fight to save 800-year-old monastery

The Czech Republic is one of the most atheistic countries in Europe. But a group of monks from the small town of Marianske Lazne in Bohemia are fighting the decay of their monastery - and the Czechs' indifference.

The front of the Tepla monastery with its two towers

The 800-year-old Tepla Monastery is a relic of a bygone era

During the morning prayer, Tepla Monastery is still engulfed by darkness. The monks enter the chapel in a small procession, their white robes shining in the weak light of the lamps.

At the altar in the front of the chapel, they are holding their first Holy Mass of the day. While the monks are deep in prayer, it is getting light outside and the silhouettes of the buildings nearby appear in the first sunlight.

Build on a 16-hectare (roughly 40-acre) plot, Tepla Monastery is the size of a royal castle. At its peak, 130 monks lived there; today there are only seven.

Communists turned monastery into barracks

"I've been here since 1991," said Father Augustin of the Prämonstratenser order. "Back then our order took the monastery back into possession." Father Augustin is the monastery's administrator and oversees the renovation of the huge estate.

Adminstrator Father Augustin in the former dining hall. Paintings and rich ornaments decorate the walls and ceiling.

Adminstrator Father Augustin in the former dining hall

A heavy key ring dangles around his neck. He has the keys to each and every one of Tepla's cells, halls or chapels. While walking around, he shakes his head again and again; the state of the monastery is still unbelievable to him.

During communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the facility was nationalized and soldiers were stationed at the monastery. They left it to decay, directing their sewage into the cellar vaults, neglecting leaky roofs and letting the wind whistle through windows badly in need of repair.

The once glorious park became an exercise track for tanks. Even the neo-Baroque library was severely damaged: Weapons were stored there and the books were used to keep the fire going.

Locals feared return to Dark Ages

According to a new poll, only eight percent of Czechs consider themselves religious - fewer than ever before. During the communist period, which lasted until 1989, religion was officially disapproved of. Even today, the church is finding it difficult to win the confidence of the population.

Father Augustin said that when he moved into the old monastery with his order, people did not trust them.

"They still had the old propaganda stuck in their heads," he explained. "The church was their class enemy. A lot of them were afraid that we would bring back the Dark Ages. At some point we just asked: Why don't you help us? Even the ceiling is coming down. We aren't doing this for ourselves; this cultural heritage belongs to all of us!"

An 800-year-old hope

The monastery's pond and park area, framed by trees.

The large park had been turned into exercise grounds for soldiers

Step by step, Father Augustin and his fellow monks have succeeded in rescuing the monastery from decay. Some parts of the old estate have been completely reconstructed. In other parts, the work is ongoing.

The neighbors' skeptical attitude hasn't significantly changed, however, and they remain largely ambivalent. The monks still hold Sunday Masses in the nearby churches, but few people attend.

"In one of them, there was only one old lady coming to the mass. When she wasn't able to leave the house anymore we closed the church and walled it up," said Father Augustin.

But the monks are hopeful and don't want to give up their monastery.

"For me, this was a man of hope," said Father Augustin, pointing to the golden sarcophagus of Count Hroznata, who founded the monastery in the 12th century after his wife and daughters had died. "He lost what was most dear to him but still didn't loose his faith in God and his love of life."

Author: Kilian Kirchgessner / jb
Editor: Kate Bowen

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