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But as the bird box is already full...

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But as the bird box is already full...

A (monastic) life for science: Fr Gabriel Strobl OSB

Throughout the 945-year history of the Benedictine Abbey of Admont, art and science have always played an important role. The magnificent "storehouse of knowledge", the abbey library and the rich collections from various fields of knowledge and epochs bear witness to this. 

It is above all thanks to the foresight of many abbots and priors that numerous monks of this important monastery on the Styrian Enns were not only able to deal with the growing tasks, such as pastoral care and education, but were also able to engage intensively with study and science. This visionary openness of the Admont Benedictines runs like a red thread through the centuries of history. Great and important names can be found in the annals of the monastery: monks who pursued research in a wide variety of fields: Theology, history, music, philosophy, oriental studies and also - and very strongly represented - the natural sciences. Evidence of the monks' interest in the natural sciences can already be found in the high and late medieval manuscripts in the monastery library, although the focus was naturally always on theology. 

One name must be mentioned in this context: Abbot Engelbert (Poetsch), who presided over the abbey from 1297 to 1337 and can be described as a polymath of the Middle Ages. In addition to a large number of works on various disciplines, he wrote a "Tractatus de naturis animalium", in which he wrote about the physical nature of both humans and animals.

The 19th century can be seen as the era in which Admont began to focus intensively on the natural sciences. 

Prelate Gotthard Kuglmayr, abbot from 1788 to 1818, is regarded as one of the initiators of this school of thought. In 1801 and 1802, he himself, who was fond of science and art, acquired a 90-volume "Xylothek", a collection of forest botanical books. It was also he who initiated and founded a rich collection of minerals and herbaria for his monastery, which unfortunately perished in the great fire of 1865. This "cabinet of naturalia" was enriched by numerous and valuable archaeological and ethnological collections. 

Several fathers of Admont Abbey dedicated themselves to the cultivation of science in the 19th century. In the fields of botany, meteorology and mineralogy, these were Fr Gotthard Wissiak (1783-1840), Fr Albert von Muchar (1786-1863), Fr Ignaz Sommerauer (1792-1854), Fr Mauritius ab Angelis (1805-1894), Fr Anton Hatzi (1816-1897), Fr Theodor Gassner (1804-1876), Fr Thassilo Weymayr (1825-1874), Fr Blitmund Tschurtschenthaler (1825-1893), among others.

The fire at Admont Monastery and Market on 27 April 1865 destroyed many of the collection items, including the aforementioned "Naturalia Cabinet". It was up to an important person to resurrect it. 


Karl Strobl was born on 3 November 1846 in Unzmarkt in the Austrian province of Styria. However, after the early death of his mother, the son of a master leatherworker grew up with an aunt, the master ropemaker Josefa Lucas, in the town of Rottenmann near the Benedictine monastery of Admont. Josefa Lucas endeavoured to provide her nephew with a sound education. She therefore sent the boy to the lower grammar school at the Benedictine monastery in Admont and later to the upper grammar school at the Benedictine monastery in Kremsmünster (Upper Austria). 

Even as a schoolboy in Kremsmünster, Karl Strobl was enthusiastic about the natural sciences and explored the Rottenmanner Tauern mountains during the holidays at the suggestion of the monastery doctor and botanist Dr Pötsch. It was during this time that he began collecting and identifying plants and insects of all kinds. He passed his school-leaving examination in Kremsmünster in 1866 with honours. 

In 1866, Prelate Karlmann Hieber, abbot from 1861 to 1868, accepted him as a novice at the Benedictine Abbey of Admont and gave him the religious name "frater Gabriel". Just a few months earlier, the monastery had been severely damaged by a devastating fire. Karl Strobl entered the ruins of a fire.

Abbot Karlmann immediately recognised the young novice's talents and interests and entrusted the 20-year-old monk with the restoration of the natural history cabinet, which had been completely destroyed by the great fire. Gabriel Strobl was to devote himself to this task for the next 44 years, with enormous diligence, meticulousness and love.

Abbot Karlmann Hieber's astute foresight can be considered remarkable today, partly due to the young age of his protégé; on the other hand, the Admont convent had a considerable number of members at the time, so it cannot be assumed that there was a lack of available staff. Nevertheless, the young Gabriel Strobl was chosen to fulfil an almost unmanageable task.  

The sudden death of his mentor Abbot Karlmann Hieber led to the election of an abbot at Admont Abbey, from which Zeno Müller (reigned 1869 to 1885) emerged as the new head of the monastery. He also recognised and encouraged the talent of the young cleric Gabriel Strobl. 

His successors, Abbots Guido Schenzl (reigned 1886 to 1890), Kajetan Hoffmann (reigned 1890 to 1907) and Oswin Schlammadinger (reigned 1907 to 1935), did the same. The support and understanding of the abbots was reflected in the repeated expansions of the premises required by Gabriel Strobl. 

In a letter to Abbot Guido Schenzl, Fr Gabriel asks the monastery carpenters to make another display case for the animal specimens, as "the bird box is already full".

The display cabinets and showcases still in use today were purchased during the time of Abbot Kajetan. After his one-year novitiate and simple profession, Strobl studied at the theological school in Admont. During these years of study, he explored the area around the monastery and climbed a large number of the surrounding mountain peaks. The "Stroblscharte", a hermitage in the walls of Hall, is named after him. 

On 5 October 1870, he made his solemn profession into the hands of Abbot Zeno Müller, thus binding himself forever to the Benedictine community of Admont. On 18 October 1870, the 24-year-old Fr. Gabriel was ordained a priest in Graz. He celebrated his first holy mass, his first mass, five days later in the parish church of Rottenmann, his home town. 

From 1872, he studied natural sciences at the University of Innsbruck. He completed his studies in 1876.

He first held the post of curator of the natural history collection at Admont Abbey from 1886 to 1889. After a three-year interruption (teaching abroad), he was once again appointed to this position by Abbot Kajetan Hoffmann, which he held until his death in 1925. In addition, he was always active as a teacher and later also as director of the monastery's choir boys' institute (until 1910). 

The large number of incorporated parishes made it necessary for the Admont Benedictines to be active in pastoral work to this day. Fr Gabriel Strobl was not exempt from this important task, even though he was only entrusted with the small parish of Weng, located close to the monastery, from 1887 to 1889 (due to his obligations at the monastery).

In 1907, Abbot Oswin Schlammadinger appointed him subprior, the deputy of the prior. He held this office within the monastery until 1921. 

Teaching activity 

Remarkable in Gabriel Strobl's biography are his many years of absence from Admont. The monastery still runs a grammar school (founded in 1644) and also ran several other educational institutions for the training and further education of the monastery's young people. In addition, the monastery was also entrusted with the staff of more distant schools, such as the grammar schools in Graz and Judenburg. Individual monks also held professorships at various universities. Due to the pastoral care of parishes in more remote areas of Styria, it was not uncommon for individual fathers to be absent from the monastery for long periods.

Gabriel Strobl's life story, on the other hand, shows that he taught in two grammar schools that were not within the sphere of influence of Admont Abbey, even though they were run by the same order. Fr Gabriel Strobl was employed at these two educational establishments for a total of 13 years(!), while "alongside" this he built up the Admont Natural History Museum. In both cases, it was staff shortages that necessitated a call for help to Admont, which the local abbots were able to resolve favourably through the person of the natural historian Strobl.  

From 1876 to the end of 1880, Fr Gabriel worked as a professor of natural history at the Benedictine monastery grammar school in Seitenstetten (Lower Austria). During this time, his herbarium grew steadily, partly through friendly "exchange connections" but also through the creation of his own botanical garden in Seitenstetten. However, there was a lack of financial support for this, but the garden was planted thanks to a donation of 2,000 seed species from Government Councillor Fenzl, Director of the Vienna Botanical Garden. This work and care was also carried out by Fr Gabriel himself with the help of his friend, the Seitenstetten Benedictine monk Fr Pius Strasser. 

From 1880 to 1886, Strobl worked as a professor of natural history at the Benedictine monastery grammar school in Melk (Lower Austria). Here he used his free time to complete and publish major floristic works.

He taught a second time in Seitenstetten from 1889 to 1892.  

During these 13 years of teaching at the two collegiate grammar schools in Lower Austria, Strobl collected numerous exhibits for the collections in Admont. His tidying activities during these years were, of course, limited to his holidays, which he spent in Admont when he was not travelling. 

Travelling and collecting 

In 1871 Gabriel Strobl undertook his first botanical journey to Carniola, Croatia and Istria. In 1872 he collected plants in Italy and Sicily, on the Amalfi Coast, Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna. In 1873/74 he travelled further to Sicily, the Nebroden and again to Mount Etna to study the flora there, where he was actively supported by Italy's most famous botanists of the time, Parlatore, Cesati, Todaro, Tornabene and Mina-Palumbo. During his years of study in Innsbruck (1872 to 1876), he hiked and explored the mountains of Tyrol and brought a rich mineralogical and geological collection to Admont, which formed the basis for the museum that was to be built. This collection comprises 5,000 minerals and 1,200 geological specimens, 500 of which are from Styria. 

His collecting activities in the field of mineralogy also served to rebuild a mineral cabinet. Through donations and collections from various Admont Benedictines, such as Father Thassilo Weymayr and Father Theodor Gassner, and purchases, a large quantity of minerals and geognostic specimens had been collected, which Strobl painstakingly identified, organised and stored in large display cases and drawers. 

During the 1878 holidays, he travelled to the south of France and Spain, accompanied by the headmaster of Seitenstetten grammar school, the botanist P. Udiskalk Sigl. On the journey home, the two fathers visited the Paris World Exhibition. In 1879 he travelled to the Croatian coast and Dalmatia. From 1880 he turned his main interest to entomology. Admont's insect collection is one of the largest in Austria today. It includes all insect groups. In approximate figures: 114,000 beetles in 27,000 forms, including 2,655 species from Styria. 32,000 palearctic and exotic butterflies in 7,590 forms. 25,000 Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, bumblebees, etc.) in 6,100 forms. 42,000 flies in 6,300 forms, including 3,695 forms from Styria and a large number of other insect groups. 

In 1896, Strobl visited the Transylvanian Alps in Transylvania for the first and only time. In 1904 he travelled to Spain again, accompanied by his very good friend, the dipterologist and abbot of Kremsmünster, Leander Czerny. Strobl collected around 20,000 beetles and 10,000 flies during this two-month study trip.

Like all the other collecting trips, this one is well documented: Strobl and Czerny left Austria on 8 April 1907 and collected in the Algeciras area (until 22 April), then further south in Tarifa, San Fernande near Cadiz, the Sierra Nevada, the Genil Valley, the Sierra Morena, Alicante, Elche and Jativa. Strobl already knew these places from his previous journeys. From 14 May, he travelled on to Catalonia alone. Once again he received study material from Spanish entomologists. He later acquired some objects permanently in exchange for Styrian insects. Other study objects were returned to Spain after his research.  

As with all his excursions, Fr Gabriel published the results of his research two years later. In this case, together with Abbot Leander Czerny. 

These many journeys of study and collecting, organising, sorting and identifying the objects culminated in the opening of the Natural History Museum in Admont Abbey in 1906.

Character - Illness - Death

Contemporaries describe Gabriel Strobl as a man with an upright character, a dry sense of humour and a fundamental modesty. He could be as happy as a child when he discovered a new beetle or fly or returned home from a collecting trip with a rich haul. His diligence and work ethic were unmistakable. 

However, this diligence, the nights of work and the enormous research workload were probably decisive factors in Father Gabriel suffering a stroke in the night of 7 September 1910, which left him almost completely paralysed on his left side. For fifteen years, he bore this fate devotedly and patiently. Although the stroke did not impair his memory, he lost the joy of his collections, which he was no longer physically able to look after. Only in the early years of his paralysis did he ask the nurse looking after him to take him to the museum in his wheelchair. Father Gabriel Strobl died on 15 March 1925 at the age of 79. After the funeral service in Admont Abbey Church, presided over by Abbot Oswin Schlammadinger, his body was buried in the church's chapter crypt.  

Memberships and honours

  • Honorary member of the Zoological-Botanical Society in Vienna
  • Subscriber and contributor to the Austrian botanical journal
  • Subscriber and employee at the Regensburg "Flora"
  • Subscriber to the Wiener entomologische Zeitung
  • Corresponding member of the Transylvanian Association for Natural Sciences
  • Member of the Styrian Natural Science Association
  • and several foreign natural science associations.
  • Knight's Cross of the Order of Emperor Franz Josef 


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