Benedictine Abbey Admont - Panorama monastery market © Thomas Sattler

How a monastery (also) became an economic engine

HOW A MONASTERY (ALSO) BECAME AN ECONOMIC ENGINE 

 

With its flourishing businesses, Admont Benedictine Abbey is one of the most important employers in the region. The origins of these businesses and the challenges faced by the Benedictines of Admont over the centuries.

In recent years, the Benedictine Abbey of Admont has made considerable investments in the further development of its business operations. Investments that also benefit the greater Admont area. With around 500 employees, the Benedictine Abbey is one of the largest employers in the region. The early years of the abbey were not under a good star. The foundation of the monastery in 1074 coincided with the Investiture Controversy. This dispute between the king and the pope also had a massive impact on the newly established Benedictine abbey in Admont. The attitude of the founder, Archbishop Gebhard of Salzburg, who was loyal to the Pope, made Admont's Benedictines the target of hostility and violence. It was not until the High and Late Middle Ages that the abbey began to flourish.

In the 12th century, the monastery recovered from its difficult early years and, with the help of Salzburg's archbishops, became a spiritual centre with a charisma that extended far beyond the region. By the end of the Middle Ages, the monastery had also developed into one of the leading centres of nursing, science, culture and art in Styria. As Admont's abbots knew how to increase their possessions through clever economic management, the economic development of the monastery also took off at this time. Soon the Benedictine monastery was also richly endowed in Carinthia, Tyrol, Salzburg, Bavaria, Upper and Lower Austria, which enabled it to finance an extensive welfare system, artistic endeavours and an efficient scriptorium.

Benedictine Abbey Admont - Panorama monastery market © Thomas Sattler

Depopulation and forced disposals

After this heyday, the Benedictine abbey entered a period of decline in the early 16th century. Like almost all religious houses in the country, the abbey in Admont had to pay for the financing of the Turkish wars and had to sell a quarter of its possessions in 1529. Over the course of several decades, almost all the properties located outside of Styria were sold off. The consequences of the Reformation were even more serious. The new ideas had set in motion a veritable depopulation of the monastery, as a result of which there were only two monks left in Admont Abbey in 1581. It was not until the Counter-Reformation, which was motivated by church politics, that the continued existence of the abbey was secured. Energetic abbots were sent to Admont, who succeeded in re-establishing a solid personnel and economic basis and restoring the monastery to its former strength.

Admont Abbey Grammar School - exterior photo © Thomas Sattler

 

Second largest education centre in Styria

With the foundation of a grammar school in 1644, the Benedictine abbey was not only able to set an important milestone in the history of the monastery, but also avoid its imminent demise. Although the government had already decided to close the monastery in the course of the Josephinian monastic storm in the 1780s, the Benedictine abbey continued to operate. One of the reasons for this was its strong commitment to education. In addition to the grammar school, Admont's Benedictines also founded a "normal secondary school" with associated apprenticeship training in 1777 and ran a philosophical school as well as a theological study programme. With this extensive range of courses, the monastery had developed into the second largest educational centre in Styria and was thus able to secure the continued existence of the monastery. 

From 1804, Admont's Benedictines also had a significant influence on education in the provincial capital. They took over the teaching positions at the grammar school in Graz for several decades and at times even held a number of teaching posts at the university in the provincial capital. 

Setting up the first companies

As splendid as the Benedictine monastery was in the early 19th century, its economic situation had become dire. This was primarily due to the French Wars, which had a significant impact on the political and economic events of the time. The end of the manorial administrative and operational structures also presented the Benedictine monastery with the challenge of having to find new sources of income. After all, supplies from nature, labour and monetary payments from the numerous subjects had formed the basis of the monastery's economy for centuries, which finally collapsed with the revolution in 1848. The reason why, with great effort, it was finally possible to reorganise the monastery's finances was that the Benedictine monastery had already established a second mainstay since the 17th century: its commercial enterprises. Mining and ironmongery were the first of these. The wine industry on the estates located in present-day Slovenia was also already being promoted at that time. Old records show that as early as the 17th century, half of all income came from these areas. Forestry still played a minor role at that time. The reason for this was that although the Benedictine monastery had extensive forests at its disposal, it had to make most of them available to the sovereign for the production of charcoal. 

 

From a flourishing economy to a financial crash

Around 1840, the Benedictine monastery ceased mining as well as all other areas of the iron industry. The hammer mill in Trieben, which had once been the largest in the whole of Styria, was converted into a sheet metal factory. At the same time, the previously expropriated forests could be utilised again, making forestry an important pillar of the monastery's economy in the late 19th century. A few decades later, Admont Abbey broke new ground with the construction of the first power station, laying the foundation stone for today's electricity supply company ENVESTA in 1911. In 1921, the abbey grammar school was re-established after an interruption of 100 years. Just two years later, a sawmill was opened, from which STIA and Admonter AG would emerge many years later. At this time, the economy of the Benedictine monastery flourished to such an extent that even works of art could be purchased and restored. However, the upswing was to be short-lived. After just a few years, the abbey lost large sums of money that it had invested in war bonds in a patriotic spirit. Money that would have been urgently needed in the course of the economic slump after 1930. The global economic crisis triggered by "Black Friday" also made itself felt in Admont: Huge quantities of timber were brought to Austria from the Soviet Union at dumping prices, causing the domestic forestry industry to collapse. For the Benedictine monastery, the most important economic sector at the time collapsed almost overnight. The winery also brought in very little income due to several failed harvests in succession and was therefore unable to stabilise the finances of the Benedictine monastery. In order to continue paying wages and salaries, loans had to be taken out, while at the same time a considerable tax debt accumulated. To avert the threat of bankruptcy, the experienced economic director of Kremsmünster, Father Bonifaz Zölß, was entrusted with the management of Admont Benedictine Abbey in 1935. He not only ordered a rigorous savings programme, but also the sale of some properties. In the following years, the Admonterhof in Graz, St Martin's Castle near Graz, the Ratzerhof near Marburg and the Zeiring provostry in the Pölstal valley as well as several smaller properties were sold off. However, as the proceeds from the sales were still not enough to pay off the mountain of debt, numerous works of art and valuable books were also sold. Gothic paintings and sculptures, including the Admont Madonna, and more than 70 medieval manuscripts as well as numerous old printed works were either turned into cash or delivered directly to the tax authorities. By the end of 1937, the renovation was essentially completed and the recovering economic situation did the rest to get the finances back on track.

 

Expropriation and technical revolution However, the joy of this success was to be short-lived: The disaster of the global economic crisis was followed by expropriation by the Nazi regime in 1939. The so-called "fiduciary administration" by an SS-Sturmbannführer was justified by the allegedly poor economic management of the clerical officials. This was despite the fact that the new political rulers had already found well-organised economic conditions when they took over. After the end of the Second World War, Admont's Benedictines were relieved to realise that their property had remained largely unchanged during the Nazi era, but the restitution of their property proved to be a laborious and lengthy process. Despite the initial difficulties, the new beginning was characterised by positive developments.

In addition to their advancement in the pastoral, educational and cultural fields, Admont's monks were also able to achieve an economic breakthrough: The Benedictines had jumped on the bandwagon of rapidly advancing mechanisation and were thus able to revolutionise their forestry operations into the 1950s and 1960s. The use of machines meant that forest roads could be built quickly and timber harvests could be organised much more safely and efficiently. At this time, grain cultivation, which had once been practised on a large scale, was also discontinued. Instead, ENVESTA, then still known as E-Werk, developed into an ever-growing industry. Admont's Benedictines also became famous for their nursery, which specialised in the cultivation of dahlias and fuchsias.

 

 

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