The History of Abtei Niederaltaich

Gründungsfresko in der Basilika
Äbtestammbaum von Niederaltaich, um 1685

Depending on whose reading of history you choose to put stock in, the Bavarian duke, Odilo, founded the Monastery of Niederaltaich in 731 or 741. Eberswind, the monastery's first Abbot, was the principal editor of the Lex Bajuvariorum (741/43), the first law book governing the Bavarian people.

Due to its highly productive forest cultivation in Bavaria, Bohemia (western Czechoslovakia) and Austria, the Monastery of Niederaltaich became the bed-rock of German and Christian culture in the above regions. During the reign of Charles The Great and Louis The German, the Monastery of Niederaltaich maintained holdings in such far flung places as Wachau.

Abbot Gozbald (825-855) became Louis The German's arch chancellor. In 848, the Monastery of Niederaltaich was granted the unusual privilege of freely electing its own abbots. Twenty-seven years later, in 857, the Monastery of Niederaltaich was granted the privileged status of being placed under the direct legal jurisdiction of the German Crown. In 1152, however, the King, Friedrich Barbarossa, incorporated the Monastery of Niederaltaich into the Diocese of Bamberg. This incorporation was originally in the form of a fief which meant the Monastery of Niederaltaich, having lost its legal standing under the German Crown, was now under the direct authority of the Bamberg Diocese and was duty bound to provide particular services to its new ruler.

During his reign as Abbot (996 - 731), St. Gotthard, inspired by the monastery reforms of his day (the so-called Cluny Reforms), revitalized Benedictine life in Niederaltaich. With the support of Duke Heinrich of Bavaria, who later became King Heinrich II, Gotthard also helped to reform Benedictine monasteries in Tegernsee, Hersfeld (near Fulda) and Kremsmnster. Gotthard subsequently became  Bishop of Hildesheim. 

Over fifty Niederaltaich monks either became abbots in other monasteries or were called to serve as bishops in different dioceses. Three of the thirteen saints and beatified persons who stemmed from Niederaltaich were women (the Blessed Alruna, Judith and Salome) who lived as hermits in the immediate vicinity of our monastery.

In the eight hundred-year turbulent history of our monastery, there were not only many setbacks such as  catastrophic wars, disastrous fires and the periodic flooding of the Danube River, which runs through Niederaltaich, but there were also a number of noteworthy achievements.

Abbot Father Hermann (1242 - 1273), an important economist, architect and historian, and the two major  reform abbots: Kilian Weybeck (1503 - 1534) and Paulus Gmainer (1550 - 1585), who established a distinguished Script Academy where a number of important manuscripts were reproduced - brought fame and renown to the Monastery of Niederaltaich. During the reign of Abbot Joscio Hamberger (1700 - 1739), the Basilica and entire monastery complex were newly renovated in a Baroque style. Our present-day Basilica still bears witness to Abbot Joscio's Baroque innovations.

Niederaltaich vor der Aufhebung, Ende 18. Jh.
Gottesdienst in der alten byzantinischen Kapelle
Abt Emmanuel Heufelder

In 1803, the Monastery of Niederaltaich was secularised. Ten years later, in 1813, lightning struck the Basilica. In the ensuing fire, the Baroque wing of the cloister connected to the Basilica was damaged beyond repair. The eventual demolition of an important wing of the cloister complex proved to be an ominous milestone. The demolition was the beginning of the dismantling of large sections of Abbot Joscio's Baroque monastery complex. Due to the 1803 secularisation campaign, Cloister Niederaltaich lay dormant for over a century.

In 1918, with the help of a generous legacy from Franz Xaver Knabenbauer, a religion professor and native son of Niederaltaich, and with the support of a contingent of monks from the Abbey of Metten, the monastery in Niederaltaich was revived. The 1927 transfer of the Kinderfreund-Benediktiner - a Benedictine order founded by Father Edmund Hager in Martinbhel - from Tirol to Niederaltaich resulted in the growth of the monastery community to over eighty monks.

In order to give his monastic community a new spiritual direction during the social and economic difficulties of the 1930's, Father Emmanuel Heufelder, the monastery prior, launched an ecumenical initiative that would eventually culminate in a theological and practice-based commitment to the Eastern Orthodox rite and an open-ended inter-religious dialogue with the Protestant Churches in the West. Father Emmanuel Heufelder's Orthodox initiative was inspired by Pope Pius XI's 1924 mandate that Benedictine monks should actively embrace the Byzantine rite, and in  doing so, become spiritual bridge builders to their brothers in the East. After W.W.II, it was questionable whether Father Heufelder could continue  his "Eastern Project" as it was then termed. When, however, new members began entering the Monastery of Niederaltaich, Father Heufelder's Project took on concrete form. Some of the newly arrived monks (among them two Russians) began using the Byzantine rite to celebrate the Holy Mass and to recite the Divine Office, a pattern of prayers, psalms, hymns and Bible readings that are recited at various times in the course of the day.

In 1955, a small chapel was established to celebrate  the Byzantine rite, and finally, in 1986, in the rooms of our monastery's former brewery, a joint large and small Byzantine Church was constructed. In 1962/65, the Ecumenical Institute was founded. Its primary concern is  fostering dialogue among the various Christian churches (most importantly with the Protestant Church) throughout the world.

A connecting wing constructed in 1953/54 between the remaining sections of the Baroque parts of the building was fully renovated and now houses our conference center and guest residence, St. Pirmin.