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Abbey of St. Gall

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In Switzerland, Canton St. Gall, 30 miles southeast of Constance; for many centuries one of the chief Benedictine abbeys in Europe; founded about 613, and named after Gallus, an Irishman, the disciple and companion of St. Columbanus in his exile from Luxeuil. When his master went on to Italy, Gallus remained in Switzerland, where he died about 646. A chapel was erected on the spot occupied by his cell, and a priest named Othmar was placed there by Charles Martel as custodian of the saint's relics. Under his direction a monastery was built, many privileges and benefactions being upon it by Charles Martel and his son Pepin, who with Othmar as first abbot, are reckoned its principal founders. By Pepin's persuasion Othmar substituted the Benedictine rule for that of St. Columbanus. He also founded the famous schools of St. Gall, and under him and his successors the arts, letters, and sciences were assiduously cultivated. The work of copying manuscripts was undertaken at a very early date, and the nucleus of the famous library gathered together. The abbey gave hospitality to numerous Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks who came to copy manuscripts for their own monasteries. Two distinguished guests of the abbey were Peter and Romanus, chanters from Rome, sent by Pope Adrian I at Charlemagne's request to propagate the use of the Gregorian chant. Peter went on to Metz, where he established an important chant-school, but Romanus, having fallen sick at St. Gall, stayed there with Charlemagne's consent. To the copies of the Roman chant that he brought with him, he added the "Romanian signs", the interpretation of which has since become a matter of controversy, and the school he started at St. Gall, rivalling that of Metz, became one of the most frequented in Europe.

The chief manuscripts produced by it, still extant, are the "Antiphonale Missarum" (no. 339), the "Antiphonarium Sti. Gregorii" (no. 359), and Hartker's "Antiphonarium" (nos. 390-391), the first and third of which have been reproduced in facsimile by the Solesmes fathers in their "Paléographie Musicale". The other schools of the abbey — for the younger monks and for lay scholars attracted thither by the fame of the monastic professors — were founded as early as the ninth century, for the well-known, but unrealized plan of 820 provides separate accommodation for both schools. The domestic history of the community during these centuries of consolidation was not altogether free from troubles. Even during the lifetime of Othmar, the monks had to defend themselves against the bishops of Constance, who, having already secured jurisdiction over the neighbouring Abbey of Reichenau, refused to recognise the exemption and other privileges of St. Gall. For many years the monks had to fight for their independence, but it was not until the time of Louis the Pious that their efforts were crowned with success and their rights confirmed. From that time up to the end of the tenth century was the golden age of the abbey, during which flourished many celebrated scholars — the three Notkers, Eckhard, Hartker and others. The decrees of the Council of Aachen (817) for the furtherance of discipline and the religious spirit were loyally carried into effect by Abbot Gotzbert (815-837), under whom the monks built a new and magnificent church and by whom also the library was greatly enlarged. He purchased many fresh manuscripts and set his monks to multiply copies of them. His successor Grimald (841-872) carried on the work, and a catalogue drawn up in his time, still extant, shows the wide range of subjects represented. Over four hundred of the manuscripts mentioned in that catalogue are still at St. Gall.

During the abbacy of Engelbert II (924-933) an incursion of the Huns threatened the abbey, and most of the valuable books and manuscripts were removed to Reichenau for safety, some never being returned. In 937 a disastrous fire almost entirely destroyed the monastery, but the library fortunately escaped. The abbey and town were rebuilt and fortified, and throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries St. Gall maintained its place in the front rank of monastic establishments. With the thirteenth century, however, came a period of decline. Various causes contributed to this, one of them being the fact that the neighbouring feudal lords took to quartering themselves and their retinues upon the abbey more often than was good for monastic discipline. The abbots also were frequently called upon to settle their quarrels, and a spirit of worldliness thus crept into the cloister. About the same time the abbey and town became an independent principality, over which the abbots ruled as territorial sovereigns, taking rank as Princes of the Empire. Ulrich VI (1204-1220) was the first to hold that dignity. Records as to the library during this period are scanty. In the fourteenth century Humanists were allowed to take away some of the rarest of the classical manuscripts and in the sixteenth the abbey was raided by the Calvinists, who scattered many of the most valuable books. In 1530 Abbot Diethelm inaugurated a restoration with such success that he has been called the third founder of St. Gall. The library was one of his chief cares and his successors zealously followed his good example. Through their efforts the monastic spirit, the schools and the studies all revived and attained to something of their former greatness. In 1602, when the Swiss congregation of the Order of St. Benedict was formed, the Abbey of St. Gall took precedence as the first house of the congregation, and many of its abbots subsequently held the office of president.

A printing-press was started under Pius (1630-1674), which soon became one of the most important in Switzerland. In 1712 a great change came over the fortunes of the monastery. It was pillaged by the Swiss, who spared nothing. Most of the books and manuscripts were carried off to Zurich, Berne and other places, and only a portion of them were afterwards restored to St. Gall. The abbot of the time, Leodegar by name, was obliged for security to place his monastery under the protection of the townspeople whose ancestors had been serfs of the abbey, but who had, since the Reformation, thrown off the yoke of subjection. When these disturbances were over, a final attempt was made to revive the glories of the abbey. The monastery was rebuilt for the last time under Abbots Celestine II and Bede, but the resuscitation was short-lived. In 1798 the Swiss directory suppressed the ecclesiastical principality and secularized the abbey, and in 1805 its revenues were sequestrated. The monks took refuge in other houses of the congregation, the last abbot, Pancras Forster, dying in 1829 at Muri. When the Diocese of Constance was suppressed in 1821, that portion of it in which St. Gall was situated was united to the Diocese of Coire, but in 846 a rearrangement made St. Gall a separate see, with the abbey church as its cathedral and a portion of the monastic buildings being resigned for the bishop's residence. The church, rebuilt 1755-65 in the rococo style, contains some finely-carved choir stalls and a beautiful wrought iron screen. The conventual buildings, besides the bishop's palace, now accommodate also the cantonal offices and what remains of the library — about thirty thousand volumes and manuscripts. The town of St. Gall has a population of over 30,000 and is one of the principal manufacturing centres in Switzerland, muslin and cotton being its chief industries.

About this page

APA citation. Alston, G.C. (1909). Abbey of St. Gall. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Alston, George Cyprian. "Abbey of St. Gall." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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