Teplá abbey seeks to make a comeback in straitened circumstances
The imposing Teplá abbey complex is sited around a dozen miles from the spa town of Mariánské Lázně, in western Bohemia. Its story is one of an enterprising religious community that was the main force in developing the whole region, its destruction under Nazism and then Communism and its tentative comeback today on the back of tourist income.
History is a bit vague about the exact foundation of the abbey by the Czech nobleman Hroznata. The date is sometimes given as 1192 or 1193 with the main document relating to its creation as a Premonstratian abbey from 1197. The Premonstratian order, based on simple living and pastoral work in the community, was an up and coming religious order at the time.
Hroznata bestowed most of his wealth on the abbey. But when he was kidnapped by his enemies and imprisoned in 1217 it refused to pay the ransom. They did however pay for his corpse after he was starved to death. The bones in an ornamental casket now occupy an honoured place in the Romanesque-Gothic church.
On what was a thinly populated, stony upland wilderness ― the Teplá highlands ― the abbey started farms, mills and even mining businesses. At its height at the end of the 18th century there were 150 brothers in the abbey. Perhaps the most visible evidence of its enterprise today is the town of Mariánské Lázně itself, created when the abbey decided to get into the physical wellness and spa business at the end of the 18th century.
“The Teplá abbey thought up Mariánské Lázně. The brothers were what you would call developers in today’s terminology. They took a greenfield site in the middle of the woods and parcelled up the land and conceived of an urban development plan. Some of the land was sold to private developers but they kept most of it for themselves. These were the sites of the spa buildings and the springs which drew visitors to Mariánské Lázně. And these springs were managed by the abbey until the 20th century when land reform took place after the creation of Czechoslovakia.”
A small exhibition at the museum and a booklet published this year traces the fruitful links between the abbey and spa town. The booklet began to be put together to mark recognition of the abbey as a national landmark in 2008.
“We wanted in a way to pay back a bit of the debt that Mariánské Lázně has over the years to its founders, to the abbey and brothers who live there. This is a modest booklet which recalls the special relations between the abbey and Mariánské Lázně. The abbey was not just the founder but also the driving force in the development of the town right up to the middle of the 19th century when there was a shift in ownership.”
“The abbey’s existence was violently ended in April 1950. The brothers were locked up. Young brothers were forced to serve in the army for three or three and a half years and then jailed. The abbey itself was occupied by the army in September 1950. They lived here and the destruction of the complex began.”
Some of the damage was wanton, some just a result of incompetence such as the destruction of the on site brewery that had been making dark beer since the Middle Ages.
“The commander was annoyed that the view was blocked by a chimney, so he decided to demolish it. But they miscalculated the amount of explosive required for the job and used more than was needed. So they destroyed half the brewery and damaged the mill. Everything was razed to the ground and today it is just a field.”
One of the abbey’s jewels, and a magnet for many of its around 43,000 visitors a year, is the monastic library. The collection was only saved from being split up when public uproar greeted the releasing of proposals to do that in the 1960s.
“The library building is just 100 years old. But the library collection is the second biggest monastic collection in the Czech Republic after that of Strahov. There are 100,000 books. Most of them are theological, philosophical, science, history and literature about the apostles in Latin, Czech German and other European languages”
The order recovered the abbey itself and some adjoining buildings but almost nothing of the property taken by the Communist regime in 1990. That was the beginning of a slow and painstaking struggle to restore the damage of the previous four decades.
In recent years it has tapped into a richer vein: European Union cash backed up with complimentary Czech regional funding. At the end of last year the abbey was rewarded for three years of form filling with a grant of 500 million crowns, around 26.5 million US dollars. This will cover restoration of around half the main abbey complex. Work will involve restoring everything from the underground drainage system to the roof to its original state. Some of the restored buildings will be turned into a regional cultural and education centre once the work is completed in 2015.