Teplá abbey seeks to make a comeback in straitened circumstances

Kloster Teplá

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.

Teplá abbey
According to legend, Hroznata offered to found the abbey as compensation after he ducked out of taking part in the second crusade, apparently because he feared getting on board a ship after almost drowning during a swimming accident in his youth.

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.

Teplá abbey, photo: Frans Da, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Jaromír Bartoš, director of the Mariánské Lázně town museum, takes up the story.

“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.”

Hroznata, photo: Maria Hammerich-Maier
The abbey and its centrepiece twin-towered church is still an impressive complex, although a shadow of the economic and religious powerhouse it once was. The head of today’s 15 strong community, five of whom live in the abbey and 10 in surrounding parishes, is Augustin Ján Kováčik. He explains how seven and a half centuries of activity was abruptly ended by the Communist regime.

“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.”

Photo: Maria Hammerich-Maier
The most lasting damage has been to the abbey’s underground system of shafts which prevented damage from the Teplá River which runs underneath the building. These shafts were used by the army as sewers and to dump rubbish, contributing to a destructive damp and wet rot problem that the abbey is still dealing with.

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.

Teplá abbey, photo: Maria Hammerich-Maier
The order’s demand for restoration of the 6,000 hectares of woods, 1,000 hectares or agricultural land and 300 hectares of fish ponds taken in 1948 is still unresolved and not looking likely to bear fruit in the near future. The order would like to get back the physical assets, though negotiators for the Catholic Church have been willing to settle for cash compensation. In the meantime, the abbey has had to rely on income from a steady stream of tourists, donations and help from the central Premonstratian order to keep going and begin the repairs.

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.