Industrialisation, Catholics, Protestants and Monasteries in St. Gallen
15 September 2023
The city, canton and abbey of St. Gallen have been a symbol of division and conflict of interests in the Swiss Confederation for centuries, before the Reformation in 1526 and afterwards. The relationship between the governments of the cities of Chur, Constance, Basel and Geneva and their bishops is similar.
Until the Reformation, these divisions had nothing to do with religion but with economic, dynastic and political interests. These conflicts of interest and religious division were common in Europe; remarkable is that the Confederation and the cantons survived it, with 1848 as the constitutional fundament of today’s Confoederatio Helvetica of sovereign republics (unless the constitution provides otherwise).
Canton, City and Abbey of St. Gall
The Reformation introduced the religious dimension. However, economic and political motives also played a (significant) role in the choice of the other faith. Access to rich abbeys, monasteries and episcopal property was attractive, and the political role of the bishop in the city was finished (Basel, Constance and Geneva) or less important (Chur). Sitten (Sion) was also the residency of a bishop with a tense relationship between the bishop and the seven Upper Valaisan Zenden, but there was no Reformation.
Therefore, the relations between economy, politics and religion played an essential role in the city and canton of St. Gallen for centuries. The canton and town of St. Gallen are known for their textiles, the famous abbey and its library. Far less well known are the industrial history of other products, chocolate, among other things, and the long schism between the Catholic and Protestant communities in the city of St. Gallen and the canton.
St. Gall Abbey
The city of St. Gallen
Industrialisation and religious division are closely linked in St. Gallen. The city of St. Gallen converted to the new (Protestant) faith in 1526. The abbey and the town lived separated for centuries after 1526. A wall separated the abbey from the city, and the monks and the abbot were only allowed to cross this wall under strict conditions, a Berlin Wall avant la lettre. Nevertheless, the abbey was the most important landowner in the region until 1798 (French invasion and the founding of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803). Many villages and towns, though not all, therefore, remained Catholic.
This situation changed with the expropriation of the monastery in 1805 and the beginning of industrialisation outside the city. A good example is St. Georgen, part of the former municipality of Tablat.
This village is in the Mülenen Gorge, a few kilometres from the centre and the Abbey of St. Gallen. The village of St. Georgen developed, as so often in the Middle Ages, around the church of St. Georgen (founded in the 9th century) and the monastery of St. Wiborada (dissolved in 1834).
The former church of the monastery
Until 1798, Tablat (and St. Georgen) was a subject territory of the prince abbey of St. Gallen and thus Catholic. As early as the Middle Ages, many mills provided the mechanical drive and water supply for blacksmiths, bakers and other small artisans.
The textile industry did not develop in the village until after 1800. The Müleggweier, the moor on Dreilinden, the Steinach and other small springs provided a constant water supply, even in dry times.
The moor today and around 1900
In 1885, the chocolate manufacturer Maestrani opened a factory in St. Georgen, having already started producing chocolate in St. Gallen in 1849. Maestrani remained in St. Georgen until 2003 when the factory moved to Flawil (Canton St. Gallen).
Until industrialisation around 1820, the population of St. Georgen was predominantly Catholic. The immigration of Protestant workers increased the population from about 4,400 in 1850 to over 12,000 in 1900. It led to the building of separate Catholic and Protestant schools and the settlement of Catholic and Protestant bakers, butchers, grocers, doctors and other service providers.
St. Georgen also became the centre of the religious culture war (Kulturkampf) in Switzerland. Several buildings (including school buildings) in St. Georgen still recall this period of solid industrial growth and religious division.
The Evangelical Reformed school Bach around 1900
Although religious division in Switzerland did not lead to the violent excesses of other European countries (except for some conflicts in 1529, 1531, 1656, 1712 and 1847), it was a political reality until 1848 and a social reality until the 1960s.
The nearby Notkersegg convent for women, founded in 1381, remained largely unaffected by these developments. At first, it was not formally a monastery but a residential facility for Beguines.
By 1602, the number of Beguines was so large that the Beguines formally joined the Capuchin Order (a branch of the Franciscan Order) as Capuchin nuns. The complex consisted of several buildings and the church of 1453, but the powerful Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall was never far away and even took over the supervision in 1610.
1727 and 1757 were important years for the monastery. Due to the Vatican dogma of enclosure for nuns, the monastery built a wall to seal off the nuns from the (evil) outside world. The wall still stands today. In 1757, the convent received a gift from Italy: a statue of the “Madonna di buon consiglio”. Since then, the monastery has borne the name “Maria vom guten Rat”.
The monastery still exists and functions despite the difficult years following the dissolution of the abbey in 1805, the Kulturkampf and today’s low enthusiasm for joining. The convent still has six nuns and mainly lives from agriculture.