Thousand Years Werd Monastery
1 June 2023
Those who think of monasteries usually have in mind a large complex with various buildings, vineyards and other farmland, a botanic garden and a large monastic church. The most famous example on paper is the design of a monastery kept in the library of St Gallen Abbey.
This drawing from around 840 probably comes from a monastery on the island of Reichenau. Many monasteries were based on similar designs and were almost always large complexes.
Several large monasteries from this period (e.g. Disentis, Einsiedeln, St Johann, St Maurice) still exist in Switzerland and function as such. Many other monasteries (e.g., Ittingen, Dornach, St Urban or Bellelay) have been closed down and have different uses today. For example, others have been demolished and fallen into oblivion (e.g., Moutier-Grandval.
The size of a monastery says nothing about its continuity. An example is the monastery of St Otmar on the small island of Werd (canton of Thurgau) near Stein am Rhein (canton of Schaffhausen).
The island of Werd and two uninhabited islets in 2008. Image: Thurgau Bodensee
The monastery is located on the isle of Werd in the Untersee. Its name is derived from the Alemannic word ‘Ward’, meaning island. The island has been inhabited for thousands of years.
The Untersee, the Rhine to or from Lake Constance
The oldest finds date back to 7000 B.C. In Roman times (15. B.C. – 410 A.D.), Werd was part of the Vicus Tasgetium (Eschenz). The Romans built the first (wooden) bridge to the island. A small exhibition with documentation and archaeological finds about this period has been set up in the convent’s priest’s house.
The monastery’s history begins with the Irish Gallus (c. 550-c. 620). Ireland and England are not only countries with beautiful medieval manuscripts (inspired in part by motifs of Norman culture) but also by founders of monasteries on the European mainland. Gallus is the most revered saint in Alsace, Baden-Württemberg and Switzerland. He is also the namesake of the city and canton of St Gallen, and the Abbey of St Gallen was founded on his grave.
The abbey’s founder and the first abbot was Otmar (689-759). Otmar was from an Alemannic family. Until 746, present-day Baden-Württemberg and the Lake Constance region were an Alemannic duchy. The Franks (the Merovingians and then the Carolingians) conquered and governed the area in and from 746, and a Frankish abbot replaced Otmar. The Frankish bishop of Constance even sentenced Otmar to death. This punishment was converted into exile to the island of Werd, where he died in 759.
The tomb and relics of Saint Otmar in the abbey of St. Gall
He was buried on the island. Ten years later, he was rehabilitated and interred in the abbey of St Gallen. In 864, he was canonised, Saint Otmar. From then on, the empty tomb on Werd is a place of pilgrimage and a first chapel is built on the empty tomb. In 959,
Emperor Otto I (Otto the Great, 912-973) donated the island to the Benedictine monastery Einsiedeln (canton of Schwyz). In 1957, the Order of Benedictines transferred the monastery to the Order of Franciscans.
Today, with its beautiful Romanesque frescoes from the 14th century, the monastery still houses four monks, an uninterrupted monastic life of more than 1,000 years! Every Wednesday, the monks commemorate Saint Otmar in a pilgrimage service.
The bridge to the mainland. Picture: Thurgau Bodensee
The bridge to Werd in rainy weather.
The wooden bridge has also been restored and connects the island to the mainland as if even the Romans never left after 2,000 years. The island seems too small to get lost. But appearances can be deceiving. The labyrinth is a copy of the famous medieval labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral. It is 444 metres long, and many can wander on this small island.
The Klosterhof of the abbey of St. Gall, statue St. Otmar commemorating the foundation of the abbey 1 200 years ago