Das ehemalige Zisterzienserkloster St. Urban. Foto/Photo: TES

The Cistercians and St. Urban Monastery

In the Middle Ages, 28 Cistercian monasteries were founded in Switzerland, eight for men and 20 for women. Today, only one men’s monastery (Hauterive, canton of Fribourg) and six women’s monasteries remain (Frauenthal, canton of Zug; La Maigrauge and La Fillle-Dieu, canton of Fribourg; Magdenau and Wurmsbach, canton of St Gallen, and Eschenbach, canton of Lucerne).

Other monasteries were abolished during the Reformation (16th century) or during (1798-1813) and in the new Confederation(s) in the 19th century. The once-mighty monastery of St Urban in the canton of Lucerne was dissolved in 1848.

The immediate cause was the defeat of the Catholic canton of Lucerne in the Sonderbundskrieg of 1847, political unrest in the canton against the conservative government and hostility to the monasteries (especially the Jesuits).

More than six centuries earlier, the Cistercian monastery of Lützel (Lucelle, Alsace) founded the monastery of St Urban in 1194. The name derives from a small chapel dedicated to Mary: “Monasterium Beatae Mariae de Sancto Urbano“. The barons of Langenstein provided money and land.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the monastery acquired more and more estates and villages outside its core area (Langenthal, Roggwil, Wynau and Pfaffnau). These areas were in the cantons of Thurgau, Bern, Schaffhausen and Aargau. The abbey was a small sovereign state with its jurisdiction and court.

By this time, the Cistercians were already known for producing bricks, roof tiles and relief stones. Agriculture was also an essential source of income. The monastery complex was further expanded to include a library and scriptorium.

However, the monastery was not spared regional unrest. In 1375, mercenaries (the Gugler) plundered the monastery, becoming a bone of contention between Solothurn, Bern and Lucerne. Lucerne acquired the county of Willisau in 1407 and control of the monastery in 1420.

The monastery survived the Reformation, and the disputes between Bern (Protestant) and Lucerne (Catholic) unscathed. The 17th and 18th centuries were a heyday, as the baroque monastery church and buildings still remind us.

The monastery church, built in 1711-1717, combines Baroque and Cistercian architecture. The high altar contains statues of the four evangelists, Pope Urban and St Bernard of Clairvaux. The choir stalls were made shortly after 1700, and the organ was created in 1716-1721.

However, the monastery had close financial and personal ties with Lucerne’s (aristocratic) elite. All the abbots came from these circles. It became the monastery’s downfall after the Sonderbundskrieg of 1847.

After its dissolution, the monastery served as a psychiatric clinic and nursing home for the mentally disabled for over a century (1873-1980). Its numerous art treasures, including (medieval) illustrated manuscripts, are preserved and housed in the Lucerne State Archives, the Lucerne Central Library and the Lucerne Historical Museum.

Since 1980, the Canton of Lucerne has been renovating and repurposing the complex. The monastery church is now a parish church. A spacious park surrounds the monastery and baroque buildings, walking paths, watercourses and forests.

The monastery and the baroque buildings are surrounded by a spacious park, footpaths, sculptures and woods.

(Source and further information: A. Meyer, Das ehemalige Zisterzienserkloster St. Urban, Bern, GSK, 1994; www.st-urban.ch).