The notion of a Stift is certainly not one with which most Americans are familiar. It is important to note that the American perception of the Church is deeply influenced by the reality of a Church whose institutions are solely supported by the voluntary donations of the faithful. This is actually fairly novel in the history of the Church. Americans are raised in a world and a world-view heavily influenced by the 19th Century Romantic Movement which envisions religious life in a rather different way than its much earlier predecessor. In understanding what a Stift really is, we need to look beyond our native expectations.
A Stift is very much a medieval reality in its structure, and one which dominated religious life for most of the history of the Church. It is a term confined to what are referred to in German as the Altorden, or the “Old Orders”. These comprised the monastic orders which had a vow of stability to one monastery: those monasteries following Benedict’s rule, as well as the canons regular. The term itself actually means “donation” or “endowment”. When bishops, nobility and royalty founded monasteries, they understood the necessity of endowing them with the means of survival in an uncertain world. By the 11th Century history itself had already taught both the Church and the temporal powers the dangers of insufficiently endowed communities of monks, canons and nuns. Contrary to what one might think, poverty was one of the greatest factors in the decline of countless monasteries. It is quite clear why this was and is so: with poverty comes a terrible sense of insecurity about the future, for one thing. For another, it hampered a community’s ability to take on new novices, as it might be unable to support them. Necessary repairs to buildings could not be undertaken, and some members of a community might need to go out of the community to take a position at a distant church or chapel in order to help support the community. All this was destructive to the conventual life and discipline, as it would be to any family. The Divine Office could not be sung for lack of members, and the worship of the Church was impoverished. This is the primary focus of the spiritual life of religious: the celebration of the liturgy. What is more, poverty left many communities open to control by wealthy, unscrupulous laymen who used them to their own ends and as pawns in the struggle between Church and temporal powers. As the canons regular began their greatest growth spurt in the 11th and 12th Centuries, this was a lesson already learned.
The entrance to the vestibule and imperial staircase
The foundation of a community of canons or monks at that time had a variety of motives behind it, and the foundation of Klosterneuburg was no exception. The founder sought several benefits from his foundation: firstly, there was the desire to have a sacred place for his own burial and that of his family, a place where the praise of God and the sacraments would be continually offered for the repose of their souls. This was very much a central concern. Secondly, there was the knowledge that a monastic foundation would have countless benefits for the area. The monastery would provide a spiritual, cultural and educational center for the area, and would also have a beneficial social impact with its charitable works as well as its role as employer. Every monastery was meant to be self-sufficient, which meant that every community had a host of religious and laypeople working in all the many workrooms and shops of the abbey, not to mention the many laypeople who worked the outlying farms. Often the religious themselves held managerial positions over the various activities of the monastery. What is more, monastic communities frequently exercised a governing role over the local populace. In the end one of the most important benefits would be their permanence; these communities were built and endowed to last, and most of them did so for several centuries.
The facade of Stift Klosterneuburg
Klosterneuburg fits this reality. The community was founded to provide a place for St. Leopold and his family to be buried, a religious center for the area which could possibly develop into a diocese, and an institution which would provide social and economic benefits to the local population, and which would initially govern the region. To this end St. Leopold endowed Stift Klosterneuburg with the necessary economic means to fulfill his hopes. In classic medieval fashion, Klosterneuburg possessed from its beginnings properties all over present day Lower Austria, as well as governance over the city of Klosterneuburg. While this last disappeared early on in our history, the other relationships continue, including our relationship and obligations to our founder, his family and the subsequent ruling family of Austria, the Habsburgs. We continue to pray for the repose of their souls and of the countless others buried in this sacred place. Our pastoral responsibilities in our 25 parishes make Klosterneuburg akin to a small diocese. As for education, through the centuries we have had various centers of learning here at the Stift, from the early monastic school to the philosophical-theological faculty founded here to train students for the priesthood, and the school for choirboys which only passed from existence in the 1960’s. Economically, the Stift continues to employ about 165 people in its various enterprises, encompassing forestry, household maintenance, wine production and sales, real estate, the abbey museum, and more recently tourism. We continue to exercise a healthy ministry of hospitality to many guests, as well as pilgrims who come to venerate the relics of St. Leopold, the patron of Austria. The community is responsible for all of this, and while primarily serving as pastors to our parishes, there are also those canons responsible for the oversight of these many operations.
The abbey-church of Stift Klosterneuburg
If one wonders where the many other monasteries of the Stift variety disappeared to, it is not difficult to explain. First the Reformation and then the revolutions over centuries destroyed them, or secularized their properties and turned the religious out; in some places only traces of their existence remain. To delve into the list of monasteries which fell victim to violence and/or secular greed would take too long. Suffice it to say that this form of monastery only continued to exist in Austria and Switzerland, where secularization spared a few communities. Once gone, endowed monasteries could not be revived as they had been before. Instead, as interest in religious life revived, newer forms of religious and monastic life were introduced into the lands and buildings from which religious life had been extinguished. These were forms of life inspired by Romanticism and by a desire to return to what was believed to be an earlier, more removed form of religious life. The natural association between monasteries and the secular world which had built up through the centuries was rejected in favor of the stricter, more secluded form of religious life.
Archducal crown dome above the Neustift courtyard ("Kaiserhof")