Brno (or Brunn) in the Czech Republic has the distinction of having the only Augustinian abbey in the lengthy history of the Order of Saint Augustine. The Augustinian Order formally began with the Grand Union of 1256. Members of the Order first arrived in Brno in 1346. Their community was granted a founding document in 1350 by the Moravian Margrave, John Henry of Luxembourg.
Jan Jindrich Lucemburský, Count of Moravia set down the constitution of their Brno community six years later. The basic works of the Brno foundation were to be spiritual leadership, education, and scientific activity. Due to the lack of suitable space within the town, the Augustinians built on a site "in front of the walls" near the Rhine Gate - now the Moravian Square. In the year 1373 the Augustinians in Brno were given the Panna Maria Svatotomska or Old Brno Madonna (see photo lowed down this page). According to legend, it is said to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist.
Later, Eustorgius, Bishop of Milan, who had been in service to the mother of the Emperor Constantine, Saint Helena, in Constantinople, and brought by her to Milan by way of Genoa. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II conquered Milan with the help of King Vladislav of Bohemia. Frederick gave the painting to Vladislav in appreciation, and Vladislav brought it to Prague. Further adventures of the painting are associated with Charles IV who, according to legend, presented it to his brother, Count John, in the year 1356. John is reputed to have donated it to the Augustinians in 1373. The Old Brno Madonna (picture at left) is now in the basilica (church) of the Augustinian abbey.In the following century, during the reign of Vaclav IV the Catholics of Brno resisted the religious reformation movement of the Hussites. They successfully defended themselves against Hussite raids in 1424 and 1428. However the unprotected Abbey of Saint Thomas was almost totally destroyed. After the Hussite raids, the citizens of Brno rebuilt the abbey. They attempted to protect it by surrounding it with a wall that included towers. A recognition of the solid religious life of the Augustinians in Brno is seen in the fact that in 1612 the Augustinian Prior was given the right of episcopal consecration and insignia.
To the present time, the Augustinian who is Prior of Brno is - like an abbot in the Benedictine tradition - elected for life and given episcopal consecration. (For the Augnet page on the present Prior, click here.) The monastery suffered heavy damage in 1645 during the siege of the city by the Swedish army. The Augustinians were made to leave the abbey in 1783 by Emperor Joseph II. They were forcibly moved from their original location in what is now the Moravian Square; the Emperor sent them into Brno Old Town.
There they took over a former Cistercian monastery that had been founded there in 1323 under patronage of the widow Queen, Eliska Rejcka. The monastery was adjacent to the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, which is a true jewel amongst Gothic architecture in Moravia. The Augustinians undertook an extensive refurbishment program of this former Cistercian monastery. On the ground floor in 1796, they built a new refectory with a ceiling curved in the shape of a barrel. It is now used as the Mendel Museum. They built a library on the first floor. It flourished under the Augustinians, and became a famous centre of science and education in Moravia.
This was especially the case during the nineteenth century, thanks to the support of the abbots Franz Cyril Napp O.S.A. (1792-1867) and Gregor Mendel O.S.A. (1822-1884). Even before then, however, the monastery at Brno began its remarkable record of achievement in both the arts and in science. In 1653, a bequest from a woman in the Brno, Sybil Polyxen Františka (née Countess of Thurn and Walsassina) created a foundation for the support of music.
Through this bequest, six - and later eleven - volunteers and amateurs lived together and were educated in playing a wide variety of musical instruments. They had a small church and practised both spiritual music and chorales. The main effect of this foundation was that it enriched musical life and education in Brno.
Beginning in 1848, Pavel Kríkovský joined in the work of Abbot Nappa in a creative capacity. After joining the Augustinians subsequently, Kríkovský became the director of the Old Brno Choir. He taught liturgical music there during the years 1848-1872. He composed chorales, and directed chamber concerts, symphonic compositions and dramatic presentations in the refectory of the Augustinian monastery.
When the young Leoš Janácek (later a world famous musician and composer) came to Brno from his native Hukvaldy in 1865, Fr Kríkovský became one of his patrons. Janácek (1854-1928) was very closely connected to the Augustinian Order and to its Old Brno Thurn Foundation throughout his life. When he died, members of the Order of Saint Augustine of Brno carried his coffin on his final journey from the Old Cathedral in Brno to his place of burial in the year 1928.
For a biography of Gregor Mendel and details of his scientific achievements, click here.
Close observation of the Augustinian Monastery in Brno during the 19th century reveals an energetic environment, created by the intellectual and spiritual activities of its members. Members of the Order of Saint Augustine had been active in Brno as professors of mathematics and philosophy.
The appointment of Franz Cyril Napp O.S.A. (1792-1867) as abbot in 1824 only served to intensify the artistic and scientific energy surging there. Napp was himself an accomplished scholar, having earned a reputation in philosophy and theology and as a strong proponent of modern agricultural techniques on the monastery farms. F. M. Klácel O.S.A. (1808-1882), born in Ceská Trebová, Bohemia, entered this milieu in 1827 and added his own contributions as a learned philosopher with a strong interest in the natural sciences.
In 1843 Johann Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), born in Hyncice, Moravia, joined the monastery, and eventually inherited control of the experimental garden from Klácel. In 1848 the revolutionary movement found Klácel to be an outspoken proponent of Czech national revival and this marked the beginning of his downward spiral, both politically and ecclesiastically.
Nevertheless, during the period between 1855 and 1865, while Mendel was performing his experiments that would forever change the science of genetics, he was surrounded by a stimulating group of Augustinian colleagues. These included Napp, Klácel, P. Krížkovský (1824-1885), talented musician and composer, and T. Bratránek (1815-1884), a scholar of philosophy and natural science. Surely the atmosphere of mutual support and encouragement found at the monastery should receive credit as an incubator for intellectual achievement
Mendel’s garden at Augustinian Abbey at Brno
With such intellectual talent present there, the Augustinians were known for their learning as much as for their culture. Their library contained the largest collection of books (27,000 volumes) in Brno. The incunabula (manuscripts produced before 1500 and the invemtion of the printing press) of the Abbey library were considered more valuable than those of the Vatican Library in Rome. They trained many outstanding musicians and singers, including the internationally famous composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928).
Johann Gregor Mendel entered the Abbey in 1843. He found there not only an excellent library, but also a botanical experimental garden, a mineral collection, and the valuable herbarium of his older confrere, Aureluius Thaler.Mendel carried out his famous botanical experiments on peas during the 1850's. He succeeded not only because of his talent but also because the monastery encouraged the talents of its friars. Three other friars there at the time received acclaim for their talents - something that largely escaped Mendel, who is now much more famous than they are, until after his death. They are Paul Krizkovsky for music (as mentioned above), Franz Bratranek as editor of the letters of Goethe on natural science, and those of Franz Klacel on philosophy.
During the entire nineteenth century, the Abbey failed as required to send a report of its chapters to the Prior General in Rome. The abbot expressed the desire of the Abbey (the only abbey ever in the history of the Order of Saint Augustine) to be fully a part of the Order. He explained that the effects of national politics had caused the drift away. The situation was brought back to normal. In 1900 the abbey contained sixteen Augustinians and one novice, and in 1930 nineteen priests and four novices. The Augustinians served in the abbey church and in the two associated parishes of Liskovec and Bohunice.
The Nazi occupation in 1938 began a new chapter in the history of the Monastery of Saint Augustine in Brno. Let us remember the sacrifices of these Augustinians: Alfons ZADRAIL, BARINA (Prelate), DVORÁCEK, Norbert DOLEAL, Alois PRIBYL, and Florián Fulgence JANCÍK. They were brought before a Nazi judge, having been denounced for anti-German thought and activities.The charges also included the assertions that they concealed from the Germans church items of value and of listening to Western radio broadcasts. Of the six of them, Alfons Zadrail O.S.A. paid for this with his life. He was executed, as was the layman who was Keeper of the Monastery, Martin LUKÁŠ, in February 1945 at the Kounic Dormitory.
The first few years after the Second World War were merely a hint of freedom for members of the Order of Saint Augustine. As early as 1950, the ministerial activities of the Abbey were prohibited. On 4th May 1950 the Communist government suppressed Brno and all other monasteries of male religious. The abbey at Brno was removed from Augustinian ownership, and declared to be state property.
Soldiers arrived at the Abbey of Saint Thomas and told the Augustinians that they had only one hour to pack their most necessary things before being evicted. Most of the Augustinians were placed in prison, sent to work camps as criminals, or driven into unskilled occupations. Artifacts of the monastery were removed and later used for the Archaeological Institute. Spiritual activities were greatly restricted, and were limited mostly to the pastoral care of the Cathedral.
In one corner of the garden stood the statue of the rather unassuming Gregor Mendel. This had originally been erected outside the Abbey in Mendlovo Square, but in 1950 the Communist regime tried to destroy it; his principles of heredity ill-fitted the opposing views of Lysenko, then the party-line among Soviet scientists. The statue was spirited away to re-appear in the monastery garden where it now stands.
Ironically the Communist authorities failed to recognise that the square itself was and still is called Mendlovo. Masaryk University at Brno now sponsors the Mendel Museum set up within the west wing of the monastery to explain his principles of genetics and subsequent 20th century work in this field including Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA and sequencing of the Human genome.
In 1987 the Old Brno church was elevated in status by Pope John Paul II, and from that time it has carried the title and status of a "Minor Basilica." (More details about the twentieth century can be found in Augnet's page on the present abbot, Lukas Martinec.)
Augustinians returned to live in the monastery in 1995, and found the abbey in a very poor condition. It had been used for a variety of tasks, including by a company that built machines, and as a youth hostel. The Abbey had been ransacked, and no proper building repairs had been done for over fifty years. Much was salvaged from the old library, although hundreds of books had disappeared.
The Augustinian community is now restored, and now celebrates the sacraments there for people in the vicinity. The Augustinians have plans under way to repair the building. Part of their plan involves rebuilding the glasshouse where Gregor Mendel conducted his sweet pea experiments in plant genetics, and to restore the apiary where he bred bees.
The e-mail address of the Abbey is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo GalleryFor the Augnet gallery on the Augustinian history of Brno (and also of Prague), click here.Links
Web site of the Abbey. In numerous languages, this attractive web site is very detailed. http://www.opatbrno.cz
The Mendel Museum in Brno. A website of Czech Radio, featuring Gregor Mendel O.S.A. http://www.radio.cz/es/articulo/82926/limit
Moravian Museum of Brno. It contains a spacious exhibition on Mendel and his scientific work. http://www.mendelianum.cz/en