Judging from such beautifully crafted choral books extant as the fifteenth-century Rocov Graduale, generations of people were raised in the Augustinian churches with Gregorian chant despite the presence generally of the more prevalent baroque music style. Judging again from the Rocov region, however, popular religious music was also encouraged, composed and handed down by the Augustinians.
The Augustinian Church of St Thomas in Prague in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century acted as the “Emperors’ Parish.” This church, as well as the other Bohemian Augustinian churches (for example, those at Ceska Lippa, Domazlice and Melnik) were by the mid-sixteenth century very often the last refuge for Catholic citizens who had become increasingly marginalized by the religious divisions in the general population.
In a population that largely had turned to semi-Hussite Calixtinism or some current form of Protestantism, most Catholic monasteries had schools where children were given a basic education both in religion and the humanities. As for art and architecture, the Augustinians employed the best architects and artists of the day.
For example, such there were such great artists as the Dietzenhofer family (father and sons) who built the exquisite Augustinian churches in Prague, Rocov and Domazlice and Vaclav Reiner, the Czech fresco painter called “the Bohemian Michelangelo” who decorated numerous Augustinian churches and monasteries.
The beloved musician and composer, Jan Jakub Ryba, was educated by the Discalced Augustinians of Prague. Other Augustinian friars such as Jan Svitavsky O.S.A. rode to Antwerp to personally commission Peter Paul Rubens for the St Thomas High Altar masterpieces (The Martyrdom of St Thomas and The Vision of St Augustine), and Serafin Meltzer O.S.A., who rebuilt a devastated St Thomas Church, should be always remembered. (As to these two Rubens paintings, after being in St Thomas Church briefly, they were in 1639 removed to the National Gallery in Prague, where they still remain.)
The Augustinian monastery of Rocov, just as great a Marian pilgrimage site in northern Bohemia as was the Abbey of Brno in southern Moravia, became an epicenter of Catholic evangelisation particularly after 1648.
Much of this came to an abrupt end with the draconian Teresian and Josephin reforms so named after the decrees of Empress Marie Teresie and her son, Joseph II (ca.1742 – 1792). These two absolutist monarchs strictly limited the activities of the Church and reduced it to one more of those unpopular departments of the Imperial bureaucracy.
By the mid-nineteenth century further ominous signs often garbed in Czech national ideals appeared. History rewritten with the purpose of rehabilitating such figures as Jan Hus or Jan Zizka grew fashionable during the “Romantic period” (1815-1870). Roman Catholicism, including the Augustinians and other Religious Orders, became objects of bitter criticism fuelled by an intelligentia striving for a secularised state.
Even in these trying circumstances, however, Augustinians still made a contribution to society, culture and learning. Such Augustinians as Cosmas Smalfus made an imprint on the intellectual life of the day, although the laurel of academic achievement must go to the friars of the Augustinian Abbey of Brno. Such as the immortal Gregor Mendel, and his confreres, the musician Pavel Krizkovsky, the “first ecologist” Tomas Bratanek, the utopian Matias Klacel and the classicist, Celestin Wimmer were each preeminent in their own day.
By the twentieth century the Bohemian Province, in possession of seven houses and with about fifty friars, had survived the suppressions of the eighteenth century, the social turmoil of the nineteenth century with determination. Even so, upon the unilateral declaration of Czechoslovak independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire on 28th October 1918, the Augustinian Order was to experience more challenges. Berchtold Hejhal O.S.A. continued his home mission activities spreading devotion to Our Mother of Good Counsel by enrolling over 50,000 members in the Archconfraternity of Our Mother of Good Counsel. Alfons Mittnacht O.S.A. sought to increase interest among Catholics in the cause of Roman Catholic and Orthodox reunion by sponsoring the appreciation of Byzantine learning and liturgy. It was also this friar who made prominent converts among the intelligentisia such as Adolf Stransky, a well-known journalist.
Photos (at left)Picture 1: St Thomas Church, Prague.Picture 2: Baroque interior of St Thomas Church, Prague.Picture 3: First Communion at St Thomas Church, Prague.
Alypius Scharfe O.S.A. worked with diligence among the German speaking students at Charles University while Pavel Sladek O.S.A. soon became known for his historical monographs. One of the better-known of the Augustinians was Augustin Subert O.S.A., who entered the Order after finishing his doctoral studies in the Charles University. Once ordained he was made pastor of St Thomas Church in Prague and led a dedicated life of activity for the youth of the city.
Frequently called upon to preach and lecture, he became a well-known figure throughout Czechoslovakia. When the country was dismembered in 1938, the Augustinian Province of Bohemia was divided on linguistic lines with Czechs to the south and east, and Germans to the north and west.
For the Augustinians in the Sudetenland a Commisariate was erected comprising the monasteries of Bele, Rocov, Ceska Lippa and Vrchlabi. Fr Subert protested loudly against this indignity and questioned the Nazi program of education that he termed “pagan.” For this he was arrested and held in various detention centers when he was finally sent to the Dachau death camp in Germany, where according to witnesses he nobly met his death as a Christian on 28 July 1942. The cause of his beatification is being considered.
Following the defeat of the Nazis on 8th May 1945, Communism now supported by the presence of a victorious Soviet Army gained control of the Czechoslovak Government by February 1948. On 26th April 1950 in what was to be called Aktion-K (or “Action against the Cloisters”) most of the members of religious orders were rounded up and sent to labor camps for the purpose of “rehabilitation” for life in a socialistic (Communist) system.
Meanwhile the Provincial, Bonaventura Cerny O.S.A. died and a swift election designated Adalbert Primes O.S.A. as his successor. These were difficult years with public trials of eminent Church personages; even Cardinal Beran, the Archbishop of Prague, was interned. Communities were dismembered; vocations were scarce and hidden from the authorities who declared religious orders and congregations illegal. By the early 1960s, the government in a post-Stalinist mood emancipated members of the religious orders and sent them back to an uncertain role in society. Vit Marecek O.S.A., a survivor, told how he had secretly catechised and kept the faith alive behind the barred doors of the sacristy of St Thomas Church.
During this time a number of candidates did apply for admission to the Order and were accepted. The “Dubcek reprieve” ended in 1968 with the Soviet troops entering Czechoslovakia and reimposing a harsh dictatorship once more on a prostrate population.
Fr Primes remained in his post as sacristan in St Bartholomew’s Church, Pilzen, while Fr Vit managed affairs with assistance from Brother Carus in St Thomas, Prague. Fr Ivan labored in Ceska Lipa while Fr. Prokop Prucha tragically died under mysterious circumstances in sv. Dobrotiva. Other friars, both brothers and the unordained, kept in contact with Fr Vit who became provincial following the death of Fr Primes in 1980.
With the recovery of Czech independence in 1990, the Province returned to public life, Fr Miroslav Cerny returned from Germany to become Provincial and there was a reassignment of duties in the Province now consisting of some seven friars and about four candidates.
Death and defection, however, had taken its toll on a weary group of friars. Assistance was imperative. Fr Miguel Orcasitas O.S.A. assigned two friars in 1997 from the Province of Spain, Fr Miguel Lanero and Fr. Juan Bautista Provecho to help in the rebuilding of the Province. Over the years 1990 – 2006 friars from various provinces were involved in the Czech renewal. In 2009 there were four friars in Prague, and one professed cleric due to be ordained in two years.
For further Augnet reading
For four Augnet pages exclusively on the history and architecture of St Thomas Church, Prague, click here.
For Augnet pages on the Augustinian Abbey at Brno, click here.
For Augnet pages on the famed abbot and geneticist, Gregor Mendel O.S.A., click here.
For the Augnet gallery on the Augustinians of the Czech Republic (Brno and Prague), click here.
The web site of the Czech Augustinian Province. It is available in both the Czech and English languages. It contains many digital images, including a thorough photographic coverage of the baroque St Thomas’ Church. http://www.augustiniani.cz
The Augustinian Church of Saints Thomas and Augustine – an excellent and detailed cultural and historical perspective, with a lengthy and informative article by William Faix O.S.A. This web site is available in English, because the parish also has a ministry to the English-speaking community in Prague. http://www.augustiniani.cz/en/parish/st-thomas-history http://www.augustiniani.cz/fotogalerie