In 1140, Hartmann, who had led the Augustinian Canons’ Monastery of Klosterneuburg near Vienna as its provost since 1133, was named bishop of Bressanone. He was to continue the reform efforts of his predecessor Reginbert and assist the Bressanone clerics with their revival. It is not known why Hartmann himself did not enjoin the canons to lead their lives by the Augustinian rules, following the example of Salzburg, and why instead, he founded a new monastery – Novacella – only two years from the induction into his office, and only 3 km from his bishop’s seat. On the Sunday before All Saints’ Day in the year 1142, he consecrated the newly built Monastery Church. At the same time, the first assignment of assets also took place, provided by Reginbert of Säben and his wife, Christina. In the spring of the following year, Pope Innocent II issued a confirmation and protection bull for Novacella. In 1157, Emperor Frederick I, for whom Hartmann was his confessor, also took the Abbey under his wing.
In the same year, Hartmann gave the Monastery the parish of Natz, on whose land the Monastery sat. From the moment the Abbey incorporated the parish, its pastoral care was provided directly by the Abbey. Around 1160, Bishop Hartmann also gave the Kiens parish to the canons of Novacella.
The Middle Ages
Not quite fifty years after its founding, the Monastery of Novacella experienced its first disaster: on April 17, 1190, a fire destroyed the monastic complex. But under the prudent leadership of Provost Konrad II of Rodank (1178–1200), who was extremely interested in the arts, it was rebuilt within a few years. As early as 1198, the Abbey Church was already reconsecrated. The dedication of the newly erected hospital chapel of the Redeemer, which was located on the upper floor of the round building at the abbey’s entrance (today’s Chapel of St. Michael’s or Engelsburg) also took place in the same year.
Financially secure due to numerous gifts and donations from rich benefactors, the Monastery was soon able to establish itself as a spiritual and cultural center whose influence went far beyond the its walls. And in addition, the canons were able to consecrate themselves more to solemn liturgy and pastoral care: in 1221, Novacella received the patronage rights over the parish of Olang. The incorporation of the parish of Völs am Schlern took place in 1257, and the Assling parish was transferred to the Abbey by the archbishops of Salzburg in 1261.
In the second half of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century, Abbazia di Novacella experienced a period of peak development. This is not only reflected in the construction of the impressive late Gothic choir with its characteristic steep roof, but also in the numerous magnificent Gothic altar panels created by the renowned artists of the time, such as Michael and Friedrich Pacher, the Meister von Uttenheim, and Max Reichlich, which are on display at the Monastery Museum today and also amply testify to this. In addition, in the Abbey’s own scriptorium, manuscripts richly adorned with miniatures, over which today’s visitors still marvel, were created during those years. Between 1439 and 1446, the canon Friedrich Zollner created two large-format volumes of graduals, which were to be used for centuries, while Stephan Stetner created a missal, which was on exhibit at the World’s Fair in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century. Choral singing also attained a very high level.
These excellent artistic and cultural accomplishments were supported by a community of canons who, on the eve of the Reformation, had not yet lost their spiritual power. In 1483, for example, the Dominican pater Felix Faber from Augsburg wrote in his travel memoirs in praise of Novacella: “It has a large church with precious ornaments and a good library. Mature and reverent men are there, and I think I have never heard more precise and better singing of a choir than at this abbey.”
The Modern Era
This flourishing period was to come to a rapid end due to the societal and religious upheavals that took place at the beginning of the 16th century. In May of 1525, the Abbey was plundered and occupied by peasants from the area, led by Michael Gaismair. While the community had enough financial strength to repair the great damage to buildings and furnishings of the monastic complex, its spiritual structure was threatening to unravel. While the chapter had consisted of 30 canons around 1510, the number of priests living at the abbey fell to six in the 1560s.
Not until under Provost Jakob Fischer (1589–1621) did times slowly change for the better. His successor Markus Hauser (1621–65) laid the spiritual foundation for the Baroque redesign of the Abbey by founding an academic in-house college. In order to provide sufficient space for the growing community, the private area and the gardens were modernized and expanded even more during the sixteenth century. This was followed by the complete rebuilding of the medieval Monastery Church from 1735 to 1744 into a light-suffused “theatrum sacrum” in the spirit of the late Baroque, in which the liturgy was capable of providing a taste of the heavenly wedding feast.
This phase was completed by the construction of the new library wing with its magnificent Rococo hall (1771–78).
These ambitious construction projects corresponded to a large community of canons, counting some fifty-three members in 1780, for example.
During the first three Coalition Wars against France (1792–1805), the Abbey suffered under repeated large-scale billeting of troops from both parties to the war, as well as oppressive taxes. When the Principality of Tyrol fell to Bavaria in the Peace of Pressburg (1805), the final days of the Augustinian Canons’ Monastery of Novacella seemed to have arrived.
By decree from the Bavarian state government of September 17, 1807, all of the seven Tyrolean abbeys that had been spared under Joseph II were dissolved (the Augustinian canons’ Monastery of Gries, Novacella, and St. Michael an der Etsch, the Benedictine abbeys of Marienberg and St. Georgenberg-Fiecht, the Cistercian abbey of Stams, and the Premonstratensian canons’ abbey of Wilten). After an inventory had been taken and the value of the abbey’s assets had been assessed, the government’ commissars started removing the most valuable objects and auctioning off the real property and abbey furnishings.
Some of the canons were released to positions in pastoral care, the professors of the in-house college found teaching jobs in state schools, and the old canons were housed in the rectories providing Novacella’s pastoral care. Only the provost and the dean remained in the building.
After Tyrol was reunited with Austria, the Monasteries of Marienberg, Novacella, Wilten, and Stams were once again installed in their rights and possessions by an edict of Emperor Franz I on January 12, 1816.
The situation for the Novacella canons’ Monastery was extremely difficult as a majority of the real estate had been lost, the buildings were damaged, the church and abbey were almost without furnishings, and the number of personnel was low. Compounding the difficulties were the conditions imposed by the emperor for the restoration of the Monastery: the community had to agree to staff not only the eighteen pastoral care positions again, but also to provide the teachers for the Imperial and Royal Gymnasium in Brixen. This initially proved impossible from their own ranks, since thirteen canons had died during the dissolution period, others refused to return, and of course, there was no “young talent” yet.
It was not until 1844 that the Brixen Gymnasium was finally completely led by the canons. This “Augustinian Gymnasium” had a good reputation. After its dissolution by the Fascists in 1926, it was continued in German at the Abbey until being closed in 1943 by South Tyrolean followers of Nazism. After World War II, the school and the boarding school were opened anew in 1945. A “choirboy institute” was also founded, where young singers were instructed in singing and the playing of musical instruments, in addition to receiving a good general education.
After 1816, the Abbey fought hard for its existence with regard to its finances for a long time. It was not until under the leadership of Provost Ludwig Mair (1832–51) that the situation slowly improved. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had progressed to the point where the first comprehensive restoration of the Monastery Church became possible in 1895-96.
During World War I, the Abbey repeatedly experienced the billeting of troops. With the exception of the small funereal bell and the fire bell, all of Novacella’s bells had to be turned in, and the abbey was not able to replace them until 1922.
World War II had more ominous consequences for Novacella. After the German military established storage for ordnance and a print shop in the abbey’s buildings, Novacella suffered severe damage during an Allied air raid on March 23, 1945: the north side of the Monastery Church, the vestry, the tower, and the Grace Chapel suffered great damage. The last bomb damage from the war was finally remedied in 1982 by the restoration under Provost Chrysostomus Giner (1969–2005).
Thanks to the prudence of the provosts and canons, the Monastery has been able to perform its original responsibilities to this day – supported by a well-functioning economic abbey operation. In addition to education by the school, personal and professional training and development are a major focus at Abbazia di Novacella. In 1970, Provost Chrysostomus Giner founded a Tourism Center with the goal of adjusting to the needs of the times. Soon after, an Eco Center was added that organized continuing education in eco-social matters. Over the decades, this has developed into the Education Center (Bildungshaus) which now annually organizes nearly a thousand events, seminars, series of courses, and conferences on diverse topics.
Due to a teacher shortage, it was decided to cease operating Abbey-owned schools in 1971. Since then, the school has been run as an affiliate of the “Oswald von Wolkenstein” public middle school in Brixen. The dormitory has also remained in operation; about ninety boys from all over South Tyrol still live there annually.
As has always been the case, the key responsibilities of the Augustinian canons continue to include the cultivation of the solemn liturgy, the joint choir prayer, and above all, the work in pastoral care. Today, the Augustinian canons of Novacella work in pastoral care in twenty-five parishes in South Tyrol and East Tyrol. Since May 19, 2015, Eduard Fischnaller has been leading the canons’ community as its provost.