ALTOMUENSTER, Germany – It was filthy, cramped and in major disarray, but when art historian Eva Lindqvist Sandgren entered the library in Altomuenster Abbey, off-limits to all but the German monastery’s nuns for more than five centuries, she immediately knew she was looking at a major treasure.
The dusty shelves held at least 500 books, by her estimate, including precious illuminated manuscripts from the 16th century, chants used by the uniquely women-led Bridgettine Order and processionals bursting with colorful religious and ornamental decoration in their margins.
Unlike most Bridgettine libraries, the tomes had survived the Protestant Reformation, the 30 Years War and Germany’s "secularization," when the state took most church property. It represents the most complete collection of the order known today.
"I had entered a time capsule," said Lindqvist Sandgren, a senior lecturer at Sweden’s Uppsala University.
Surprised by the spontaneous decision by Altomuenster’s last remaining nun, Sister Apollonia Buchinger, to open the library, 20 scholars including Sandgren made plans to return and meticulously catalog the remarkable collection. But before they could, the Vatican ordered the abbey in the Bavarian town of 7,500 closed and locked up the library, which also contains some 2,300 statues, paintings and other works of art.
If plans go ahead to close it down, all of the abbey’s property – the books, the artworks, the city-block-sized abbey, and the acres of forests and fields that make up the monastery grounds – would be turned over to the dioceses of Munich and Freising.
Altomuenster is the end of a subway line from Munich, one of Germany’s most expensive cities, and its land alone is thought to be worth tens of millions of dollars – assets that Sister Apollonia thinks the dioceses are eager to get their hands on.
Since 1496, the former Benedictine abbey in Altomuenster has housed a female religious order founded by Saint Bridget in Sweden in the 14th century. It is one of three monasteries of the original branch of the scholarly, monastic order operating today.
But with its numbers in decline, Sister Apollonia now lives there alone. The Vatican requires at least three nuns to train novices to become nuns, prompting the decision to shut the abbey down.
The Franciscan nun the Vatican put in charge of the closure, Sister Gabriele Konrad, says the collections are just being kept safe, but she’s refused to grant the scholars or anyone else access to the books.
"The value of the library is the ensemble, because it’s never been taken apart and probably nobody’s removed a significant number of books – it’s a working library," said Corine Schlief, an art historian at Arizona State University who visited the library with Sandgren.
"If this should be taken apart and divided up – between books that collectors would give tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for, and those only of interest to scholars – it would lose a lot of its value."
Schlief, Sandgren and other academics have written an open letter to the Vatican, Sister Gabriele and the Munich dioceses – which will inherit Altomuenster’s property once it’s closed – urging that the library be kept together and made available to the public and offering to catalog it.
Sister Gabriele and the Munich dioceses insist there is no plan to sell the books and that their experts are perfectly qualified to handle them.
Scholars had known previously there was a library and had been able to ask nuns to bring them specific books to study in common areas of the monastery. But in October 2015, with such a large group of Bridgettine academics visiting, Sister Apollonia decided it made more sense for them to just look for themselves.
After the Vatican, a month later, ordered the monastery closed and Sister Apollonia appealed for more time, the 62-year-old nun with rosy cheeks appealed to the public for support, starting a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account to generate interest.
The Vatican office in charge has refused to comment on its plans. But Munich-Freising Vicar General Msgr. Peter Beer dismissed speculation of any land-and-treasures grab by the dioceses. He said for cultural, social and religious reasons it was the dioceses’ responsibility to preserve monasteries when they close.
"There’s a false impression that we’re taking in riches and gems and gold and everything imaginable – that’s nonsense," he told the AP at his office in Munich. "We are taking on costs more than anything."
Beer also bristled at the offer of help from the group of scholars.
"You can be assured that we do not need any help from the U.S.A. to understand how to treat cultural assets of significance for Europe. We have a slightly longer history and slightly longer experience," Beer said.