The Abbaye before 1945

by Michel Pauly

Neumünster Abbey – and an entire old city quarter

Preliminary remarks Although Neumünster Abbey is a major historical site in the city of Luxembourg, its history has been the subject of very little research and it is far from being possible to give a complete account. In this sense, these few lines constitute only a first sketch of its evolution and are intended as an incentive to take up the matter again with a view to more detailed research.


The medieval settlement

The district in which the abbey has been located since the 17th century was one of the earliest documented settlements in the territory of the future city of Luxembourg. Indeed, in 1083, when Count Conrad, the first to be called of Luxembourg, founded a monastery on the promontory to the east of his castle, the future abbey of Altmünster, he transferred to it a.o. “the water from the Saint-Ulric bridge to the rock of the “Mor” with all its rights of use and the right of free fishing upstream and downstream with the mills and the ovens” (UQB I, n° 301). It is very likely that these 11th century mills are in part those mentioned as early as 926 in a document describing the Weimerskirch estate belonging to the abbey of Saint-Maximin in Trier and listing a.o. 6 mills along the nearby streams. However, grinding wheat only made sense if it was consumed on the spot. The settlement on this domain, which also included the Bock rock that Count Sigefroi acquired around 963, must therefore have been quite substantial. It was on the banks of the Alzette that the craftsmen who came to help Sigefroi and his successors build their castle, the collegiate church of Saint-Sauveur (later Saint-Michel) and other seigniorial buildings certainly settled. It is these craftsmen as well as the count’s family and his ministers who must have turned to the fishermen, millers and bakers (unless the ovens were those of blacksmiths) mentioned in the charter of 1083. They were numerous enough that a church was built for them at the end of the 10th century and dedicated to Saint-Ulric at the time of Sigefroi, while depending on the parish of Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens in Hollerich. The district on the banks of the Alzette, which was to take the name Grund, was therefore from the beginning a district of craftsmen, while the merchants settled in the castle town on the plateau to the west of the castle, around the market that developed in front of the church of Saint-Sauveur. This artisanal function of the district is confirmed by the archaeologists who had the opportunity to excavate the floor of the inner courtyards of the present JRC. Indeed, the structures and material discovered in the middle of the courtyard in front of the building known as ‘Criminel’ by Johnny De Meulemeester, consisting of wooden huts, dumps, low furnaces and ovens filled with slag, seem to date from the 12th-13th centuries. For the beginning of the 14th century, written testimonies tell us about the presence of weavers, dyers, fullers and other textile trades needing water and drying their cloths on the Rham plateau (literal translation: frame). A well, the Krudelsbur, supplied the district with drinking water. According to the archaeologist, the wooden huts were replaced by stone workshops in the second half of the 14th or early 15th century. A forge would have continued to function until the bombing of 1684. In the 17th century, tanners had also established themselves on the left bank of the Alzette opposite the church.

The contributions of archaeology to our knowledge of this district

These workshops were located along the Trier road, which, during the construction of the so-called 3rd wall, was enclosed by a gate, the Krudelsporte, first attested in 1395 in the accounts of the baumastery and whose remains, in its configuration of the 2nd half of the 16th century, are still visible in the Robert Krieps room. Archaeological excavations have revealed the remains of the wooden footbridge that spanned the 10-meter wide ditch in front of the gate, which often silted up. Another wooden bridge, the pittit pont desous lou chastel of 1297 (UQB VI, no. 664), also made it possible to reach the left bank of the Alzette and the rue Plaettis with its steam rooms appreciated by the craftsmen at the end of a work week, or the plateau of the Altmünster abbey.

The establishment of a hospital at the beginning of the 14th century

At the beginning of the 14th century, the district was to experience an important settlement. Emperor Henry VII and his wife Marguerite had a church and a hospital built there, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to Saint John. Under the impetus of Count Jean l’Aveugle, it was the latter that became the most important. In 1321, in order to increase the resources of this charitable institution, Archbishop Baudouin of Trier, brother of the deceased emperor, erected the church into a parish including the few streets in the immediate vicinity, separated from the parish of Saint-Michel which had taken over from the church of Saint-Sauveur. The church of St. John was probably located on the small square in front of the present church. Its cemetery, located to the east of the church, in the cloister and under the buildings of the future Neumünster abbey, which was necessary since the church had obtained parish rights, had to be enlarged and even narrowed the road to Trier; it remained in use until the 17th century. Some 850 graves were excavated and the conclusion was that the sanitary state of the burial site revealed a high infant mortality rate and serious deficiencies resulting from malnutrition and archaic hygienic conditions, as well as the absence of medical care that today could have prevented some premature deaths. As a result, the buried population had a life expectancy at birth of 37 years and of 47 years for men and 43 years for women at the age of 20.

The beginnings of an urbanization

Five houses of identical plan, therefore built together, excavated by archaeologists in the present covered entrance courtyard of the JRC, could have been part of the old hospice which also housed prebendaries who stayed at the hospice until the end of their lives in exchange for the bequest of their fortune. It is true, however, that the dimensions of 3 m by 7 m are a little too large to make them hospice houses. Their regular layout shows a remarkable concern for urban planning for the 14th century. Could they be houses allocated to owners expropriated during the construction of the surrounding wall? The layout of the Trèves road, 10 m wide at the beginning and following the slight bend of the river, the regular orientation of the buildings on this road, and their standardized width suggest to Johnny De Meulemeester the idea that this whole area around Saint-Jean was the object of a planned urbanism that contrasts with the tortuous alleys of the medieval cities that we know elsewhere. The district, located at the level of the Alzette, was regularly flooded, the effects of which are attested to by the urban accounts of 1449, 1452, 1457, 1461, and 1491, which mention bridges washed away by the floods of the Alzette, as well as by the successive raising of the roadway’s gravelling observed by the archaeologists. The latter also had to fight against the regular rise in the water table.

Beginning and evolution of the monastic life

In 1083, as has been said, Count Conrad of Luxembourg, before leaving for the Holy Land, had begun to build from scratch a House of God in honor and for the veneration of the Prince of the Apostles on this hill where none of (his) ancestors had hitherto worshipped (God), a house in which (he) placed a small community of monks militating under the rule of St. Benedict (UQB I, no. 301). It was built on the terrace downstream from the castle, where a tower of the abbey enclosure still stands today. Michel Margue has confirmed, in a meticulous study, an ancient tradition according to which this community, impregnated with the Cluniac spirit, came from the abbeys of Saint-Airy and Saint-Vanne near Verdun, even if the interpretation that made the abbot Richard of Saint-Vanne a son of Conrad is to be considered as an invention of the modern era. Initially dedicated to St. Peter, like St. Vanne, the abbey, commonly known as (Alt)münster, changed its name in 1123 when Conrad’s son, Count William II, confirmed and strengthened his father’s foundation and placed it under the sign of Our Lady. At the same time, the monastery was placed under the direct dependence of the Holy See and thus freed from the control of St. Vanna and from all secular interference.

This count’s foundation constituted a real lineage abbey, a place destined to commemorate in prayer the memory of the deceased counts of the house of Luxembourg, and a religious center for the nascent principality. The monastery served as the first burial place of the counts of Luxembourg (until the advent of Count Henry IV of Namur) and was re-established as such by Charles IV to house the monumental tomb of the count and king John the Blind who fell at the battle of Crecy (1346). In 1123 William II obtained from the Pope the detour to Altmünster of the so-called banal processions of 26 parishes in the vicinity of Luxembourg, which until then had to go every year on the third Friday after Easter to Trier Cathedral. Their gathering on the terrace of Altmünster was a unique opportunity for trade between peasants and craftsmen of the emerging city, and William II granted the monks a privilege to do so, but, apart from a document probably issued by Abbot Bertels at the end of the 16th century, the sources do not mention the actual holding of such a fair.

The abbey, a center of education

Later on, the monastery school also obtained the monopoly of education in the city of Luxembourg and attracted pupils even from the county of Bar to learn French and German. The burial of a hermit from the Grunewald in the abbey did not have the desired effect: Blessed Schetzel was never beatified, the monastery did not become a place of pilgrimage.  


From Altmünster abbey to Neumünster abbey : the avatars from the 16th to the 18th century

The exact date and initiators of the destruction of Altmünster Abbey remain unknown. It is likely that the troops of the French king Francis I, who had taken the city of Luxembourg on September 11, 1543, had it destroyed to prevent the imperial enemy from taking refuge there during a future siege. Previously, they had transferred the remains of John the Blind to the Franciscan church in the upper town, where Abbot Bertels recovered them in 1592. The monks moved to the Grund valley, which was part of the seigneury along the Alzette that Count Conrad had given them at the time of the foundation in 1083, to the hospital of St. John, which was assigned to them by Charles V, who was its collator, and which they transformed in order to adapt it to their needs, while the hospital was rebuilt a little upstream along the Alzette. The abbey of Neumünster almost had a very short life, since in 1560, after the death of Abbot William of Orley, the last monk who was still there left the monastery and, on the proposal of the provincial council, the governor general of the Spanish Netherlands, Margaret of Parma, wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to transfer the revenues of the abbey to a new bishopric of Luxembourg that she was planning to establish. Until then, the duchy of Luxembourg had been part of six bishoprics, including the archbishopric of Trier, while in 1559, at the request of Charles V, Pope Paul IV had erected 14 new bishoprics in the rest of the Netherlands. But the Luxembourg project failed, for some unknown reason, as Philip II appointed a new abbot, Peter Coelen Lysius, who with two young men came from Leuven to repopulate the monastery of Luxembourg. A second attempt in this direction was made in 1602 by Archduke Albert, who ordered the transfer of the Benedictines to the convent of the Cordeliers in order to confer the episcopal dignity on the abbot of Münster, but he ran into opposition from both convents. This exchange soon became impossible due to the construction of a new monastery in the Grund by Abbot Peter Roberti from 1604.

Two abbots of great importance

During their temporary residence in the hospice of St. John, the monks of Neumünster were able to elect two abbots of great importance: Jean Bertels (1576-95), the first historiographer of Luxembourg, who later moved to the prestigious abbey of Echternach († 1607), and who also drew up two illustrated inventories of the goods and revenues of the abbey of Neumünster, and Pierre Roberti (1602-36), the master builder of the monastery’s reconstruction.

Major changes to the hospice

The changes made to the hospice building from the time of the arrival of the monks seem to be significant according to the findings of Johnny De Meulemeester. A building perpendicular to the church would have spanned the road to Trier, which was about to lose its function since at the end of the 16th century the surrounding wall had been bastioned and the gate removed, the traffic being diverted around 1590 through the gate that spanned the present Rue de Trèves, halfway up the Rham plateau, below the Dinselporte, which had been mentioned since 1426. On the right bank of the Alzette, a new counterscarp is dated by an inscription of the year 1604. A new 40 m long wing was built along the road, with a ‘sallette abbatiale’. In this room the archaeologists found, besides the remains of a Renaissance-style chimney, fragments of Antwerp majolica (1550-1610), showing the continuity of the commercial contacts with the port city. Adjacent to the church, along the river, was the dormitory, which I believe was built in the former hospital. The new buildings, which form a square upstream from the church, are clearly visible and labeled on a drawing by Antoine Stevens annotated in July 1602 by Abbot Pierre Roberti to describe their deplorable state to the Brussels authorities, probably in connection with an attempt by the abbot to obtain better buildings in the context of the erection of a bishopric of which he would be the first holder. The abbot complained about the disadvantages of the site for a monastic life, pointing out the noise caused by the women breaking flax and hemp under the monks’ rooms, the bad smells caused by the tannery located on the opposite bank of the Alzette, the stones and the curious glances that could be cast from the top of the city onto the monastery in the valley. But these complaints did not succeed, nor did the bishopric project.

Construction of a new monastery…

In 1606 Abbot Pierre Roberti started the construction of a new monastery on a classical plan around a cloister in which the monks were buried. A new parish cemetery was set up behind the church between the Alzette and the old road to Trier. In 1618 the abbot obtained the incorporation of the parish and hospital church of St. John into the abbey: the abbot was henceforth parish priest of the Grund district. The monk who was to represent him in this curial function lived in a house built in front of the monastery. In 1618, a marble tomb, financed by Archduke Albert, was erected in the church to receive the bones of John the Blind. The monastic life underwent a definite renaissance under the leadership of the energetic Peter Roberti, who brought in learned theologians to improve the instruction of the monks and novices. … its destruction… All these buildings fell prey to the bombardments of 1684 during the siege of Luxembourg by the troops of Louis XIV under the direction of Marshal de Créqui and Vauban. Only the tower of the present church, which still has a gothic arch inside, seems to have survived these destructions, even if it was raised later.

… and its reconstruction

The reconstruction was not delayed and was done according to the plans of the military engineer Hubert Laloir from Liège, including the church, which, combined with the lack of financial means on the part of the monks, perhaps explains its great sobriety. The construction of the church began in 1688, as evidenced by the dendrochronology performed on the frameworks, whose wood was dated 1687-88. These buildings, which took up the plan of the monastery of 1606, remained in place until their recent transformation for the new CCR. The abbey is depicted in a painting from the abbatiate of Romain Edinger (1705-16), from whom the organ case and the two paintings showing St. Benedict and St. Basil, founders of Western and Eastern monasticism, still stand in the church. The side chapel dedicated to St. Hubert houses an altarpiece purchased in 1783 at the sale of the furnishings of the Dominican priory in Marienthal and its altar serves as a funerary monument to the aforementioned Abbot Edinger. The remains of John the Blind were saved from the fire and were buried in a third tomb called the “Holy Sepulchre” which is today in the crypt of the cathedral. In 1720 the agricultural annexes of the abbey were razed to the ground and replaced by a wing to the south-east, the timber of which dates from 1719-24 and which forms the present covered entrance courtyard. Since then, the ensemble forms a double square block. In 1738, five new altars were consecrated in the church of St. John. Until 1960, the church had annexes facing Münster Street; a stone portal with a statue of the Virgin Mary, placed exactly in the perspective of Münster Street, led to the first courtyard, which was bordered by the monk’s house on the left and by the building that today serves as the administrative building of the National Museum of Natural History on the right when approaching the CCR entrance. In the first side chapel of St. John’s Church is the famous statue of the Black Madonna, a work carved from walnut wood from the late 14th century and influenced by the Parler style of Cologne. The origin of the blackness of the face is not definitively explained. The three present altars come from the Franciscan church that once stood on Place Guillaume; they were carved around 1660 and are among the first achievements of Baroque art in Luxembourg. They replace a high altar considered the most beautiful in the country, but moved in 1797 to the Jesuit church, the present cathedral, and then disappeared without a trace.


From French prison to Nazi prison

The abbey was secularized like all the others when the Directoire legislation was introduced in Luxembourg, i.e. in 1796. The monks left the abbey in December 1796 and the library and archives were transferred to the central archives of the departmental administration. The jurisdiction of the parish church was extended to the whole lower town of Grund. The bones of John the Blind were saved by a local baker who hid them in a cave behind his house; on his deathbed he told his secret to the mayor of the town who had the remains transferred to his father-in-law Jean-Baptiste Boch, owner of the earthenware factory, whose son took them to Mettlach, where Frederick William IV of Prussia had a neo-Gothic chapel built by Charles Frederick Schinkel overlooking the river Saar. Military hospital… In 1798 the French administration installed a prison and a gendarmerie barracks with a detention center in the former convent. In 1805 the building was donated to the municipality’s welfare office, which set up an orphanage there, when the explosion of gunpowder stored in the Verlorenkost destroyed its former building on the Grund on June 26, 1807. When a new prison was built in the rue Saint-Ulric in 1809, the old abbey was used for the same purpose as it had been before the arrival of the Benedictines in the 16th century: after 1815, the buildings were used as a military hospital for the troops of the German Confederation stationed in the Luxembourg fortress. It is in this context that the building known as ‘Criminel’ was built along the rue de Trèves.

… and again a prison

In 1867, after the departure of the Prussian garrison, the abbey was again transformed into a prison. Since 1830, Luxembourg had no room for its prisoners, because the convicts who had been imprisoned in Vilvoorde and Antwerp from 1815 to 1830, were brought back to Luxembourg after the Belgian revolution. From 1869 to 1985 the men’s prison was located in these premises. To keep the prisoners busy, the Tutesall, the present Robert Krieps room, was built, where they had to make paper bags, wicker chairs, book bindings etc.

1940-1944: the Nazi prison

It was here that the political prisoners arrested by the Gestapo between 1940 and 1944 were held, before being transferred to Trier prison and the Hinzert concentration camp or elsewhere due to lack of space. For some, a gesture of farewell or a glance towards the old town’s ledge was the last contact with relatives or friends who were watching from above in the prison courtyard, before they were evacuated to their place of execution. Some four thousand men and women passed through here during the Second World War, Luxembourg resistance fighters as well as Italian anti-fascists and other political opponents of the Nazi dictatorship.



The history of the seigniory of Münster, i.e. its possessions and revenues, in the city, especially in the Grund, and outside, as well as the conflicts to which it gave rise, e.g. over the right to fish in the Alzette, which was contested by the city of Luxembourg in the 16th century, remains entirely unwritten. Its archives are kept in the A.XXXVI collection of the National Archives, so that only the interest of a future historian is still lacking to exploit them. The transfer of the monks to the Grund and the architectural transformations that the Hospice Saint-Jean underwent are far from being definitively clarified. The building next to the church choir, which today houses the Service des Sites et Monuments Nationaux, has not been the subject of any research, and neither the date of construction nor the original function is known. We are still waiting for a somewhat definitive report on the archaeological excavations that were carried out in the grounds of the former abbey in view of the installation of the Neumünster Cultural Encounter Centre; all the texts published to date by the archaeologist in charge of the work are said to be provisional, but the client does not seem to have foreseen the publication of a report in his specifications. The history of the buildings during the period in which they were used as a prison has yet to be written, since apart from a brief summary by N. A. Ensch (former director of the prison) from 1934, no historian’s work has ever been devoted to this period. Not everything has been said about the Nazi period either. The Golden Book of the Luxembourg Resistance, published in 1952, as well as the Golden Book of Prisons, published in 1996, list the names of some four thousand men and women who were imprisoned by the Gestapo and other German political police, but deliberately omit the names of non-Luxembourgish prisoners, e.g. Italian antifascists. The names of non-Luxembourgish prisoners, e.g. Italian anti-fascists, who were also imprisoned in the Grund by the Nazis, are deliberately omitted.