The Mother House at Aachen

From the depths of history

The early beginnings of the Alexians at Aachen are obscure. During the first half of the 13th century pious men dedicated themselves to charity and care for the poor, pestilence sufferers, lepers and the mentally disturbed. They ran charitable services and buried the dead. These men were called Beghards. Some earned their income through manual labour while others, like those at Aachen, begged for bread, which gave rise to their definition as “bread”-Beghards. Pope Eugene IV described them as Cellites, accounting for their semi- monastic lifestyle. The name Alexian first occurs around 1480. Their titular saint being St Alexius of Edessa, the son of a Roman patrician, who according to legend lived a life of humility and dedication to help for the needy and sick, and who was greatly revered in the middle ages.

By the mid-15th century there were already more than 30 houses (monasteries). The bread-Beghard or Cellite convent at Aachen is first recorded in 1334. It still exists in the same location in Alexianergraben, which in those days was outside the city confines. The first Alexian General Chapter convened at Liège in 1468, when the houses adopt the Rules of St Augustine. In 1472, Pope Sixtus IV bestows monastic privileges on the Cellites/Alexians. By then the Alexian cloister at Cologne had become the most influential monastery in the Rhine region, and therefore the Cologne Superior also became Provincial Superior with the establishment of Overland (Rhineland) Province in 1565, to which the Aachen cloister belonged.

Reorientation and reorganisation

The 17th century was an era of great political and social change which didn’t leave the Alexian cloisters unaffected. One of the great milestones was the inception of modern psychiatric care as the Alexians took to looking after the mentally ill as the incidence of Bubonic Plague diminished towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War. The Alexian cloister at Aachen was partially destroyed in the great fire of 1656, and only its location on the city outskirts saved it from complete dilapidation.

Growing tensions with other cloisters in Overland province led to separation of the Aachen and the Neuss Alexians in 1717. Aachen forms an independent Congregation under Episcopal jurisdiction.

The cloister manages to avoid dissolution under secularisation, but it is put under municipal supervision. All its deeds and foundations cede to the municipal hospital commission. The Brothers are ordered not to take vows anymore. This is only re-introduced in 1853.

Crossing borders and mergers

The history of the cloister at Aachen during the 19th century is not just limited to conflict with state and Episcopal authority; rather it is principally a story of expansion. The Alexians take over the running of Aachen’s Marienhospital in 1844 in their first excursion into the operation of a fully-fledged hospital. Seven years later the Brothers extend their activities to Krefeld.

An altogether different decision proved to be revolutionary, though. During the second half of the 19th century, the Alexians at Aachen established branches in England, Ireland and in the USA. During the ensuing internationalisation ten new houses with more than 200 Brothers are initiated from Aachen. Consequently the Aachen Congregation becomes the mother-institution for a global Alexian Congregation in 1869 with four provinces, two of them in Germany (centred around Aachen and Mönchengladbach), and another one in Britain and one in the USA. The Aachen province includes two houses in Belgium. As during the inception of the religious order in the medieval era, these provinces now submit directly to Papal jurisdiction. Clemens Wallrath, the Superior of the Aachen Congregation is elected as General Superior in charge.

The Alexians at Neuss and Cologne did not join and maintained their independent status under Episcopal jurisdiction. Only with the merger of Aachen and Neuss provinces in 2008 did all the German Alexians unite.

During World War II the motherhouse at Aachen was forcibly evicted and the premises given over to government institutional headquarters. The buildings and most other Alexian premises suffered severe bomb damage. Consequently the Alexian Congregation moved its Generality from Aachen to Tennessee in the USA. 

What is a motherhouse?

Motherhouse is a term deriving from the structure of religious organisations such as religious orders. It is the translation of the Latin casa materna, and describes a centre or place of inception, i.e. the mother of a community. The Alexian cloister at Aachen can be conceived as a Motherhouse in the sense of its Congregation expanding and going out into the world to set up subsidiaries in locations such as Mönchengladbach or Chicago.