The Alexian Order has existed at Neuss for over 500 years. The history of the monastery is closely intertwined with the history of the town.
The Mother House at Neuss
During the upheavals subsequent the last outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the 17th century, the abbey became associated with the monks’ expertise in caring for people with mental health problems. This spirit determined the foresighted establishment of a branch in Berlin-Weissensee in the late 19th century. It was to be the beginning of the many social care institutions the Alexian Order is running today. Both motherhouses merged into one province in 2008, since when the Alexian Order in Germany is united under a single provincial head organisation.
Evolution of the Order
The origins of the Alexian monastery at Neuss are as misty as those of the Brotherhood at Aix-la-Chapelle. A Beghard convent existed at Oberstrasse in Neuss in 1301, but the earliest reliable sources mentioning a community of “lay charitable monks” residing in Brückstrasse date back to 1451. Brothers from the Alexian abbey at Cologne established themselves at Neuss in order to help those “poor brothers” in their care for the sick, probably subsequent to an outbreak of pestilence in 1483. According to the Cologne Founding Theories this marks the official beginning of the history of the Alexians at Neuss. Probably the Brothers from Cologne not only arrived as pious and helping charitable hands but also introduced the rules of their own order. The Alexians had adopted the rules of St Augustine at the Liège General Chapter in 1468. In 1472 Pope Sixtus IV endowed them with monastic privileges. With the brothers’ move, the Neuss monks also obtained official blessings, first from the church, and then from the city. This found concrete expression in the building of a chapel dedicated to St Alexius in 1504.
The first recorded mention of the monastery at Neuss is made in 1490, when the General Superior Peter van Broeselt signs a treaty with the city council. In it the city makes available the lease of the house in Brückstrasse for the Brothers’ use. The same treaty codifies the scope of the brother’s work and their rights of stay, while submitting them to supervision from the council authorities – with far-reaching consequences. A lot of religious orders were active at Neuss during the 15th century. Members of religious orders were exempt from taxation at the time, and therefore their number was limited - to eight, in this particular case. A new brother could only be admitted with prior permission from the city council after another member’s death. Hence there were seldom more than seven brothers at the monastery during subsequent centuries. It is for this reason that our Brothers at Neuss do not maintain a novitiate.
The monastery was destroyed twice, during the Truchsess Wars in 1586, and the great fire at Neuss in 1655. The Neuss convent was associated with those at Aix-la-Chapelle and Cologne, constituting Overland province. Arising tensions led, in 1717, to a rift between the Neuss and Aix monasteries and their disassociation from Cologne. The Neuss community formed its own independent congregation and submitted only to Episcopal law. After a plague epidemic at the end of the 17th century the brothers at Neuss dedicated themselves primarily to the care for the mentally ill, similar to the Alexian Brothers at Aix. The building at Brückstrasse, originally just residential quarters, were extended in 1754 and 1834 in to accommodate the growing number of patients.
The 19th century brings great change for the Alexian Brotherhood at Neuss. In the aftermath of the French Revolution the state is considered responsible for healthcare. The brotherhood’s contribution to sick and palliative care receives no financial recognition and their religious dedication is frowned on, though the care institutions of the brotherhood survive secularisation in 1803. The buildings in Brückstrasse no longer cater to the needs of mental health patients in the modern era. Under the leadership of General Superior Brother Alexius Böcker the brotherhood embarks on constructing new monastic and hospital premises on what is now Alexianerplatz. In 1868/69 the old monastery is abandoned. It is a new departure in many ways. It marks the end of the centuries-old intimate relationship with city authorities. The contractual limitation to eight brothers ceases to be observed, and the convent expands steadily until it numbers 150 at the outbreak of World War Two. And with their new, adaptable mental health care facilities the Alexian brothers become instrumental in the modernisation of mental health care in the Rhineland.
In 1888 the Alexian Brotherhood purchases farmland at the Weissensee area of Berlin and a monastery and a hospital are set up. The monastery at Neuss becomes the motherhouse. Branches are set up at Düren (1904), Barmen-Rittershausen (1925), and at Bonn-Endenich 1(1927). And from 1928 to 1951 Neuss brothers were in charge of household administration at the Collegio Greco at Rome, when they had to abandon Rome due to a lack of personnel.
The history of the Berlin convent is inevitably affected by the fate of the Church in the GDR. The convent existed until 1997. The move to Berlin and its work has nevertheless left its mark: after German re-unification the Alexian Brotherhood was able to assume the running of a number of care institutions in former East Germany.
All the Alexian Brotherhood buildings save the ones at Berlin were destroyed during bombardment in World War Two. Physical post-war reconstruction could not solve the severe lack of personnel. In 1955 there were only 60 brothers left, and today there are six. Subsequently all subsidiary convents had to be dissolved.
Still, the post war era was a time for restructuring and new beginnings. In 1988 the two congregations at Neuss and Cologne merged. The Cologne brothers had already given up their premises at Cologne-Lindenthal and concentrated on the location at Siegburg. In 1990 the Neuss Congregation merged with the global Congregation of the Alexian Brotherhood. The Brothers at Neuss were now part of St Josef Province, Neuss. Thus with the St Alexius Province of Aix-la-Chapelle there were just two regional Alexian provinces in Germany. In 2008 they fused into a single new German Province, marking the happy consolidation of the Alexian Brotherhood into one entity within a united Germany.
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