The church was miraculously consecrated, so the legend runs, in 948, by Christ himself assisted by the Four Evangelists, St. Peter, and St. Gregory the Great. This event was investigated and confirmed by Pope Leo VIII and subsequently ratified by many of his successors, the last ratification being by Pope Pius VI in 1793, who confirmed the acts of all his predecessors.
In 965 Gregory, the third Abbot of Einsiedeln, was made a prince of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Otto I, and his successors continued to enjoy the same dignity up to the cessation of the empire in the beginning of the 19th century. In 1274 the abbey, with its dependencies, was created an independent principality by Rudolf I of Germany, over which the abbot exercised temporal as well as spiritual jurisdiction. It continued independent until 1798, the year of the French invasion. The abbey is now what is termed an abbey nullius, the abbot having quasi-episcopal authority over the territory where the monastery is built.
For the learning and piety of its monks, Einsiedeln has been famous for a thousand years, and many saints and scholars have lived within its walls. The study of letters, printing, and music have greatly flourished there, and the abbey has contributed largely to the glory of the Benedictine Order. It is true that discipline declined somewhat in the fifteenth century and the rule became relaxed, but Ludovicus II, a monk of St. Gall who was Abbot of Einsiedeln 1526-44, succeeded in restoring the stricter observance.
In the 16th century the religious disturbances caused by the spread of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland were a source of trouble for some time. Zwingli himself was at Einsiedeln for a while, and used the opportunity for protesting against the famous pilgrimages, but the storm passed over and the abbey was left in peace. Abbot Augustine I (1600–29) was the leader of the movement which resulted in the erection of the Swiss Congregation of the Order of St. Benedict in 1602, and he also did much for the establishment of unrelaxed observance in the abbey and for the promotion of a high standard of scholarship and learning amongst his monks.
Nave of the abbey church
Details of the ceiling paintings
Details of the ceiling paintings
The pilgrimages, just mentioned, which have never ceased since the days of St Meinrad, have tended to make Einsiedeln the rival even of Rome, the Holy House of Loreto and Santiago de Compostela, serving as a major stopping point on the Way of St. James leading there. Pilgrimages constitute one of the features for which the abbey is chiefly celebrated. The pilgrims number around one million, from all parts of Catholic Europe or even further. The statue of Our Lady from the 15th century, enthroned in the little chapel erected by Eberhard, is the object of their devotion. This chapel stands within the great abbey church, in much the same way as the Holy House at Loreto, encased in marbles and elaborately decorated.
September 14 and October 13 are the chief pilgrimage days, the former being the anniversary of the miraculous consecration of Eberhard's basilica and the latter that of the translation of St Meinrad's relics from Reichenau Island to Einsiedeln in 1039. The millennium of St Meinrad was kept there with great splendour in 1861 as well as that of the Benedictine monastery in 1934. The great church has been many times rebuilt, the last time by Abbot Maurus between the years 1704 and 1719. The last big renovation ended after more than twenty years in 1997. The library contains nearly 250,000 volumes and many priceless manuscripts. The work of the monks is divided chiefly between prayer, work and study. At pilgrimage times the number of confessions heard is very large.
In 2013 the community numbered 60 monks. Attached to the abbey are a seminary and a college for about 360 pupils who are partially taught by the monks, who also provide spiritual direction for six convents of Religious Sisters.
I was fortunate to visit in 1974 when I was staying with a Swiss family near Zurich. An Anglican then I was puzzled by some of the Catholic practices like genuflecting before the altar but even more by the bareness of local Zwinglian chuirches like the Grossmunster in Zurich.