The Cistercian Monastery «Hortus Dei» of Olsberg


The Cistercian Nunnery of Olsberg is the oldest nunnery of this order in Switzerland. It was founded before 1234. First, the nuns moved into the old monastery in Kleinroth which had previously been inhabited by the Cistercian monks of St. Urban. However, the women’s convent remained too close to the monastery. Therefore, the women’s convent moved to Olsberg in 1236.


In the 13th and 14th century the nuns of Olsberg established a good reputation. They accomplished extraordinary work in benefit of the local farmers while living and acting strictly according to the Cistercian rules. Even the nobility benefited from the diligence and the lifestyle of the nuns. Thus, the nunnery gained more and more properties from bequests and donations. By the end of the 14th century, the main acquisitions were completed, comprising a considerable area fields and vineyards in the canton of Basle-County, Alsace and the area of the South Baden. The nunnery also owned several buildings in the towns of Rheinfelden and Basle.


The first crises started with a disastrous fire in 1427.  Within a short period of time the church was repaired but the reconstruction of the nunnery proceeded slowly. The morale of the nuns reached rock bottom. All the efforts and admonitions of the abbot and the bishop were unsuccessful. Finally, the leadership was handed over to an abbot with six monks, but they failed did not succeed either. Finally, based on insistence of the pope, the leadership was assigned to an abbess again, but this still did not improve the situation.  More and more daughters of aristocrats joined the nunnery, not because of their religious beliefs but rather due to a destructive family policy which attempted to regulate the number of women within the family because of monetary reasons. The consequent forced enrollments in the nunnery did not help to solve the already existing internal problems. In addition, the nunnery was attacked and plundered during the peasant’s revolt in 1525. As a result the abbess tried to get rid of the many of bigger part of the possessions, but the Austrian government prevented this. With the beginning of the reformation, most of the nuns left the nunnery. In the following 23 years, the administration was taken care of by a steward of the “father” abbey.


In Katharina von Hersberg, an abbess was found who was willing to renovate the inner and outer parts of the nunnery. But her preference for a well-tended kitchen and her generous hospitality to selected guests meant that renovation was not her first priority. Her successor was an industrious woman from the Tirol. Within a short period of time, she renovated the nunnery. In 1632, however, her efforts met a body blow. During the Thirty Years’ War, the nunnery was robbed and destroyed twice by Swedish troops. The nuns had to flee and lived for three years in an exile in Wettingen and afterwards in Mümliswil.


Ultimately, under the abbess Franziska of Eptingen and her successor, radical alteration and reconstruction were completed and between 1670 and 1757, the nunnery gained its contemporary appearance: a baroque church as well as alteration and reconstruction of the nunnery building. This period was followed by the third and last golden age of the nunnery. At this time, the nunnery was well known all over the world: renowned embroiderers lived and worked within and outside the walls of the nunnery.


It was Bernarda von Freiburg who ordered the removal of the ridge turret and the rear part of the nave to build the spire and the stone gallery there. For financial reasons, the rebuilding of the church could not be completed, and the splendid renovations could not hide the fact that the nunnery approached a crisis. The political position of the nunnery threatened its continuation. The “Violenbach” beneath the nunnery had formed the border between Austria and the Old Swiss Confederacy for a long time. The secular control of nunnery was in the hands of the Austrian government, while the ecclesiastical surveillance was disputed. Both, the abbot of the French abbey of Lucelle and the abbotts of “Salem” and “Trennbach”, claimed this position. The economic centre was in the Old Swiss Confederacy. All these internal conflicts led to the dissolution of the nunnery. The emperor then converted the former nunnery to a “Damenstift” in 1790. This was an institution in whcih only the abbesses were obliged to take vows.


The collapse of the Old Swiss Confederacy spelled the definitive end of the nunnery. In 1802, it was secularized, the nuns retired and its possessions pronounced public property.


In 1786, the abbey had become the parish church of Olsberg. (Previously it was part of the church congregation of Augst). After the first Vatican Council, however, the parish of Olsberg was one of the first who turned away from the Roman Catholic Church. The church treasure is nowadays in the possession of the Christian Catholic Church of Switzerland and nowadays the abbey can be used by all three national churches.


By 1807, the former nunnery had become a “Töchterinstitut” for daughters of aristocrats. With time, this institution became one of the first training schools for female teachers within the canton. In 1835, the cantonal parliament requested that all students have to be accepted with no regard to their origin. The administration in charge at that point of time, however, was not able to fulfill these conditions for financial monetary reasons and therefore closed the school. Josephine Stadlin attempted to revive the project but she failed after a couple of years.


The “Pestalozzistiftung der Deutschen Schweiz“, founded by Heinrich Zschokke in 1846, gave a home in Olsberg to neglected children and orphans. They were taught in the former rooms of the nunnery, but in two separate groups – according to their confessions. For financial restrictions, bad harvests for a couple of years and internal problems, the founders were urged to hand the private institution over, and in 1860, the canton of Aargau took over the institution.


Until 1975, only boys were housed there. Then, with education changes, it became co-educational and nowadays 24 girls and boys, with normal skills are given individually tailored care, education and training. The “Stift Olsberg” remains a special school and a boarding home with an educational model which is close to a family. The children are guided and encourage in three living and school groups. Since 1999, the farm is leased out and is no longer affiliated to the school.


From 1971 to 1981, the monastery church was fundamentally renovated. Between 1980 and 1981 an entire renovation of the Ritterhaus took place. From 1986 to 1995 an extensive restoration of the monastery complex took place. After completion of the total renovation of the buildings, the new company and training concept was fully implemented. In 1995 the first girls were introduced to a coeducation of male and female pupils.


In 1999 the conversion to biological management took place, while privatization with lease of agriculture took place.


The last structural measures - in addition to the ongoing maintenance work - were carried out in 2008 by the utilization of the upper barn.


On 1 August 2017 the change from a public to a private carrier takes place. The «Stift Olsberg» changes from the canton Aargau to the private foundation of the «Kinderheim Brugg».



Joseph Echle, October 2017

Tabular chronicle of the monastic history

 before 1234          Founding of the monastery.

                            First site on Kleinroth near

                            the monastery of St. Urban.

                            «Hortus Dei» is the oldest

                            known Cistercian nunnery of



Feb. 1234              Bull of Pope Gregory IX

                            (oldest know document).

                            Recognition of monastic

                            community by the church.


Sep. 1234              Application for admission to

                             the Cistercian Order.


1235                      Incorporation  into the

                             Cistercian Order. The

                             surveillance authority is

                             transferred to the

                             Cistercian monastery of

                             Lützel (Alsace)


1236                      Transfer to Olsberg.

                             Construction of church and



until 1351               Acquisition of land and real

                              estate by purchase and

                              donations. The acquisitions

                             cover the area west of

                             Möhlin, Wegenstetten, land

                             now in the cantons of both

                             Basel City and Basel

                             Countryside, in Alsace and

                             in the area of south Baden.


1427                      Fire destroys the church

                             and the monastery.


1453-1458             Dedication of the new

                             church. The rehabilitation

                             of the nunnery was slow

                             and qualitatively deficient.


1453-1458             The government of the

                            nunnery was put in the

                            hands of an abbot with six

                            monks. They failed to

                            improve the situation.


from 1458              At the instigation of the

                            pope an abbess was again

                            entrusted with the manage-

                            ment of the nunnery.


1525                     Peasant uprising - attack

                            and plundering the



until 1535             The abbess tried to sell the

                            nunnery’s land in the rural

                            part of Basel, but the

                            Austrian government

                            revoked the contract.

                            During the period of the

                            Reformation, most nuns left

                            the nunnery, which was



1535-1558            The nunnery administration

                           was tramsferred to the

                           “father” abbey of Lützel.


1572                     Katharina von Hersberg re-

                            created the nunnery.


from 1588             Ursula Schmotzer, civil

                            abbess of the Tyrol,

                            reformed the nunnery both

                            internally and externally. It

                            tightens the acquits.


1632                     Thirty Years War: the

                            nunnery was plundered

                            twice by Swedish troops

                            during the siege of

                            Rheinfelden. The nuns fled

                            first to Wettingen and then

                            took refuge for three years

                            in Balsthal.


from 1635             The church, nunnery and

                            the outbuildings underwent

                            makeshift repairs.


1653                     Inauguration of the

                            unfinished church.


1659                     The church gets two new



1670-1707            Abbes Franziska von Eptin-

                            gen made major alterations

                            and restoration of the

                            church in Baroque style, and

                            added a floor to the nunnery


1673                    Completion and dedication of

                            the new altar.


1683-1684            Redesign of the refectory

                            and other rooms in the east

                            wing. Noteworthy is the

                            carved wooden ceiling (Car-

                            ved Tree sample with the

                            coat of arms of the grand-

                            parents of the abbess.)


1688                     The relics of St. Victor (a

                            saint of the Catacombs of

                            Rome) were brought to



1689                     St. Victor was made the

                            second patron of the



1707-1732            Bernarda von Freiburg

                            continued the construction

                            activity. Demolition of the

                            roof knight and the

                            posterior part of the nave.

                            Construction of the pulpit, a

                            new stone gallery and a

                            church tower. Partial

                            demolition and construction

                            of the West Wing.


1732-1757             The abbess Johanna von

                            Roll continued the construc-

                            tion activity. The result is

                            the southern garden with a

                            wrought iron gate. Recent

                            modifications in the church:


about 1738           Replacement of two statues

                            at the altar. Replacement of

                            two side altars au the years

                            1541 and 1649. New

                            construction of the altar of

                            St. Victor with shrine.


1751                     Incipient decline of the

                            monastery. Change the

                            affiliation from Lützel to

                            Salem despite protests of

                            the nuns.


from 1753             Re-affiliated to Tennenbach.


1786                     The nunnery church became

                             the parish church of

                            Olsberg, which formerly

                            belonged to the parish of



1787                     Baptismal font constructed.


1790                    Conversion of the nunnery

                            into a secular, aristocratic

                            convent under Leopold III.


1802                    Canton Fricktal declares the

                           monastic property as

                           property of the Canton


1803                    Canton Aargau takes over

                            the monastic property,

                            completes the secularization

                            and forces the retirement of

                            the last nuns.


1805-1810            Sale of the outbuildings

                           upper barn, «Ritterhaus»

                           and rectory, along with other

                           assets. Lease of the nunnery

                           mill to farmers from Olsberg.


1805-1835           Convertion to a “Daughters

                           Institute” and teacher

                           training facility.


1828                    The internal church walls a

                           plastered in  white.


1839-1841            Converted to a teacher

                            training institute  under

                            private management by

                            Josephine Stadlin.


1846-1860            Taken over by the Pestalozzi

                            Foundation of German-

                            speaking Switzerland


1860                    Take-over of the private

                            foundation by the Canton of

                           Aargau, retaining the name

                           of the State Pestalozzi


1864                    Demolition of the north side

                            of the cloister and part of

                            the east wing of the chapter

                            house because of the

                            danger of collapse - also

                            demolition of the bakery

                            and laundry outbuildings.


1864                    Neo-baroque organ with

                            three towers of organ

                            builders Stadtmüller in

                            Hugstetten i.Br., a purely

                            mechanical grinding shop



1872                    Crossing the entire parish for

                           christian catholic religious



after 1875            Demolition of the monastery

                           mill in connection with the

                           laying of the thoroughfare

                           Giebenach - Olsberg.


1901                    Exterior renovation of the

                           Church. The windows in the

                           south and west facades are



1910                     Interior renovation of the

                            church. Infusion of a cement

                            floor on the broken brick



16.12.1913           A big fire destroyed the 200

                           year old barn top. Immediate

                           reconstruction with reduced



1914                    Demolition of the original

                            medieval tower with the old

                            staircase in the main

                            building. Construction of a

                            new tower with a new



1916-1929            Re-purchase of all outbuil-

                            dings and land, with the

                            exception of the rectory.


1935                     Renovation of the church

                            facade and «Ritterhaus»


1965-1967            Renovation of the main

                            building (excluding the



1967                    Closure of the church

                           because of the danger of



1972-1981            Total restoration of the

                            monastery church


1975                     Beginning of a fundamental

                            reorientation in education.

                            Change from the collective

                            system with large

                            dormitories to a group home

                            system with individual care

                            and support of children.

                            Only male children and

                            adolescents admitted.


1980-1981            Total renovation of the

                            annex «Ritterhaus».


1986-1995            Extensive total renovation of

                            the monastery.


1995                     New operating concept and

                            education after completion

                            of the renovation. First

                            admission of girls and boys



1999                     Agriculture is converted to

                            organic farming, privatized

                            and leased-out.


2008                     Use adjustments upper



01.08.2017            Change of public to private

                            supervisory authority. The

                            «Stift Olsberg» changes

                            from the canton Aargau to

                            the private foundation of the

                            «Kinderheim Brugg».