Posted by: Nazausgraben | July 26, 2010


It came as something of a shock when we in Pinswang first learned that our beloved Ulrichskirche was to be ‘renovated’. We had heard this word before….a euphemism for updated…modernized. Even though the Ulrichskirche has long been under the protection of the ‘Denkmalschutz’… that government body that protects historic structures and treasures here in Austria…I had already seen the many tragic results of cultural and historical insensitivity by ego-driven city planners, ‘artists’ and architects throughout this beautiful country to convince me that our jewel of a village church was soon to become yet another mutilated piece of history (For examples, see the ‘renovations’ already completed on the Pfarrkirche Thal and Stift Seckau…both in the Austrian Steiermark. Compare older photos of the then beautiful Tirolean market towns of Telfs and Reutte to the more contemporary views of these same now very much changed towns).

As noted in earlier chapters, the Church of St. Ulrich is a magnificent example of high Baroque art and architecture. Within its thick white walls, pilgrims can find the solace and peace afforded by a transcendent atmosphere…light and beautiful.

One can gaze at magnificent examples of 18th century hand carved pews, statues, frescos and paintings. Expert artisans of  ‘Luftlmalerei’ have  marble-ized wooden altars and pillars; an artform commonly found in poorer parish churches throughout the Austrian and Bavarian countrysides.  At first I had fears that all of this was in great danger of going away….of being transmogrified into a cold, heartless, sterile, slant-roofed glass and metal bunker-like ‘worship space’ of the type becoming more common throughout Europe; structures more akin to credit unions than houses of worship.

Happily, these fears have been without basis. The project organizer and leader, Pinswang’s Chronist and Master Builder, Gebhard “Gebi” Haller,  has great appreciation for historical accuracy and sensitivity for aesthetics. His vision is that these renovations will be retore the Ulrichskirche. Any alterations will be purposely designed to be part of rather than purposely antithetic to the centuries old natural and man-made surround in our valley.

I consult Gebi’s documented history of the Ulrichskirche (2004). He notes that the first Ulrichskirche to be built was not a church at all, but rather a small wooden chapel, constructed in 1380. It was built on the highest point in Pinswang, a small hill located at the base of a large foothill forming the western wall of the valley in which one finds Unterpinswang. Not long after its completion, the Ulrichskappelle became one of the destinations for the many thousands of religious on pilgrimage throughout Europe each year. As a result, it was soon discovered that the chapel was not sufficiently large to accomodate its visitors. Indeed, so many pilgrims made the sometimes long and definitiely arduous journey to visit Ulrichs’ grave that a larger, more expansive stone Ulrichskappelle was then built in 1414 to replace the smaller existing wooden structure.

It was in the 17th century that the Ulrichskapelle was designated by the Bishop of Augsburg to serve all of Pinswang, as well as the nearby villages of Musau and Unterletzen.  In 1724, it was determined that the stone chapel would be replaced, again on the same site, by a much larger structure….a church. 

The plan for the church was created by one Johann Georg Fischer…a master of Baroque period architecture living in Fuessen, Germany.  Building commenced early in 1725.  A ‘Grundstein’, upon which a cross and the date 1726 was carved, was placed in the floor near the High Altar. Brother Ulrichs’ bones were interred beneath the side altar on the eastern wall of the church in 1727.  Construction of the church that we see today was completed in 1729…the same year that the glorious frescoes that cover the ceiling and walls of the church were painted by the respected local artist, Johann Heel.

The 'Grundstein' located in the floor near the High Altar (1726).

It was during the renovation of the side altar in 1941 that the remains of Brother Ulrich were moved from the side altar to their location under the Grundstein in the floor near the High Altar. A number of subsequent small restoration projects were completed throughout the church interior during the remaining years of the 20th century.  However, no single renovation of the entire interior, from floor to upper walls…from the front to back of the church…had taken place in centuries.

The interior walls need new paint; the earth under the floor can no longer provide adequate protection again deep Winter frosts and the damp air seeping up from the floor places the interior in danger of mold growth. This will be a much more extensive project than I had anticipated. We are going to have to remove everything from the interior so as to paint, repair, restore and renew…and bring back the Ulrichskirche to the pristine state as when first built.

We start work tomorrow.

Day 1:  So it begins. A team of about 15 volunteers arrive at the church in the early evening…the heat of the day wafting with the still Summer breezes. The sun still shines high in the July sky. We stand amidst the familiarity of the uneven wood and stone floor, the hard-backed pews whose rounded wooden mid-back level extended tops were designed to provide a modicum of discomfort (thereby preventing parishoners from leaning back and falling asleep on early Sunday mornings), the mortar shell damaged arched doors, the still brightly colored wall and ceiling frescoes….we know that soon, all of this will have to be removed…some for just the duration of the project… some to be eventually returned after restoration…some to be replaced.

There are mixed feelings of anticipation and sadness; the former for what we will find during the next months of exploration and renewal..the latter for the thought of in some way taking away what has become warm…familiar…. secure….precious….and damaging the uniqueness of a modest grandeur that has not been altered in any major form for many centuries. Despite the reassurances that every piece of historical significance will be preserved, lovingly cared for and returned to the church, it is still difficult to impose plastic surgery upon the face of one that is already so beautiful.

Yet…this has to be done. The doors can no longer be adequately secured against inclement weather, the floor is in places buckled, making walking within the church difficult for some parishoners and visitors. The older villagers find the pews have become intolerably uncomfortable and the church itself is, as are most churches in Austria and Bavaria, very cold during the deep Winter months. Although central heating cannot be installed due to both the very high costs and the damage that such a system would wreak on the materials from which the church was built (the Bau substance), parishoners at Mass will, after our work is complete, be sitting in pews upon heated pillows. Hopefully a warm ‘Popo’ will, in turn, help warm the heart.

Ulrichskirche prior to the start of renovation.

Gebi calls the team to the area before the High Altar. We spontaneously form a large quiet circle and he says a few words. We are about to embark on a very special project…one that will help ensure that the Ulrichskirche will remain one of the most treasured destinations for visitors, tourists, pilgrims and parishoners for the next two hunderd or more years. We are thanked for our participation…for the giving of our time, talents and strength toward the completion of the at-times arduous task to come. The huddle quietly breaks and we disburse to our waiting shovels, picks, trowels and saws.

The first task is to remove the pews and the old wooden floor upon which they were built. The still soft wall of silence normally found within St. Ulrichs is suddenly breached by the harsh reverberating destructive sounds of chainsaws and hammering as the pews are attacked.  They are afixed to the wooden floorboards with large hand-crafted metal nails. Each…from very large to the tiniest… has been finely shaped and cut by a master blacksmith (Schmied). Their entry points have been so finely honed so as to preclude reuse. In attempting to remove a few from the planks, even the slightest tap with a hammer tends to bend the razor-sharp points. Those that we can keep usually fall out of the planks as they split along seams into which the nails had been hammered those many years ago.

The pews are now sliced into long wooden boards. Where historic inscriptions have been carved into the backs of the bench seating, these are sliced off and sent away for safe keeping.  The lovely 18th century hand carved pew tops and sides are removed and given to Marcus…..the master woodworker; he will repair and restore these beautiful pieces of art for use on the new pews that he will be building. They will look exactly like those that had been removed; the only major difference being that they will be more comfortable…the back-gouging rounded tops are to  be recessed so as to permit parishoners to sit back. It is hoped that a rash chorale of Sunday snores will not be the result. The remainder of the newer seats and pew backs are torn asunder and stacked in front of the Vidum for later use as firewood.  

It is now time to remove the slightly raised wooden planks that create the floor underneath the pews. They have become bowed and bent with time, and some have descended an inch or two into the dirt upon which they are built. These long boards are carefully pried out of the wooden floor frame and handed over to a local farmer who will turn them into the floor and walls of a garden hut he has been building. It is some recompense to us to know that these almost 300 year old boards will still find life in another structure here in Pinswang.

The removal of the floorboards reveals for the first time the dry reddish-brown earth laid upon which the Baroque version of the Ulrichskirche was built and consecrated in 1726. The deep red fragile pieces of worm-eaten wood lining and crossing the newly exposed dirt tell us that what we are now seeing is, in fact, the original wooden floor of the church; the floorboards that we have just removed were then installed atop the original floor some time later… possibly during the 19th century.  The first layer of hidden history can now be seen. 

Day one of the Ulrichskirche renovation project

Almost immediately, we start to find bits and pieces of historic significance. There are a number of coins…many of which possibly fell out of pockets, belt pouches or from the ‘Opferstock’..the short padlocked metal tower into which coins for the poor were deposited. Most originate  from the last century. Some have inscriptions from the ‘Kaiser und Koenig’ period up until 1918. Still others are stamped with the Reichsadler (eagle) and Hackenkreuz (swastika) found on coinage from 1938 until 1945. There are even a few now sadly worthless Shillings that were the national currency of Austria until the rise of the present day Federal European ‘Euro’.

The final act of this first evening of toil is to remove the thick wooden stairway that half-spirals up to the first raised deck (Ebene) of seating over the main entranceway of the church. The steps themselves have become very bowed by the many thousands of parishoners trodding their way up to this  first Ebene. As far back as anyone can recall, this has always been (and continues to be) the traditional place where village men sit during Mass; the women sit in pews below on the main floor and to the left of the center aisle. Noone seems to know just why.

Day 2:  The Ulrichskirche Renovation project team is now ready to store away many of the great artworks from the church…this to prevent possible damage during subsequent excavations. The Tabernacle and consecrated Host have already been removed by Pfarrer Simon and placed safely in the Vidum..the rectory next to the church. 

Our first task on this day is to take down a very large framed oil painting of St. Ulrich from the wall high up and behind the High Altar.  A framework constructed of interlocking steel poles is built and fit into the thin curving space behind the High Altar. Workers climb up to a flat set of boards atop this framework and, balancing carefully, remove first the frame and then the painting. Both are carefully carried into the Vidum. Despite their very large size, the wood and canvas are as gossamer, almost floating.

The next task is the removal of the life-size wooden statues of saints from throughout the church. The larger figures are quite heavy, weighing upward of 200 kilograms. They are beautiful creations….all hand carved, most from one length of log. The fine details are remarkable; the creases in flowing golden robes, ultra-thin pointed crowns, elegant crucifixes, realistic body and visage expressions of calm, pain, holiness. With the help of a crane, the saints and several chubby child-like angels are tenderlyshifted out of their high wall niches, lowered into the waiting arms of several volunteers and carried out of the church, across a small courtyard and  to a room in the Vidum.

With the statues out of harms way, we now begin to remove the delicately hand carved high wooden choir stalls and beautiful large wooden confessionals (Beichstuehle). After being built, the Beichstuehle were slipped into deep niches carved into the walls of the church, forming a semi-circle about the High Altar.  Once out of their niches, these delicate structures are carried by a battery of workers out to waiting flatbed trailers, to be hauled by tractor to a nearby sealed building for storage. The most vulnerable smaller carvings on the High Altar are similarly removed and stored away for the duration in the Vidum.

Day 3:  The master stonemasons from Fuessen, Germany arrive in Pinswang. They carefully remove the large thick flattened Lech River stone plates that form the non-wooden portions of the floor at the Altar and the rest of the Church around and between the pews. They also create the imposing long center aisle upon which a hand-weaved fading brown carpet has lain for so many years.

The masons carefully remove the stones from their soil base, labeling them so as to note location and orientation on the floor, and haul them away to their workshop in nearby Fuessen. There, over the next few months, the stones will be cleaned, the uneven irregularities sanded away and then polished. The stones will be replaced during the installation of the new flooring in a couple of months.  The entire floor of the church is now gone…the 18th century soil layer exposed to the elements.

Day 7:  Franz, the former Mayor of Musau…Pinswang’s sister village across the Lech River…and I are joined in front of the church by Pfarrer Bader. At first, I do not recognize the good father B.; he steps out of his car into the steamy morning, very much out of uniform. In his white t-shirt, black shorts and running shoes, one could easily think that this man with the madly whirring chain saw in his hands is a shopkeeper, off-duty policeman or CEO of a company based in Innsbruck. Yet, there is Pfarrer Bader, hacking away furiously at the massive pieces of wood that used to be parts of the pews and stairway…cutting them to neat stackable size for this coming Winter’s firewood to heat the Vidum. 

Following the death of Pinswang’s long-time village Priest (Seelsorger), Pater Angelus, Pfarrer Bader had become Pinswang’s Priest. He was already the Seelsorger for the nearby tiny city of Vils, and divided his time between both locales as best as possible. It was in 2005 that Pfarrer Simon, a retired priest from Germany, came to Pinswang to become our Seelsorger. Pfarrer Bader would continue to carry on the administrative tasks associated with the Ulrichskirche, and Pfarrer Simon, who is currently in Switzerland visiting with family,  would tend to the more spiritual needs of his flock of 480 Tirolean souls.

By noon, the massive pile of oddly-shaped timber sitting in front of the church is no more; it now occupies a large space in the Vidum’s massive barn where it will continue to dry during the months before the cold and snow descend from our mountains into the valley. Pfarrer Bader wipes his brow, packs away the overheated chainsaw, smelling now of burnt oil, and quickly drives off to an appointment.

Franz and I clean up the sand dune-like mounds of white and gray sawdust covering the reddish-brown bricks that form the path past the church.  It is noon, we are hot, tired and ready for a meal.

We are now ready for the specialists to come on-scene; the archeologists who will oversee all further digging during the project. They know that there is much of interest to be found beneath the old brown earth lying beneath us. We are hoping that their many long hours ahead will reveal for us a piece of Pinswang history that has not been seen in more than 600 years.

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