A center of Catholic resistance:
the Minoritenkirche in Vienna
The SSPX (Society of Saint Pius X) has announced that it has become the owner of the Minoritenkirche, in Vienna’s inner city. The Society will be able to take possession of this church, officially named Italienische Nationalkirche Maria Schnee (Italian National Church of Mary of the Snows) on June 3, 2022, the anniversary of its donation to the Italian congregation by Emperor Joseph II on June 3, 1784.
The significance of this news does not escape a Catholic historian. The Minoritenkirche is not only one of the most beautiful and oldest churches in Vienna, but, between 1780 and 1815, it represented the heart of Catholic resistance against revolutionary ideas. At that time, Jansenism, Gallicanism, the Enlightenment, different and heterogeneous forces, but united by their hatred of the Church of Rome, intertwined their efforts, in the shadow of the Masonic lodges, to destroy the Christian religious and social order. Father Nikolaus Albert von Diessbach (1732-1798), a former Swiss officer who had belonged to the Society of Jesus before its suppression (1773), between 1779 and 1780 founded in Turin, under the name of Amicizia Cristiana, an organization that aimed to resist this subversive project by fighting it with its own weapons: the dissemination of books and the secrecy that surrounded the members of the association (see Roberto de Mattei, La Biblioteca delle “Amicizie” : repertorio critico della cultura cattolica 1770-1830, Bibliopolis 2005).
Vienna, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, over which Joseph II of Habsburg-Lorraine (1765-1790) reigned, was at that time the European city in which the network of contacts and errors of the enemies of the Church was most densely interwoven. “In Vienna – which became in the second half of the eighteenth century the capital of anti-Curialism – Freemasonry and Enlightenment, Jansenism and liberal Catholicism sometimes seem to mingle in the same person to fight the same battle against the same opponents,” writes the historian Carlo Francovich in his Storia della Massoneria in Italia (La Nuova Italia 1979, p. 241).
When, in 1782, Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) decided to go to Vienna as a “peregrinus apostolicus“, Father Diessbach, accompanied by his main collaborator, the Venerable Pius Brunone Lanteri (1759-1830), preceded him by a month to prepare, with sermons, contacts, distribution of brochures, the reception of Austrian Catholics to the Pope. The success of the trip was such that Diessbach decided to move the center of his apostolate from Turin to the Habsburg capital.
In Vienna, the Catholic resistance had its fulcrum in the Minoritenkirche, of which Baron Joseph von Penckler (1751-1830) was provost. Penckler, spiritually directed by Diessbach and then by Lanteri, had been educated at the “Theresianum” in Vienna by the Jesuits and had maintained close relations with some of their leading figures, such as Father Maximilian Hell (1720-1792), the Court astronomer, and with the theologian Luigi Virginio (1756-1805), who became rector of the Minoritenkirche. The same church was also headed by a group of Italian exiles, including the Marquess Maria Maddalena Frescobaldi (1871-1839), founder of the Passionist Sisters of St. Paul of the Cross and also affiliated to the Christian Friendship. Diessbach also established in the Austrian capital close relations with the Court through Prince Louis Eugene of Württemberg (1731-1795): he obtained the abjuration and became spiritual director of Princess Elisabeth of Württemberg (1767-1790) and took care of the education of the imperial archduke Francis, who in 1788 married Elisabeth, the first of his four wives.
In the winter of 1790, when Joseph II died, Diessbach presented the new Emperor Leopold II with a Memorial that constitutes a true “manifesto” of cultural and political action. The historian Ernst Karl Winter (1895-1859), who was the first to perceive its importance, wanted to see in it the lines of that Staats Romantik which would constitute the model of Austrian political Catholicism in the nineteenth century (Romantik, ” Zeitschrift für schweizerische Kirchengeschichte“, 21 (1927), pp. 81-102).
Finally, in Vienna, Diessbach met through Baron Penckler the future Redemptorist saint Clement Maria Hofbauer (1751-1820), who completed his philosophical and theological education there. Hofbauer, who was indebted to Diessbach for his knowledge of the works of St. Alphonsus de’ Liguori, joined the Viennese Christliche Freundschaft and then founded in Warsaw an association similar to it, the “Oblates of the Most Holy Redeemer”. Saint Clement Maria Hofbauer, Vienna’s honored patron saint, was the chaplain of the Minoritenkirche from 1808 to 1813 and for this reason a monument was erected in his honor in front of St. Anthony’s Chapel.
Almost at the turn of the century, on January 2, 1799, the “Wiener Zeitung” reported the death of “Nikola Freyherr von Diessbach, Weltpriester und Exjesuit am 22 Dezember 1798 im alter von 60 Jahren in der Stadt, Seizergasse Nr. 460“. A shadow of mystery veils the death of the former Jesuit that disciples attributed to the aftermath of an attack suffered on the way back to Vienna from Prague, where he had been in October 1798 to discuss with Archduchess Marianne (1770-1809), the daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the plans for a new female congregation of Ignatian spirit.
The Archduchess, together with her two sisters Luisa and Leopoldina, formed the first nucleus of the Dilette di Gesù, an institute from which three religious congregations would flourish: the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Maddalena Sofia Barat (1779-1865); the Institute of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Verona, by Leopoldina Naudet (1773-1834); the Religious of Christian Instruction, of Agatha Verhelle (1786- 1838) (cf. Eva Fontana Castelli, Marianne of Habsburg Lorraine, protagonist of a removed history, (1770-1809), Gabrielli 2016).
Father Diessbach finally found his resting place in the Viennese cemetery of Maria Enzendorf which had already received the remains of his friend Maximilian Hell. Next to him, the disciples who the Viennese disciples Virginio, Penckler and Hofbauer. After his death, the legacy of the Christliche Freundschaft was renewed by Hofbauer himself, who, upon his return to Vienna in 1808, gathered around him a group of distinguished converts, such as Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and his wife Dorothea Veit, Adam Heinrich Müller (1779-1829), Zacharias Werner (1768- 1823), Johannes (1790-1854) and Philip (1793-1877) Veit, sons of Dorothea.
The Hofbauer-Kreis exerted a considerable influence on the Austrian Catholic restoration especially during the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). The historian Rudolf Till calls 1808 the decisive year for the Austrian Catholic Restoration. In August of that year, Friedrich von Schlegel (1814-1815) arrived in Vienna — and in September Hofbauer arrived: “Schlegel – writes Till – was the Head, the Spirit, Hofbauer was the Heart of this group.” (cf. Rudolf Till, Hofbauer und sein Kreis, Herold, Wien 1951, p. 68)
In 1810, Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), secretary and main collaborator of Prince Metternich, entrusted the direction of the Viennese newspaper Der Österreichische Beobachter to Count Joseph Anton von Pilat (1782-1865), who established close contacts between the Chancellery and the Hofbauer-Kreis. The patroness of these circles was Princess Carolina Augusta of Bavaria, who married, in 1816, Emperor Franz I (1792-1835), who was widowed for the third time.
Around Carolina gathered the party of the “devout of the Court”, whose religious and political model was that of Father Diessbach: the ideal of a monarchy that, freeing itself of every residue of Josephism, would return to the medieval and counter-reformation sources of the dynasty.
The Minoritenkirche was at the center of those events. The transition of this church now to a religious community that resists progressivism with the same force with which two centuries ago the Viennese Catholics resisted against the errors of the Revolution appears highly symbolic.
(Roberto de Mattei)