A Hidden Gem in Southern Luxembourg

A Hidden Gem in Southern Luxembourg

with 17 Comments

Mother Marie-Joseph Max, a ninety-something Benedictine abbess was resplendent with joy. She shared her knowledge with us with extreme generosity, and made history come alive. The following material was gathered orally.

Fleeing the Kulturkampf: from Germany to Luxembourg

The Benedictine Convent in Peppange is an active but cloistered convent in southern Luxembourg. As we see it nowadays, it is the result of many transformations of what was once called “Haff Kneppesch”. The original structure was an imposing farmhouse built in 1775. It became a convent only 100 years later, when a group of 18 Dominican nuns of the Bethany congregation was expulsed from Trier/Oeren, Germany. These were the times of the famous Kulturkampf, when the Prime Minister of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, encouraged policies to reduce the role and power of the Roman Catholic Church in Prussia.

The nuns were out in the street, and didn’t know where to go. But then the Sisters of St Elizabeth, who had a convent in Bettembourg in southern Luxembourg, offered to host them temporarily. Soon afterwards, the nuns learnt that an abandoned farmhouse, owned by the Knepper family in Peppange (about 2km away from Bettembourg), was being sold.

However, because of the severe financial recession that hit Europe around that time, national gold reserves were depleted, and many people lost their savings. So did the nuns. And the little resources they had at their disposal were now gone.

Benedictine Convent in Peppange, Luxembourg © Travelwithmk.com
Benedictine Convent in Peppange, Luxembourg © Travelwithmk.com
The Knepper family then decided to donate the house to the Order. At first, the Benedictine Sisters couldn’t be happier. However, at their arrival, they didn’t find an abandoned farm, but ruins!

Although the nuns were devastated, they had no choice but to stay, since they didn’t have any money left. And so they began to restore the farmhouse. Because of their extreme poverty, they lost many souls during that period, but eventually managed to transform it into a habitable place.

From Extreme Poverty to Prosperity

The nuns in Peppange were self-sufficient and worked hard to sustain themselves. After a few years’ work, and with the help of local volunteers, the seeds they had planted started to strive. They could finally harvest the crops, nourish their community, and grow.

In 1883, a first architectural endeavour was undertaken. The nuns added a new wing to welcome more members of the congregation. Around the turn of the century, they hired the now famous architect Sosthène Weis (1872-1941). In 1904, the dormitories were transformed into a neo-Gothic building according to his plans.

One year later, a new congregation arrived at the monastery: the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, to which Mother Marie-Joseph Max belongs to.

The Convent’s Chapel: from the Golden Twenties to WWII

In the Golden Twenties, Notker Becker, a Benedictine monk from the Convent Maria Laach in the Eiffel (in Germany), who was also an artist, landed a contract at the parish church in Dudelange (about 6km south of Peppange).

The Benedictine nuns in Peppange got word of his talent, and invited him over. In 1928, Becker began embellishing the convent’s chapel. Encouraged by the nuns, he painted all of the walls in his unique style, very rich in symbolism. (Disclaimer: at this point, we do not know whether this was a contract or charitable work. He may have accepted to realize the frescoes in exchange for meals. This needs however to be further investigated.)

In May 1940, the Nazis invaded Luxembourg. The 44 sisters were deported to Germany, and the convent was transformed into an educational center for the Nazis. The cellars were used as air-raid shelters, while the beautifully painted chapel was converted into a gym, and the sacristy and choir were exploited as showers.

The Nazis deemed the frescoes decadent. So they instructed a Luxembourger from Peppange to do the dirty work and destroy the mural paintings. The Luxembourger pretended to obey, but instead of destroying the paintings, he decided to save them by coating them with chalk.

The Mystical Rediscovery of Becker’s Frescoes

After the war, the few nuns that had survived the exile, including Mother Marie-Joseph Max, returned to Peppange, and found the chapel completely damaged. The wooden floor had not resisted the constant pressure of the Germans’ gym exercises, and was in a pitiful state. They discovered with horror that Becker’s magnificent frescoes were gone. Instead of colorful paintings, they were staring at blank white walls.

The sisters were inconsolable. But then the cunning neighbour showed up and revealed that the paintings were still recoverable. All they needed to do was to remove the chalk. But how? Well, by using the inside of fresh bread and rubbing the dough against the walls!

The nuns looked at him in disbelief. Legend has it that he took out a slice of bread from his pocket and started cleaning a small portion of the wall. And what happened? Well yes, the chalk came off. This is how the nuns saved their chapel’s frescoes after the war: they spent days and nights rubbing the walls with bread!

Mother Marie-Joseph was standing the whole time she told the story. She smiled. It was a story she liked to tell. Maybe because of its Eucharistic symbol: the chapel’s walls saved by a loaf of bread… the flesh of Jesus?!

As the doyenne finished her story, we came out of what seemed to be a waking dream.

Mother Marie-Joseph Max asked if anyone would be interested to play the organ. There was a lady who happened to have learnt it a decade ago. And so up she went to hit a few notes. We nestled against the choir-stall, feasting on the mystical hymn.

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The Benedictine Convent in Peppange, Luxembourg © TravelwithMK.com

 

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Travelers - Storytellers

Travelers at heart, Mei and Kerstin have been roaming the world together since 2002. Expats for over a decade, they used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens, and San Francisco. They recently returned to their motherland to get married, and decided to stay to re-explore Luxembourg in depth. While they both have a full time job, they continue to feed their wanderlust by traveling the world whenever they can.

17 Responses

  1. Tami
    | Reply

    Rubbing the walls with bread? Who would have thought? What a cool story! I enjoy exploring churches and abbeys and such when I am traveling. They often have the best art and they’re usually free or very inexpensive!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Tami. And you’re right: churches, abbeys and monasteries usually hold wonderful arts; that’s why we also love exploring them!

  2. Sandy N Vyjay
    | Reply

    The story of Mother Mary Joseph was really fascinating. As I read through, I was riveted and when it got over, just like you, for me also it seemed as if I had woken up from a dream. Loved reading this post which has a totally fresh perspective.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you for your comment Sandy! Glad you liked our story, and also Mother Mary Joseph’s. 😉

  3. WWII shows the worst in humanity but also the best. I think this wins for one of my favorite stories. Such creativity to ensure the protection of a historical monument. I would love to give that man a hug and thank him for saving the murals.

  4. Dave Briggs
    | Reply

    What a lovely story on how the paintings and frescoes were hidden in chalk and then recovered. He certainly ran a big risk by doing so, but in the process, saved so much cultural heritage. And to think the best think to remove the chalk was bread dough!

  5. Jas
    | Reply

    I haven’t been to Luxembourg just yet but if and when I do, I’ll definitely need to hit this place up. So much history here and the frescoes are just basolutely stunning as well! Good thing they were saved!!

  6. carla
    | Reply

    Indeed a hiddem gem. I believe that discoveries like these makes the journey all the more memorable. Never been to Luxembourg but hopefully in my future.

  7. travellingslacker
    | Reply

    What an evocative post! It is really a hidden gem, I had no idea about any of these. The renaissance comes alive though these frescoes and sculptures. Luxemburg is a very small country so I never though there are more hidden gems inside.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haha! Luxembourg might be small, but there are lots of hidden gems here. We keep finding newer ones every time we go out for a walk. 😉

  8. Paige W
    | Reply

    What a wonderful hidden gem. I really love the story about the Luxembourger saving the frescoes from the Nazis. That’s wonderful! I have to add this to my Luxembourg list!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Good idea! But since the Benedictine Convent in Peppange is rarely open to public, you might want to call them in advance to ask if they’d accept to have you see the paintings in the chapel. 🙂

  9. gokulr27
    | Reply

    That is a good dose of history. This convent does have some inspiring stories to tell. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Sreekar Harinatha
    | Reply

    Great time to across this post. Ever since I saw Lux on the TV series The Patriot, I have always wanted to go there. I was planning a day trip from Brussels. But guess it needs more than just a day!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Hi Sreekar! It would be better if you had 2 or 3 days to explore Luxembourg: 1 day in Luxembourg City and at least 1 or 2 days to see a few castles or hike in the Mullerthal region. And also do some wine tasting in the Moselle or visit hidden gems like this convent in Southern Luxembourg if you have more time. But if you have only one day, you can spend it in the capital and visit the Grund (lower city) and the Casemates (the whole capital is actually a Unesco site!). Let us know if you need more tips and infos! 🙂

  11. Life is a Hotel
    | Reply

    I’m looking forward for more articles about Luxembourg. Few months ago I had a plan to move to Luxembourg. I’m a former expat (Canada, China, Mauritius) and now looking for a lace to settle down. And it seems like Luxembourg is not only safe place but also very interesting! So as I said – I’m looking forward for more articles 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂 And you’ve come to the right blog: I’m currently writing an article about Luxembourg City (where I grew up), and two others about major annual events held in this little country. They’ll be posted during July, so make sure to check back in here soon! 🙂

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