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.
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 ProsperityThe 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
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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