September 2, 2014
Once a Dominican friar in Konstanz, Germany would have been a familiar sight. Now, however, the habit garners side-long glances and blatant stares as visitors and residents try to grasp the meaning of the uncommon clothing. In this way, the habit is somewhat like an island. An island is a land of adventure, a little world of its own surrounded by watery boundary that separates it from the mainland. To cross that boundary, whether by boat or by bridge, and to fathom its significance is to enter a frontier of exploration. It can even be a portal to the past. Archeological evidence shows that since the Stone Age humans have inhabited what is now called “Dominican Island” in Lake Bodensee, just off the shore from Constance (Konstanz), Germany. The left bank of the Rhine river and the lake make it a beautiful location. It was occupied by the Romans and enjoyed by Charlemagne. It became sacred ground soon after the Dominicans were given the land in 1220. Within fourteen years, the Friars Preachers had erected a sizeable convent there with the aid of the local prince bishop. Additionally, in 1257 the friars helped Dominican contemplative nuns establish a convent in Konstanz known as Kloster Zoffingen. Bl. Henry Suso is likely the most celebrated Dominican to have lived in the island-convent. There, around the year 1324, he was clothed with the habit. For some time, his literal separation from the mainland made little difference to his spiritual life, for he was still chained to the world in his heart. Through grace, however, he underwent a conversion and afterwards devoted himself entirely to the Eternal Wisdom of God. Along with the Dominicans Meister Eckhart and John Tauler, Suso became known as a “Rhineland Mystic” whose spiritual writings bore enormous fruit in the late medieval Church. Dominican Island was also the sometime residence of more controversial characters. Jan Hus, for example, was imprisoned there during the Council of Constance in 1414. Condemned by political enemies during the Council, Hus was burnt at the stake in the city. Protestants claim Hus as their own, a John the Baptist who prefigured the coming of Martin Luther. However, not all Catholics burnt at the stake were heretics, as St. Joan of Arc well knows. A more careful analysis suggests that Jan Hus was “a Catholic by his personal profession of faith, but he was of Protestant significance in the fabric of history.” Life was generally more tranquil on Dominican Island for the next hundred years or so, until 1528. At that time, Protestant governmental forces expelled the friars and converted the convent into a “temporary” hospital. It lasted for twenty one years. When the Catholic Hapsburgs regained control of the town 1549, the Dominicans were finally able to return to their home. Over two hundred years later, just as a new union of States was being formed across the Atlantic, the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, made his mark on the island. Though baptized a Catholic and trained in part by a Jesuit, the Hapsburg Emperor embraced what came to be called “Josephinism.” His was a practical doctrine that subordinated the Church to the State and aimed at eliminating contemplative life, musical litanies, novenas, processions, vespers, and other devotions. The Catholic ruler achieved what Protestants could not: about five hundred monasteries were closed, their property was stolen, and an ecclesiastical order of services was mandated. Under this regime, too, the Dominicans were once again driven from the island that had been their home for five hundred years. This time their departure was permanent. On July 26, 1785, the last mass was celebrated in the Dominican chapel. The convent closed the following day. With the definitive departure of the friars from the island, the property entered the hands of various businessmen. For over a century it housed a dye manufacturing plant. When political turmoil disturbed Switzerland, some bankers fled to the former Dominican grounds. They changed the name of their new home to “Geneva Island.” A census in 1868 counted Geneva Island as an autonomous district with a population of eighteen. After a railway was built in Konstanz, a hotel entrepreneur gained control of the island. His name was Eberhard von Zeppelin, the brother of the better-known Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, inventor of the infamously flammable air vehicle. Soon the former Dominican chapel was adapted into a ballroom and concert hall, the cells of the friars expanded into guest rooms, and the entire building was renovated. Biblical frescoes once illuminated the cloister walls of the original Dominican convent, but centuries of change had gradually damaged them. Therefore, to commemorate the wonderful history of that little world, the artist Carl von Häberlin was commissioned to create a series of murals. He worked from 1878 to 1894, producing a series of twenty six extraordinary images that display in chronological order the island’s entire known history. It is considered to be an artistic masterpiece. Many visitors to the island now hurry past the murals, on their way to comfy rooms with mini-bars, but Häberlin’s murals elegantly testify that the Dominican influence there may still be felt. The friars preachers lived, prayed, studied, and preached on that small piece of land surrounded by water for half of a millennium, making it their own for longer than any other individual or institution in known history. Although it requires effort to grasp the significance of a man in a white habit, much may still be learned in that place that is once again called “Dominican Island.” — Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P.
Image: Carl von Häberlin, “Bl. Henry Suso, O.P.”