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Our eventful history begins with the founding of a Benedictine monastery on our island in 1126 by the Archbishop of Cologne Friedrich I, which was then still called “Ruleicheswerde”. Read the island chronicle written by the sisters of Nonnenwerth, which briefly describes the almost 900 years of island history.
In 1126 archbishop Friedrich I. of Cologne and his friend Abbot Cuno of Siegburg founded a Benedictine convent on the Island in the Rhine river that was then called “Ruleicheswerde”. Thereafter the island was named “Insula Beatae Mariae” or “Marienwerth”. Later, the name “Convent of Rolandswerth” became common. Since the middle of the 17th century sources list the name “Nonnenwerth” which became official in the 19th century.
Until his death archbishop Friedrich remained a true protector of his foundation. He provided for the spiritual and material wellbeing of the sisters in the convent and asked benefactors to contribute. He fortified Rolandseck castle to protect the island and appointed a bailiff to provide stewardship for the convent.
The convent proper was formed by twenty to thirty sisters, all daughters of aristocratic descent, later also of respected citizens. They practised prayer in the choir of their church for the duration of six to seven hours daily. Life in the Benedictine convent was governed by work and prayer. Some handcrafted clerical vestments while others were either copying books, creating works of art or studying Latin. There was also a small school, dedicated to the teaching of the humanities.
There were ten lay-sisters performing the household chores and attending to the gardens and the vineyards. Finally there was a third group of affluent women who had purchased the right to be in the convent and who did not participate in prayer and who were not requested to take the vows of poverty.
The intellectual activity and the material wealth of the convent suffered greatly during the many wars devastating the Rhineland. Frequently the sisters were forced to flee to Oberwinter, Remagen or Cologne to escape raids. In this course of events the sisters bought a house in Cologne-Lyskirchen in 1624, which provided refuge in times of war. Time and again the convent was affected by major and minor disasters: floods, drifting ice, the plague. The fire of 1773 reduced all buildings to rubble. In the same year the construction of a new building began. It was completed two years later.
Das schwerste Leid aber war der große Brand, der 1773 alle Gebäude einäscherte. Entschlossen wurde im gleichen Jahr ein Neubau begonnen und nach zwei Jahren fertiggestellt: das heutige Klostergebäude.
Closure of the Benedictine Convent
In 1802 the convent lost all its worldly possessions to France and only after the plea of Kaiserin Josephine were the sisters allowed to keep the island and to remain in the convent. It was expressly forbidden to admit new sisters to the convent. In 1815 the area came under Prussian rule and the island was sold in 1821 and the last six sisters were asked to leave.
Caspar Anton Sommer acquired the island in an auction and opened an inn in the former abbey. Among his patrons were professors and students from nearby Bonn university, politicians and poets (e.g. E.M. Arndt, Simrock, Freiligrath) and the composer Franz Liszt.
Between 1841 and 1843 Liszt spent several months on the island. His visits were chronicled by Frau von Cordier, who was a regular visitor as well. She carefully documented Liszt’s thirtieth birthday, on which he planted the plane tree which towers over all other trees on the island today.
When Sommer encountered financial difficulty in 1835 Frau von Cordier took over his debt and found Friedrich Klein to continue the business. Klein managed the inn until 1846 when he also was forced to give up. Frau von Cordier then sold the venue to Ignatia Külpmann, a nun from Cologne, who planned to establish a hospital on the island but was denied permission to do so by the Prussian government. On her deathbed in 1846 Frau von Cordier decreed that the island should serve as the location of a convent again.
In order to do so Anna von Proff of Bad Honnef and Franziska Helff of Koblenz bought the island. They were aided by Auguste von Cordier, Frau von Cordiers’s daughter who provided a third of the sum.
After her studies at the art academy in Düsseldorf Auguste von Cordier taught at the Ursuline convent in the city of Dorsten. Soon she wanted to install a boarding school on the island and sought the support of the order that she was familiar with, the Ursulines. Two sisters of the order came from the city of Würzburg, founded a small school and a small convent. Auguste became a novice in the convent and assumed the name “Angela”. However she soon recognized that the spirituality and the founding principles of the Ursulines were not what she sought. She severed the ties to the Ursulines and continued to seek the way God had laid out for her. “God did not wish it to be so, and I am content with that. His holy will be done at all times.”
It was through Xaverius Kaufmann, a brother of the order of St. Francis who had founded a minor convent in the city of Königswinter that Auguste von Cordier came across an order of Franciscan sisters who had established a community in Holland in 1835. They were commited to Education and the care for the infirm. These sisters called themselves the “Sisters of St.Francis of Penance and Christian Charity” and of Christian love.”
Despite biting cold Angela von Cordier went to Heythuysen in 1853 to meet with this community. She was deeply impressed by the simplicity advocated by Mother superior Magdalena Damen whom she met praying in here austere cell. The encounter of these two women so different in appearance but so likeminded in their deepest concerns led Angela to write after the visit: “I felt to my innermost soul that I had found what I was looking for.”
Ensuing negotiations brought about the incorporation with the sisters of Heythuysen on August 8th, 1854. Several sisters went from Heythuysen to Nonnenwerth and joined the small Franciscan community there. The circle further grew in size with friends and acquaintances of Angela von Cordier.
Thus the community and the boarding school grew steadily. After building renovations and the construction of classrooms and dormitories there were 35 sisters and 100 boarding students in 1863.
Two of the sisters taught at the village school of Rolandswerth on a regular basis. With all her strength and devotion Mother Angela von Cordier, foundress and mother superior of the convent worked for the spiritual and material wellbeing of everyone on the island. Simultaneously she was assistant head of the entire order. “I have no time to lose – and where God wants to see service, he shall find me ready to serve.” In this sense she was ready, when God called her home in 1864, when she was only 51 years old. She was put to rest in the island cemetery.
The sisters soon found new assignments waiting for them: In the wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870/71 they were active in all theatres of war caring for the wounded and the dying. During the war of 1870/71 the sisters went to the Rolandseck train station every day to look after the wounds of the war casualties passing through.
A few years later no new novices were to be admitted to Nonnenwerth. In the Kulturkampf laws the order was denied its role in education by the Prussian government. Lists of signatures and petitions notwithstanding the students and all sisters who played an active role in their education had to leave the island by 1879. They were received in Marienwerth/Holland, where education could continue. Only few sisters remained on the island providing care for sick and elderly ladies.
Unfortunate as it was, the expulsion of the sisters due to the Kulturkampf laws had its benefits too: In 1872 six sisters began their work among German settlers in southern Brazil, soon to be followed by sisters that went to Rio Grande do Sul. In June of 1874 Mother Aloysia Lenders and three other sisters arrived in New York where further branches of the order were founded.
When the Prussian government realized that its fight against the church was undermining its own authority, the Kulturkampf laws were repealed and the sisters could return to the island in 1889.
Nonnenwerth in World War I
When war broke out the sisters were prepared to care for the wounded, be it at the frontlines or at home. As in other locations they also established a field hospital at Nonnenwerth, where friend or foe were treated with equal devotion and prejudice could be overcome. 120 beds were available in the first year of the war, 150 in the later years. In 1914 25 nurses were assigned to the field-hospitals in Diedenhofen, near Thionville (France) where they selflessly looked after the wounded.
In 1914 25 nurses were assigned to the field-hospitals in Diedenhofen, near Thionville (France) where they selflessly looked after the wounded.
Extreme inflation, beginning in 1922, called for creativeness and great organizational skills in providing sustenance for those living on the island: in 1924 there were 81 sisters who had taken their vows, 88 novices, 22 applicants, 150 boarding students and a number of employees.
Floods and icedrifts further complicated life on the island. The flood of December of 1920 caused the furnace to break down, ruined the provisions stored in the basement and even affected the stables, so that the animals had to be moved to higher ground.
In the winter of 1929 ferry service was disrupted by drifting ice. The ferry was locked in, so that reaching the island was a life-threatening endeavour on a rowboat. On February 16th the river was frozen solid and the island could be reached on foot until February 25th when the ice was broken up.
The school chronicles reveal the efforts undertaken by the NS-regime to bend the young generation to its purposes. This propaganda was cunningly executed and frequently the young people were unaware of the manipulation. In 1938 the abolition of parochial schools and boarding schools began. Civil servants were prohibited from sending their children to parochial schools, all government funding came to an end. The school on the island was forced to close before Christmas of 1941, but the class of 42 was allowed to graduate. All other Franciscan schools in Germany were shut down too.
In 1939 the island became a place of refuge for those affected by the war and it remained so even until after 1945 when the war had ended. The first to come were 159 mentally handicapped women and children and their guardians from the convent of St.Bernardin in the city of Kapellen.
In 1942 93 wounded soldiers were admitted to the newly erected field-hospital, soon to be followed by more casualties in need, and a teaching college for female teachers was established.
The allied bombing raids of Cologne called for the relocation of the Cologne University’s Children’s Hospital to Nonnenwerth. The entire hospital was transported to Nonnenwerth in trucks of the Red Cross shortly before 195 children arrived, looked after by 33 sisters of the order of St. Augustine. The hospital on the island employed 308 persons, among them 3 female doctors and 48 nurses.
The Franciscan and Augustine sisters cooperated harmoniously until 1947, enduring bombing raids, attacks on ships, floods and occasional water shortages when the pumps failed.
As the front approached more sisters from evacuated institutions elsewhere arrived, so that 680 persons had to be fed as 1944 drew to a close and 730 persons shortly before the war ended. This was rather challenging as food war rationed and transport capacity hard to come by.
Allied troops advanced through the hills of the Eifel and the Moselle river valley toward the Rhine. German soldiers in retreat, many of them wounded, crowded the roads to the ferries and bridges. Most of the ferries had been disabled. On March 8th, 1945 American tanks rumbled past the island on the left bank of the river. There was a shortage of staple foodstuffs, especially milk, for the small patients. The sisters could not leave the convent buildings because shooting continued on both sides of the river. The island suffered two dozen grenade hits, one of them to the art classroom, which fortunately did not detonate. Nobody was hurt.
God’s guardianship was palpable…
On October 2nd, 1945 the school reopened for 143 students with a festive celebration of a divine service. Sister Evodia Wolf was the headmistress. 1946 already saw 258 students, 50 of them being boarding students. This was made possible because the 123 young women from the convent of St. Bernardin in Kapellen could go home again. Everyone was very happy that these young women had successfully been shielded from the barbaric directives of the Nazi regime, which regarded persons with special needs as “inferior life” and would have meant their certain death.
In 1947 the Augustine sisters moved the Children’s Hospital back to Cologne, but the cordial relationships between the members of the two convents lasted for years to come.
More Recent Developments
The last fifty years have seen continuous improvement and construction in the school and the boarding school. From 1960 to 1988 girls were instructed in home economics. But around this time declining membership in the convent necessitated the hiring of laypeople, while the efforts to provide spiritual guidance to the young adults were maintained on a high level. 1978 saw the first layperson in charge of the school, when OStD Rolf Vorderwülbecke became headmaster.
The government school reform in the 1970s brought about the change from boarding school to day school and opened the school for boys. In the 1980s a new science tract, new music classrooms , a new Gymnasium were built, an outdoor track field and soccer field were added and all other classrooms were renovated.
The convent now also has a museum which documents its rich history. A new ferry was purchased in 1991. The ferry service to the right bank of the river is done by a commercial ferry service. The convent also rents out guest rooms on a small scale.
Since 2013 the island also hosts the “Workshop for Textile Art” that produces textiles and fabrics for clerical use.
In 2016 the school officially became “Franziskus Gymnasium Nonnenwerth” and it is run as a non-profit under the roof of the Angela von Cordier Foundation, which apart from the school also operates two hospitals, two retirement homes, a children’s home and a day-care center. The student population is ca. 700 girls and boys who attend school from eight to four daily in grades from 5 to 12. The school cooperates with a whole range of organizations committed to excellence in learning.