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St. Gotthard: Old Bavaria’s First Saint

Abbot of Niederalteich – Bishop of Hildesheim

St. Gotthard

Hengersberg:  Of the twelve saintly and holy figures who at one time lived and worked in Niederalteich monastery, St. Gotthard is the most striking and most important of them all. The Hildesheim Cathedral clergyman, Wolfher, is the author of two biographies about Gotthard´s life and work.  Wolfher studied around 1020 at the monastery school in Niederalteich and on behalf of Abbot Ratmund (1027-1049), he compiled all he knew about Gotthard from his own experience as well as from reports he had heard from other monks.


"The almighty God has made it possible for a knave with exceptional abilities by the name of Godehard to be born to pious parents in Bavaria at a monastery of the Holy Mauritius on the banks of the River Danube called Altach, who became even more pious" (from Wolfher´s biography).


There is no written proof of his birthplace but, according to Niederalteich tradition, Gotthard was born near Reichersdorf (Schwanenkirchen parish).  His exact year of birth is unknown, but according to his biographer, Wolfher, Gotthard took his sacred vows at the end of 991 when he was 31 years old and for this reason, it is possible to calculate his date of birth.


His father, Ratmund, operated a farm, which had belonged to the monastery since 857 (today: Godlhof).  The name of his mother is unknown.  His own name, Gotthard – Godehard, i.e. – he, who is strong in God – is the Lower German, Latinized form of the name.  Archbishop Friedrich (Salzburg) installed the father of Gotthard, Ratmund, as secular administrator of the monastery.


Because of his father's position, Gotthard was able to attend the monastery school in Niederalteich.   Gotthard later studied at the Salzburg Cathedral School and became the Archbishop's personal secretary there.  Around 985 Gotthard took holy vows as deacon by Pilgrim, Bishop of Passau (known from the Nibelungen legend).  On 21 December 995, Gotthard was ordained priest.


On 27 December 996, he was ordained Abbot by Bishop Christian (Passau).  Gotthard led the Monastery in this capacity for 25 years. He developed productive activities in all areas of work. Gotthard was simultaneously an artist (also of bronze), book author, architect, painter, scholar, writer, imperial advisor and pious monk. He is the great Bavarian figure of the early Middle Ages.


Abbot Gotthard had a friendly relationship with Duke Heinrich (later, King Heinrich II).  Monastery reform was very important to Heinrich who, however, was unable to succeed with all of his ideas. In 1001 the Duke gave Abbot Gotthard the leadership of the Abbey at Tegernsee in Upper Bavaria. Gotthard was also given authority to reform Hersfeld monastery in 1005 and to reinstate the failed monastery animal-breeding program.  Gotthard led Hersfeld for several years along with Niederalteich. There he met Gunther from the East German ducal Schwarzburg family.  Gunther was (Nieder) Altach´s most famous monk when it came to deforesting land in preparation for settlement, and he was a peacemaker between the German tribes and slaves.  At the same time, King Heinrich had him rebuild the Kremsmünster/Austria monastery, which had been destroyed.


Gotthard successfully brought about many reforms.  He returned in 1012 to the mother monastery and under his leadership as Abbot, Niederalteich became one of the most important monasteries in Germany.  Many monks who had been trained as reformers under Gotthard's leadership went on to become Abbots in Bohemia (now Czech Republic), Austria and Italy. The monk, Richer, was even Abbot of the Benedictine mother monastery in Monte Cassino (1038 - 1055). St. Gotthard mountain pass in Switzerland is named for this saint.


When the Hildesheim Bishop Bernward died on 20 November 1022, the emperor gave Abbot Gotthard the Episcopal throne.  Gotthard refused and told the Emperor (as passed on to us by his biographer, Wolfher), - that he "would rather be an Abbot in Bavaria as up there a Bishop", and if he had to be a Bishop, then "rather in Bavaria."


However, the emperor allowed no objections and Abbot Gotthard, 62 years old, went to Hildesheim with a heavy heart.  Archbishop Aribo (Mainz) ordained Gotthard as Bishop of Hildesheim on 2 Dezember 1022. In the fifteen years he lived there, Bishop Gotthard achieved a great deal in the areas of construction as well with his sermons and pastoral care duties. He led the affairs of the diocese with great skill and talent. Connections to his Lower Bavarian homeland, however, always remained strong. Gotthard died on 5 May 1038. Among the many important German bishops in the 11th century, Gotthard is certainly one of the most significant. The first person from Old Bavaria to become a saint, he was canonized on 29 October 1131.


Written by Franz Fischer

Translated into English by Deborah Lehman-Irl