Germany: Altötting Churches

Travel Period : 1st June – 12th July 2013

Location: Bavaria State (German: Bayern)

Altötting Town

We got off the car Vin’s colleague had driven us in and stepped into the town of Altötting. His German colleagues had organised a church tour for us with a knowledgeable guide. This place is also accessible via rail transport from Munich taking the Regionalbahn (RB).

By Train: Take the train at München Ost to Mühldorf(Oberbay) and transfer to another platform to take the train to Altötting. It’s two stops before Burghausen Station.

As we walked along the spacious chapel square, the white stones creaked under our every step. In the far distance, the church buildings, the European fountain and flags of the Germany states formed a nice picture. It’s a weekday evening so there were few visitors beside us.

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Chapel of Grace – Our Lady of Altötting

Altötting is a small town but very famous for the Gnadenkapelle (Chapel of Grace), one of the most visited shrines in Germany. It is in an octagonal shape specially designed, to keep a venerated statue of the Virgin Mary known as the “Black Madonna”.

Frankly, we had not heard of this place before our visit even though we are Christian Catholics. Each country has their own localised Catholic community and the Catholic practices we are familiar with in Singapore is quite different from the European ones. Thus, this tour has a special significance for us.

For 500 years, Catholics made their religious pilgrimages here in honor of Mary, including a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1980. The German Pope Benedict XVI was born very close to the town of Altötting and made pilgrimages himself to the Chapel of Grace when he was a child. In 2006, he came here to do a mass on his homeland visit and it was broadcasted to millions around the world.

The guide told us interesting information about the Chapel of Grace before leading us in to visit the statue of the “Black Madonna”. She explained that the plaques hanging on the walls and ceilings are gifts from people who had gotten miraculous help from the “Black Madonna” after piously praying here. It was said that people who could not walk or had disabilities came here to pray and was miraculously healed. Thus, one could see displays of many aided devices for legs, plastic hands and legs which those people gave up because they didn’t need them anymore. They came back to return the prayers with these plaques venerating the Madonna and recorded their miracle story in books.

Well, as with any legend, it’s not our place to judge and comment on the authenticity. For us, we took it as a nice story to listen to and was awed when we entered the shrine.

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It was a small area with a black statue of Mary which they named as “Black Madonna” in Germany. We have to keep silent or lower our voices to talk so as not to disturb the peace of others praying.

Behind the statue was a wall with special containers containing the hearts of the King of Bavaria. The heart of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (who build Neuschwanstein Castle), along with that of his grandfathers and fathers were placed in here. We had just visited the Castle the week before so it was amazing to hear this fact. It was also due to this, that Altötting is known as “The Heart of Bavaria”.

Parish Church – Stiftskirche

Next, we were led on a tour of the Parish Church, Stiftskirche. The Parish Church was built to serve the large number of people coming here for pilgrimage. The Chapel of Grace was too small to accommodate these people. It is a Gothic Church built in the early 16th century with two steeples and we love looking at the architecture.

Inside, there were beautiful statues of Christianity, typical of European churches. Even the ancient door had a story (which I can’t remember now).

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Most interestingly, there was a clock with a skeleton on it.  This is the Tod von Eding clock and the skeleton wields its scythe every second as a symbol of someone dying. It was placed there in the 1630s when plague descended around the region. It’s kinda creepy if you stare at it for a while.

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We were also shown a mummified corpse lying under an altar at the side of the church. Supposedly, it was of a royalty but not sure whom. The guide was telling us that kids were usually scared when she show them this. Dar was nonchalant to it though. I guess he didn’t quite understand this concept.

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Grave of General Tilly 

As we explored the entire Stiftskirche church and noting its architecture, we came upon the open grave of Duke Tilly, one of the greatest commanders of the Thirty -Years-War (a war between the Christian Protestants and Catholics). Duke Tilly’s coffin is in this chapel, displayed with the flag he carried during the war. We had to walk down the stairs into a small, dark enclosure to see “him” in his coffin (glass around the face region). Again, the two kids, Dar and Vin’s colleague’s son, were nonchalant and didn’t scream. ^_^

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Church of St. Magdalene 

After this, we moved on to the next church, Church of St. Magdelene, which was a Baroque Church for the Jesuits.

During our travels in Europe, we had always been fascinated by the Baroque art form, which one can distinguish easily as they are often detailed, elaborate plaster sculptures along ceilings, walls and pillar columns. Gold ornaments usually accompanied these white plasters and the painted ceilings are very colourful. It’s nice as a church but I was very distracted by the decor…I doubt I could pray in peace here.

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There were shops around the Churches but they are only open during the weekends. I wanted to come back another day to get something but didn’t make it. One could get nice Christian pieces or rosaries here.

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St. Conrad’s Church

This church is a simple church and I like it with its peaceful interior. Stepping inside, one would see the metal case of Brother Conrad. Brother Conrad, who served for over 40 years as a porter (someone who guards the entrance) to the Shrine of Our Lady of Altotting, was inscribed as a Saint by the Catholic Church.

Before this, we had looked at the museum of his humble room, where he lived and prayed and were full of respect for this man. He lived with so little and worked so hard to serve. It was also said that he had the gift of prophecy and able to read the hearts of people he met.

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Outside, we were told that this fountain which has waters that passed through one of his fingerbones, has healing powers for the eyes (cure myopia!). We all took some water and dabbed at our eyes after hearing that. People come here to bottle the water too for religious use.

We were unable to visit the fourth church in the region, the Neo-Baroque St.Anne Basilika (you can read about it here). It was also built and completed in 1912, to accommodate more pilgrims to the area.

We ended the tour soon after and headed for a Bavarian dinner. We enjoyed the tour a lot and felt we had learnt a lot about the significance of Altötting in the history of Bavaria. Both of us have a liking for architectural buildings so it was great to know more about the structure of the European Churches.We noticed they usually have a corpse somewhere...)

To get more out of visiting the churches, it would be better to get a guide to show you around, explaining the architecture of the Churches. A lot of things were pointed out to us during the tour which we wouldn’t notice ourselves. Our guide was arranged for us so I’m not able to provide a contact here.

One could combine this with a trip to Burghausen Castle, Burghausen Old Town with St.Jakob’s Church and Monastery Raitenhaslach located further down Burghausen, as the train to Altötting ends on the same rail line at Burghausen Station.