The history of the Pelplin Cistercians begins in 1258, in the nearby village Pogódki. The Duke of Lubiszewo Tczewskie, Sambor II, brought monks from Doberan in Mecklenburg. It was not until 1274 that his nephew, the Duke of Gdańsk, and with time the Duke of the whole Pomerania, Mestwin II, gave the village of Pelplin together with the surrounding lands to the monks. Two years later, under the guidance of Abbot Werner, the Cistercians moved to
a new place, in the meanders of the Wierzyca River, looking for an ideal place to build their seat.
However, before any construction work could begin, the whole area had to be adapted. The place was muddy and afforested, and the ground required draining and piling. Preparations lasted almost 20 years and it was not until approx. 1300 that the construction of the walls began. The whole project also required a number of craft and production workshops (such as sawmills or brick kilns), which in turn led to a significant economic recovery in the region. The Cistercians were masters of land reclamation and irrigation – for two centuries, they had been looking for deserted and wild places that they had adopted for their communities. Even the name of their first monastery, Citeaux, in Latin Cistertium – is said to be derived (according to some researchers) from the Latin word cisterna, which means wetlands. Therefore, the monks had specific practical knowledge (e.g. agricultural, cultivation, wine-making, cattle breeding, carp farming) and new technologies (for example in construction) which, by employing the local population and accepting lay brothers, were spread across the settled lands. In addition, due to the obligation of the abbot to visit its monastery every year, their knowledge was constantly and – relatively – quickly updated. The knights and rulers themselves tried to invite them to their lands. Their role in the progress of civilization cannot be overestimated.
The whole establishment – the church, monastery, and the accompanying buildings – was carefully planned in advance. It was built gradually, but consistently. The Cistercians, consistent with their rules, designed the main part of the complex on a square plan – the orientated church, whose alter is located towards the east, is adjacent to monastery buildings from the south. Three wings of the monastery together with the temple mark the inner courtyard – the so-called “cloister garth”, the most important and most symbolic among the gardens in Cistercian monasteries. Each of the wings has its cloisters, or corridors, which open to the cloister garth with ogee-arched windows located on one of their longer sides. The northern cloisters are directly adjacent to the temple, and the other three have more storeys, which housed all rooms necessary for the monks. The east wing was the first wing to be built, absorbing the previously built free-standing oratory (the original place of prayer). It was designed for the brothers and housed the sacristy, cathedral chapter (the meeting place of the clerics, which was previously the oratory), parlour (locutory), calefactorium (heating room), punishment cell (prison cell) and funeral chapel. Above them were dormitories (bedrooms). The western wing (today Collegium Marianum) was the home of the converts, or lay brothers who, despite staying in the monastery, instead of taking vows, made a promise of obedience, purity and poverty; they served the congregation with their craftsmanship, carrying out work consistent with their profession (such as gardener, shoemaker, medic, or bricklayer). The south wing was the last to be built. It housed a kitchen and a refectory (dining room), it was also connected to a dansker,
a garderobe tower located outside the monastery walls, which included a sanitary sewer running from the Wierzyca River. This part was also adjoined by a novitiate (today the chapel of St. Barbara) and an infirmary (a hospital which also served as a shelter for the elderly and the poor). From the very beginning, it was planned to blend the northern cloisters, in the place of connection with the eastern ones, with the body of the Basilica, particularly its right nave. They included a passage between the monastery and the church. They were equipped with benches intended for recreation and, like the south wing, they were built in the final phase of construction.
The whole complex consisted of a much larger number of buildings. On the eastern side of the monastery, a “chapel in front of the gate” and a small church for converts and lay people (today known as the “Corpus Christi Church”) were built. On the southern side, a monastery garden crossed by the Wierzyca River with two bridges, also surrounded by a wall, was established. On the western side, there were farm buildings such as a brewery, a mill and
a granary, creating their own internal courtyard. This was also the place of a gatehouse (today's Diocesan Tourist Information Centre), through which one could cross the walls to enter the monastery grounds.
Of course, the most important object of each monastery is its temple – in the case of Polish Cistercians, it was usually located in the northern part of the complex. Construction of the Pelplin temple began with the construction of the monastery walls at the beginning of the 14th century. It was planned as an 11-span, three-nave basilica on the plan of a Latin cross. The construction lasted for another 250 years and its result is one of the most outstanding achievements of brick Gothic. The Basilica in Pelplin is the third largest building, and the second largest church made of brick in the world – after the Malbork Castle and St. Mary's Basilica in Gdańsk.
Over the centuries, the abbey developed and grew. Although there were some catastrophes (one of the largest was the invasion of Hussites, Czech schismatics, in 1433, who also plundered another Cistercian monastery – in Oliwa), it seems that the fate was relatively gentle for the local congregation. For example, the Polish-Teutonic war that occurred between 1410-1411 completely bypassed the abbey. The Thirteen Years' War (1454-66), on the other hand, resulted in farm buildings being burnt down twice, one time by the Polish army, for which the Cistercians received compensation from King Casimir IV in 1479. The 16th century, with the spread of Protestantism among the Pomeranian nobility, was the time when rapes began to occur, forcing the Cistercians to seek help from the king (murder of the Prior of the monastery in Kartuzy in 1524, an attempt to shut down the Pelplin and Olive monasteries in 1525). Sigismund I the Old took care of the congregation, but it came at
a price: from now on Polish kings imposed abbots of their choice, the so-called commendatory abbots, often not even monks, and sometimes even lay people. This had disastrous results on the discipline, which had been expanding for a long time – monks, instead of working on the farms (according to St. Benedict’s motto ora et labora – “pray and work”), used lay brothers and paid workers. In 1557, the last freely elected abbot (at the same time the first Pole performing this function), Szymon from Poznań, dies, and after his death, according to the will of Sigismund II Augustus, the abbey is taken over by a secular nobleman, Stanisław Żelisławski. The congregation no longer resembled the community of ascetics and simple hermits from the dreams of St. Robert and St. Bernard. The next commendatory abbot, Leonard Rembowski I, turned out to be just as wrong for the role as his predecessor. The chronicler write claimed that he did not know the discipline or spiritual matters. The problems started to multiply – trials with the family of another imposed abbot (Feliks Kos), who following his death sought to claim the monastery’s possessions.
However, with time the situation improved. The monastery began to develop again, mainly due to the foundations of the Pomeranian nobility returning to Catholicism. Abbot Mikołaj Kostka (1592-1610) created many new buildings, including a hospital, bedrooms and a smaller refectory. The aforementioned Feliks Kos (1610-1618) founded stalls, benches in the northern cloister, and consecrated three altars. After his death, the community was blessed with the most outstanding among modern abbots – Leonard Rembowski II (1618-1649),
a Cistercian from the monastery in Oliwa, who, mindful of the experiences with the Kos family, began his rule by saying that “he brings nothing and no one can demand anything after his death”. Numerous construction works were carried out, including crowning of the towers in corners of the main nave with helmets (1640). Above all, however, the abbot continued to furnish the Basilica with new works of sacred art, giving it its final, baroque appearance. The new additions included the Marian altar for the people and, above all, the main altar, the largest altar in Poland (25 m – for comparison, the altar of Veit Stoss in St. Mary's Basilica in Cracow is 11 m high). A few momentous events also took place – the monastery was visited by kings Sigismund III Vasa (1622) and Władysław IV (1633).
In 1626, during the war with Prussia, Pelplin was occupied by the Swedish army and King Charles X Gustav. The battles with the Swedes had a considerable impact on the Convention. It had to pay contributions and provide for another army stationed nearby. Nevertheless, the abbey continued to function and expand. In 1651, the house for guests and the abbot’s house were built. It was probably then that the Baroque gardens with geometric composition, visible on the panorama from the 18th century, were established in front of the house. The success of the congregation throughout the next century is evidenced by the constantly enriched interior of the Basilica, with constantly increasing art collection.
It was not until the first partition of Poland in 1772 that the Cistercian monastery entered the last and final chapter of its functioning in Pelplin. The Prussian king began the war with the pro-Polish Catholic monasteries in Pomerania and Greater Poland, and its first stage was the secularisation of their estates. Germanisation of the surrounding areas progressed, and in 1810 it was forbidden to accept newcomers. The final blow came in 1823 – the final dissolution of the abbey. The historic monastery complex in Pelplin would most likely have suffered a similar fate as the monastery in Bukowo Morskie. Fortunately, two years earlier Pope Pius VII merged the Chełmno diocese with the Pomeranian archdiocese, and the canons chose Pelplin as their new seat. On 3 August 1824, the bishop of Chełmno moved to Pelplin.
This decision turned out to be vital for the monastery – the whole historic complex was protected from falling into ruin and the post-Cistercian complex has survived to our times in almost unaltered condition. Renovations continued - in the 1840s the church was adapted to a new cathedral function, and at the end of the 19th century it was regothicised, regaining its original, stark appearance. New functions were given to the old buildings and new buildings were built. The whole monastery, although completely different, continued to function. Transformation of the monastery's spirit is characterised by the construction of the Bishop's Palace (1838) in the area of medieval gardens around the fish pond and the establishment of Baroque gardens around the palace (in French style).
At the same time, successive bishops tried to maintain the rank of the cultural centre, which for centuries was the Cistercian abbey. The existing canonical complex was built in the place where the Maciejewo folwark had been operating since the 15th or 14th century. A second story was added to the old inn to house a cathedral school that was soon converted into Collegium Marianum. After World War I, when Pelplin was regained by the reborn Poland, Bishop Stanisław Okoniewski continued these efforts, establishing and expanding the collections of Diocesan Archives and Museum with its most valuable exhibit – the only Polish copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
Developed on the basis of:
- W. Pytlik, K. Szroeder-Dowjat, Przewodnik ilustrowany Pelplin, Ed. Foto Liner, Warsaw 2015
- Dawne Opactwo Cysterskie w Pelplinie, Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Zabytków Pelplina, electronic publication, 2015