Ticino monastery opens doors to pay bills

The oldest Capuchin monastery in Switzerland survives today by marketing itself as an ideal place to hold courses and seminars but even that is not enough to meet the costs of upkeep. Lay supporters have stepped in to initiate a fundraising drive.

This content was published on March 31, 2013 minutes
Sonia Fenazzi in Bigorio,

A feeling of deep calm enters a visitor’s soul arriving at the monastery of Bigorio, nestled on the slopes of the mountain of the same name near Lugano in southern Switzerland. The Capuchins have maintained this tiny discrete oasis since 1535, not long after the foundation of their order.

For centuries Bigorio was a flourishing centre of monastic life, and it was enlarged and renovated several times. The present three-storey structure goes back to 1767. But the days of prosperity and expansion are no more than a distant memory for this historic religious house.

Many monasteries and convents have been forced to close in recent years owing to a decline in the numbers of men and women entering religious life, but Bigorio has managed to avoid such a fate thanks to a new approach.

As far back as 1966, Bigorio ceased to be an enclosed religious community and the decision was taken to restructure the monastery and transform it into a centre for training and development.

“That year Brother Roberto came to supervise renovation work so that the place could be opened up to provide accommodation for visitors. He has been the head of the monastery ever since,” the secretary Luca tells us as he shows us round the complex. “Since 1967 hospitality has been the main task of the monastery.”

Hospitality is not just about opening up to tourists, however.

“We have a clear mission,” emphasises Brother Roberto, as he welcomes us in a room of the same simple style, pure and severe, that characterises the whole monastery.

“Our calling is to offer this space for short periods of study or meditation. That means we can live fully in the Franciscan spirit. Otherwise, what would be the use of a beautiful large monastery if there are no more brothers?” reflects the Capuchin prior.

The cost of peace and quiet

The converted structure, with friars’ cells and an infirmary converted into 25 guest rooms, welcomes about a hundred groups a year, for a total of just over 1,500 people. A maximum of 30 guests can be accommodated on any one night.

The small scale of the operation gives it a reassuring intimacy and makes the Bigorio monastery a unique setting for courses and seminars that require quiet thought and concentration. On the other hand, the inability to house large groups puts a limit on possible revenue.

This is all the more so because, to ensure a quiet atmosphere, the monastery usually hosts only one group at a time. Thus only a part of the rooms are usually occupied. Exceptions can be negotiated between the groups involved, but are rare, Luca explains.

The Capuchins do not want to give up the special quality that over the years has made Bigorio a training location of choice for universities and corporations from around Switzerland and other parts of the world. Customers have become not only faithful guests, but promoters of the monastery. In fact, word of mouth is the kind of advertising on which Bigorio depends.

Bruno Marti is one such supporter. Since 1974 he has been organising seminars four times a year on health and safety in the workplace for a Swiss-German firm, he tells us, as he checks that all the equipment is in working order for the seminar due to start in the afternoon.

The convent also offers a range of courses given by the friars themselves. In this way, Brother Roberto says, “we can share our spirituality”. For twenty years he has been teaching a course on “the rediscovery of silence” as part of a quest for essential values in life.

But these activities are not enough to cover the expenses of running the place, which amount to about a half a million francs a year. The convent also produces some arts and crafts items, but this “serves to maintain the traditions more than anything else”, as Brother Roberto says, and does not make up the shortfall.

In the past, the deficit was covered thanks to the busy artistic career of Brother Roberto, who has created over 300 stained-glass windows. “From the 1960s to the 1980s in Ticino a lot of churches underwent renovation, which meant a boom for restorers,” he explains. “At that time I was called to do quite a lot of work. Today there is no longer that need.”

A unique cultural heritage

The monastery of Santa Maria del Bigorio was founded by the Capuchin friars in 1535 as a centre of monastic life. Its church was consecrated in 1577 by St Charles Borromeo.

It has been renovated and enlarged several times since then, but has kept the same architectural profile since a complete renovation in 1767. More recent alterations have added modern aspects without affecting the typical Franciscan style, which is characterised by simple lines and inexpensive materials.

Apart from antique furnishings and books, the convent also contains valuable works of art that bear witness to its long history. There is a small museum, which can be viewed by appointment.

Bigorio was an enclosed religious community until 1966, but was subsequently transformed into a training centre hosting courses and seminars.

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Lay people fill the gap

The prior remains optimistic, however. While conceding that in the coming years “there will still be a need to close monasteries”, he believes that the Bigorio building is “one of the few to have a bright future.” Hospitality remains the way to go, he says.

As part of a new effort to balance the budget, the association “Friends of the Bigorio Monastery” was formed at the end of 2011 to promote and support the activities and cultural heritage of the monastery. They got off to a very promising start. “We raised about CHF200,000 francs,” says the association secretary Edo Bobbià. They will have to wait and see whether this generosity from the public will become a habit. “Our goal is to raise CHF100,000 francs a year. CHF50-60,000 of that is to go to bridging the deficit we have now, and CHF40,000 to go to maintenance work.”

“The association ensures that there is continuity,” says Brother Roberto, “because if in the future there was only one brother here, the work would go on with the help of lay people.” He has a point as Bigorio currently only has two resident Capuchins left.

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