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Sunday, 01 September 2013

Blood Sunday in Salmuenster: Passion, Promises and Processions

Written by Mike Howard
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   I’m alone on the bluff above the magnificent Fulda Cathedral. I’m no ghoul – at least, I don’t think I am.  But I can’t take my eyes off of the large slab of gray slate that’s bolted to the sandstone blocks of Saint Michael’s chapel.  It’s quite the experience. Rows upon rows of skulls are carved in stone – large skulls, small skulls, adolescent, child and infant.  The skulls are carved in relief, with such gentle detail that I think that I can distinguish between male and female. On the far right, a stylized angel/monk points heavenward. Saint Michael’s is the oldest Holy Sepulcher church in Germany—and dates back an incredible 1200 years.  

St Michaels Church

   I’d spent the morning thirty minutes to the south, in the “Salmuenster half” of the spa town of Bad-Soden Salmuenster, a smallish town of 15,000 permanent residents.  It’s Blutsonntag—Blood Sunday. I was early, but Saint Peter and Paul church volunteer Johanna Korn had already been there for hours, tracing a design in fresh blossoms on the cobblestone stair front, a calling she’d inherited as a young girl. “All the flowers are donated from neighbors’ gardens,” says Korn, with a bright smile. The floral designs are dictated by the resident priest, and incorporate crosses and hearts – lovingly crafted in red, white and pink roses on a bed of fresh cut grass. The letters I.H.S. are picked out in red: Ieusus Hominum Salvator—Jesus, Savior of Men.

   The Saint Peter and Paul church sponsors four formal religious processions each year – two are shared by every other catholic community large enough to support processions: Christi Himmelsfahrt Ascension Day, and Fronleichnam, celebrating the joy of the Eucharist. The other two, today’s Blutsonntag procession, and a two-day pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Rengersbrunn, in September, are unique to Salmuenster and, like the events commemorated on the Saint Michael’s Chapel slate, date back to successive epidemics of the Black Plague.  

   The faithful assemble and Pfarrer Dr. Michael Mueller conducts a special mass inside the magnificently restored baroque church. I choose not to intrude on their worship service, but can hear the organ music, and smell the heavy – almost cloying incense. Vans and fire trucks and uniformed officers from the town’s volunteer fire department begin to block off key traffic control points, and maroon-jacketed members of the town’s brass band musikverein assemble in the church square.  The mass ends – and over one hundred parishioners, carrying blue, yellow and white banners, crosses and candles—exit church through left and right side doors – reserving the enormous center portals for the priest.  The main door opens – and Dr. Mueller appears under a brocade canopy supported by six church faithful, carrying a solid gold monstrance. He blesses the crowd, leads them in the initial hymn, little girls begin spreading petals from their little baskets of flowers, and the procession marches off, tracing the same penitential route they’ve followed since 1555.

Pfahrer & Traffic Sign

   I’d never witnessed this particular observance before, but I’ve been close.  Last year in November, I stopped in Venice and was visited with the Plague. Not the active virus, but the memories – memories so entrenched in the psyche of la Serenissima, that thankful survivors erected whole cathedrals each grander than its predecessor, and pledged annual celebrations in memory of the divine intervention which saved their world from pestilence and famine. 


   It wasn’t just Venice. In as many languages as there were kingdoms, duchies and city-states, stricken penitents begged for deliverance.  “Save us miserable sinners dear Lord – and we will build a magnificent Cathedral to your eternal glory,” they pleaded, heart broken but still hopeful. “Save us miserable sinners Holy Mother of God – and the entire town will march in procession every year to Marian shrines. Save us miserable sinners and we will hold masses of thanksgiving every year until the end of time.” And to this day, throughout Europe, from the Doudou Ducasse de Mons in Belgium to the Saint Roche processions in Croatia and all parts in between, successive generations of plague survivors remember the desperate dark days.  


   Blood Sunday is both a religious event and a secular contract, written into the town’s civic codes in 1555, and observed by the Mayor and the town’s legislature for almost 500 years.  The procession winds for five kilometers, and visits four stations – one directly in front of the courthouse itself. 

   I chatted with Salmuenster resident Bernd Berg as the procession filed by, and according to Berg, it didn’t matter that, twenty years ago, the intricate tapestry of freshly cut flowers would have covered the entire church square, instead of just the immediate stair-front. Or that forty years ago the procession would have numbered one thousand church faithful, instead of the doughty one hundred that turned out this year.  “What does matter,” said Berg, “Is that in even in this modern age – we can still experience centuries-old traditions that promote universal truths of faith, hope, and charity.”

Salmuenster Holy Day 0513 017

   In Salmuenster, a second annual plague-appeasing procession survived the centuries, and dates back to the Thirty Years War.  Successive waves of epidemics and famine called for even stronger measures and the citizenry vowed to undertake a two-day, 37 kilometer pilgrimage through forests and fields to worship at the holy shrine in Regernsbrunn every September, until the end of time. 

   Those religious observances celebrating high Catholic holy days will continue as long as there is a Catholic Church. Easter, Good Friday, Maundy Thursday, Ascension Day, Holy Sunday.  But the promises made centuries ago by terrified citizens as they watched their world wither and die before their eyes – are a bit more tenuous.  The sworn oaths made on behalf of the descendents of survivors will endure only so long as those descendents endure—and remember. And the lineage grows thin.  

   My stopover in Salmuenster wasn’t accidental. I’d done my research online, and specifically targeted church calendars and daybooks.  Let’s face it.  Travel is expensive.  It’s a costly indulgence paid for in currencies of time, money and security, and of the three, time is the most fleeting.  I for one, feel obliged to extract the utmost experience out of my travel currency.   Looking into Johanna Korn’s eyes, as she stood over that carpet of flowers in front of the Saint Peter and Paul church, I experienced an approach to an ethereal something that has eluded me throughout childhood and all my adult life.  It eludes me still – but it feels somehow—closer.


(c)Mike Howard

Last modified on Sunday, 01 September 2013