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The church of the Augustinian friars in Alba Iulia

The Augustinian hermits were one of the mendicant orders established by the Roman Catholic Church in the thirteenth century with the goal of combating heresies by preaching, education and mission. The church of Augustinian friars, known until recently as Báthory Church or Jesuits’ Church, was the third largest medieval monument of Alba Iulia fortress, after the Episcopal Cathedral and the Princes’ Palace. Built in the fourteenth century in late Transylvanian Gothic style, the building was demolished in 1898 in order to make room for the construction of the Roman Catholic High School, the current edifice of “1 Decembrie 1918” University of Alba Iulia.

On 25 July 1898, the monument known as Báthory Church or Jesuits’ Church was demolished. Thus, a fourteenth century Gothic building disappeared for good. The photos shot by Adalbert Cserni on the first day of demolition represent the only visual sources which allow a glimpse of the outer and inner shape of that building. The changing names given to the monument in later times have obliterated the memory of the first owners of the church. In fact, the monument belonged to the order of St. Augustin hermits, whose presence in Alba Iulia was attested first in 1295.

The order appeared in 1243, in the context of movements seeking to bring the ideals of monastic life and missionary activity within the sprawling urban areas of Europe. The first mendicant orders, the Franciscan and Dominican, aimed to combat heresies that threatened the unity of the Catholic Church. In 1243, Pope Innocent IV granted hermit communities from Italy their request to organize a new order which adopted the rule of St. Augustin. Next year, the hermits of various communities in Tuscany made the decision to organize elections for a general prior every three years. In 1256, Pope Alexander IV unified several other groups of hermits with the order of the Augustinians. After the unification of the communities following the rule of St. Augustine, the order started to make efforts in missionary activities and pastoral care in urban settlements in Europe. In 1262, Pope Urban IV extended the privileges of the Augustinian friars from the Kingdom of Hungary.

The house and church of Augustinian friars in Alba Iulia appeared in a moment of close cooperation between the general prior of the order, Giles of Rome (1292-95) and the papacy, when the order prospered and made significant progress. Giles was an exceptional theologian. His theological writings became mandatory in every Augustinian school. Soon after he was elected prior general, Giles wrote a letter to the houses of the order reminding them not only of the obligation to obey the rule of the order, but also that of establishing grammar schools. We may surmise that the Augustinians of Alba Iulia opened a school, even though evidence for this activity has not yet been attested. Provincial priors were urged to establish theological schools. In 1303, Pope Boniface granted the Augustinian order the privileges of preaching, taking confession, offering absolution, establishing penitence, and burying laymen believers in their own cemeteries, thereby bringing them on a par with the position of their competitors, the Franciscans and Dominicans. The Augustinian order was highly successful due to papal support, and the pope admired the order for its high number of learned priests and preachers.

Only some indirect sources relating to the Augustinian friars of Alba Iulia have survived. Documents tell us of some of their dealings and activities. Documents kept in Alba Iulia chapter’s archive tell us of some of their dealings and activities. In 1295, Stephen, the prior of the hermitage of Alba Iulia, together with a lecturer known as Andrew, witnessed the donation of one third of the Beldiu estate by Zerias to Bishop Peter of Transylvania. In 1296-1300, the prior of the hermitage of St. Stephen of Alba Iulia, together with the Archbishop of Calocea, the Bishops of Transylvania and Bosnia, and the prior of the Dominicans of Alba Iulia, jointly issued an authentic copy of the privilege concerning the exemption to tithes and sheep tax (fiftieth) of sixty Romanian households from Filești and Aiud. In 1296-1300, the Augustinian friars, together with the cathedral chapter and the Dominican hermitage of Alba Iulia, issued authentic copies of the privileges of the Saxon guests from Ighiu and Cricău. On 13 July 1300, Peter, Bishop of Transylvania, recorded a pious donation by one Elisabeth, a noblewoman and widow of Herbord of Vințu de Jos, who ceded the village Oarda to the Alba Iulia chapter in exchange of fifty silver marks. This charter mentioned that ten silver marks were to be given for the Church of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, which belonged to the Augustinian friars (decem fratribus heremitanis Sancti Augustini de conventu Albensis ad opus ecclesie beati Stephani protomartyris). Thus, we learn not only when the building of the church began, but learn about its patron saint as well.

With the exception of Elisabeth’s pious donation, the other sources testify exclusively to the activity of the Augustinian friars as issuers of authentic documents. In 1300, Prior Stephen and a lecturer called Solomon issued one such charter. On 2 December 1308, Prior Stephen and a lecturer called Peter issued an authentic copy on behalf of the cathedral chapter of Alba Iulia. In 1311, we learn about Prior Paul of the Augustinian hermits of Alba Iulia. In 1328, in a reconciliation deed between the deanery of Sebeș and the cathedral chapter of Alba Iulia, the hermitage of the Augustinian of St. Stephen in Alba Iulia was indicated as place where the parties could meet to negotiate a solution to their dispute. Moreover, their next reconciliation charter was sealed first with the seals of the Augustinian and Dominican hermitagesof Alba Iulia. However, since the seals of the two convents did not have sufficient recognition, the parties had to request other letters from prelates of the kingdom.

In the mid-fourteenth century, a reform of authenticating bodies reduced the number of authorized institutions, and it seems that the monastery of the Augustinian friars of Alba Iulia was not among those that retained their authorization, which may explain the reduction in the number of written sources related to its activities in this area. As the archive and library of the hermitage have disappeared, information concerning the Augustinian hermits of Alba Iulia only reflects their institution’s role as a place of authentication (locus credibilis) and less their main functions, namely that of mission and education.

For a long time, their church was erroneously assigned by modern authors to the order of Dominicans. The source of confusion dates back to 1580, when the Jesuit Francis Leleszi stated that his order was granted the great and beautiful church belonging to Bernardins by Stephen Báthory. However, in 1581, he described the precarious state of the buildings received from the Dominicans. Indeed, several sources from 1580-83 assert that the church and the convent had belonged to the Dominican order. The church and its cloister were transferred from the Augustinian hermits to the Dominican order in 1553. The Dominicans held them until 1556, when the decisions of the Diet of Cluj decreed the secularization of monasteries. Neither the date nor the reason why the Augustinians left Alba Iulia have yet been discovered.

Analyses by art historians have indicated the church was built in the second half of the fourteenth century. The building was a hall church with a polygonal choir. The choir was the same height as the nave. Numerous buttresses supported the outer walls. Those of the nave were heavier and shorter, while those of the apse were taller and slimmer. Initially, the church and the apse had tall windows, but in a later stage, these were replaced with smaller rectangular windows arranged on several rows. On the western façade, the church was decorated with a central portal and in the upper part was a rose window ornamented with central lobe molding. Photos of the northern side of the church show some later constructions that were erected after the cloister of the church, which appears on a drawing by Massimiliano Milanesi from 1587, was demolished. In one photo of the eastern side of the altar, a Romanesque window that might have belonged to the cloister of the former Augustinian church is visible.

The church and cloister complex were transferred in 1580-88 to the Jesuit order, which was invited to Transylvania by Stephen or Christofor Báthory. The Jesuits lived in the house of the provost, located in the area of the Princes’ Palace, and their reports described the state of decay of the Church St. Stephen and its cloister at the time of donation. Several later reports remarked upon the repairs undertaken with sums granted by the princes. The Jesuits provided liturgical services for the Roman Catholics of Alba Iulia, whose number reached 300 to 400. In 1588, the Jesuits started constructing the Church St. Michael on the northern side of the walls of the fortress. They were expelled from Alba Iulia after almost two decades. However, they returned to Alba Iulia after Transylvania became subject to Habsburg domination. In 1715-18, during the construction of the Vauban fortress, the residence of Jesuits was repaired and restored. In 1776, the Jesuits once again had to abandon the church after the monastic order was abolished. Their buildings were transferred to the theological seminary, which retained them until 1783. On 14 June 1783, the former church of the Augustinian hermits was transformed in a simple depot for the Habsburg army. In 1891, the army ceded the building to the Roman Catholic Church, which in 1898 decided to demolish the former church in order to build the Roman Catholic High School. (C.P.G.)