The Saints of the Old Catholic City of Salzburg

St. Rupert’s name is seemingly on every other church, street, plaza, and signpost in Salzburg, Austria.

Salzburg, Austria, from the Hohensalzburg fortress
Salzburg, Austria, from the Hohensalzburg fortress (photo: Bede735, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve always thought of Austria as a sort of kinder, gentler version of Germany. And within this remnant of what was once an empire that stretched from its border with northern Italy to what used to be Poland — the home of the Habsburg monarchy, the crazy two-headed “dual monarchy” that brought Hungary on board — there is the city of Salzburg.

What strikes most Americans who visit this city, which plays a sort of “second fiddle” to the more popular, populous, and important capital, Vienna, is the sense of history. Austria as a country has a solid 1,000-plus years behind it, and Salzburg, perched precariously on the border with Bavaria, is something of a living museum. Sure it’s famous for its salt-mines (hence the name “Salz”-burg) and as the birthplace of Mozart, but Salzburg produced five outstanding saints whom it still rightly reveres.

St. Rupert (d. ca. 710) was the founding missionary who traveled to the beautiful salt-city from Bavaria in the seventh century, bringing with him as credentials of the French King Childebert III, mainly because the King wanted his recently-conquered subjects to be Christians. Rupert met with Duke Theodo, the pagan majordomo, whose sister was a Christian. He himself was soon baptized, along with many of his Bavarian court and nobles. Having had such success in Bavarian, St. Rupert moved south to the dilapidated city of Juvavum, which the duke deeded over to him. This city was to be rechristened as Salzburg.

St. Rupert wasted no time in building a monastery, a church, a school, all dedicated to Saint Peter, which shows how devoted he was to the See of Rome.

Salzburg (then and now) is blessed with natural resources, especially salt and water. While we tend to take these elements for granted today, back in the seventh century, they were a blessing to a landlocked country that was still trying to discover its raison d’etre.

It didn’t hurt, either, that Salzburg is in one of the most beautiful settings one could ask to find in central Europe.

St. Rupert was ably assisted by several other holy companions, including his sister (or possibly his niece; Austrian history from this period is a bit sketchy), St. Erentrudis, who became the first abbess of Nonneberg.

Saints Vitalis, Chuniald and Gislar were all contemporaries of St. Rupert and ably assisted Salzburg’s founding saint.

Obviously, in addition to bringing the True Faith to this then-new city, St. Rupert, who had the financial backing of the Duke, was able to develop the salt mines, which remain something of a modern marvel.

Also important: since Salzburg is sort of sliced in half by the river Salzach, a series of bridges bringing the city together had to be built, and it is in this regard that Salzburg resembles another famous European city-preserved-as-a-museum: Venice.

For his many labors in terms of both evangelizing a defeated, foreign people (Rupert himself was either Irish or perhaps French), he was named the first bishop of Salzburg—which surprised absolutely no one, given the amount of work he’d put into building up (literally, in terms of churches, schools and convents) and down (in the salt mines) the city formerly known as Juvavum.

No city is immune to the possibility of collapse once its founder dies, but Salzburg thrived, mainly due to the fact that Sts. Vitalis, Chuniald, and Gislar (along with Erentrudis) all survived their friend and mentor, St. Rupert, and were able to keep his vision and mission alive—and prevent the city’s relapse into paganism. Not only that, but St. Rupert’s name is seemingly on every other church, street, plaza, and signpost to the contemporary visitor’s eye.

It’s one thing to survive and another to thrive, and the city of Salzburg did exactly that — making the most of its neverending supply of salt, which was always in high demand, and giving the concept of “prince-archbishops” a real boost with the building of stunning structure known as “Hohensalzburg Castle”, which was completed two hundred years after the death of Rupert.

This is another culture shock to Americans: we have traditionally played down the idea of “Princes of the Church”, and simultaneously always promoted the separation of Church and State, while in Austria in general and Salzburg in particular, the two were one and the same.

The actual Diocese of Salzburg didn’t get going until the Apostle to Germany, St. Boniface, had it established in 739. (Until then, even with a bishop in the person of the saintly Rupert, Salzburg was still mission territory.) However, once founded, the diocese proved to be a Catholic stronghold amidst a still heathen area, and remains so up to the present day.

Which is another reason to visit the Salt City: the Catholic architecture has stand-out style, and there is hardly a straße or weg without a church worth visiting. But chief among these is, of course, the cathedral, known as Salzburger Dom and dedicated to (you guessed it) St. Rupert—and St. Vergilius. It’s Vergilius who, under the direction of St. Boniface, took the base St. Rupert had laid down and built upon it, both literally and figuratively. While the Cathedral-Basilica Vergilius (who died about sixty years after St. Rupert) constructed perished in one of those all-too-frequent medieval fires, the current structure, planned by the Prince-Bishop Wolf Dietrich, is a perfect example of 17th-century baroque architecture.

And while Salzburg may be known and named after “salt”, its founders and his successors were certainly all salt-of-the-earth—as well as saints.