On 31 October, 1898, the German Emperor Wilhelm II granted the “Deutscher Verein vom Heiligen Lande” (the German Association of the Holy Land) the site on which Dormition Abbey would be built. Thus the Abbey’s foundation had for its backdrop the colonial expansion engaged in by the European powers, which raced to establish their presence in the biblical lands at the end of the 19th century.
After long discussions about whether the Franciscans should be given responsibility, the cornerstone of Dormition Abbey was finally laid on 7 October, 1900. The new monastery would be a Benedictine foundation in the care of the German Congregation of Beuron.
On 21 March, 1906, while building was still in progress, the first three Benedictine monks were introduced to Mount Zion.
The church having been solemnly dedicated on 10 April, 1910, the following years were marked by the gradual development of the community. Various monasteries of the Congregation dispatched monks to take over the daily tasks in the church and community. They included also scientifically trained monastic personnel who devoted themselves to the study of Holy Scripture, archaeology and the history of the country.
During the First World War the monks had to leave the monastery (November 1918). They were interned by the British army in an Egyptian camp near Alexandria. In March 1919 Benedictines from the Belgian Abbey of Maredsous were in Dormition but left in July 1920. In January 1921 German monks under their new superior Maurus Kaufmann OSB returned to Mount Zion. The community once more found itself almost at the beginning, an experience that would be repeated again and again in its first hundred years.
In 1926 the monastery was made an abbey and Maurus Kaufmann named as its first abbot.
In the following years the number of the brothers grew to sometimes more than 40. Important elements of the inner furnishing of the church occurred in these years, such as the apse mosaic, the large pavement mosaic of the upper church, several side altars and the figure of Mary in the crypt.
At the beginning of the Second World War, German priests and religious were again interned. The German Lazarists, who cared for the shrine of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and the farm at Tabgha, on the See of Galilee, had to leave the country. The German Association of the Holy land, which owned Tabgha, asked the Benedictines of Mount Zion for assistance. Thus began, in the autumn of 1939, the story of “Benedictine Tabgha,” which continues to this day.
Following the Second World War, the community, whilst trying to orient itself in a rapidly changing world, faced a new challenge: the 1948 war broke out between the newly founded State of Israel and its Arab neighbors.
This war had more deleterious effects on our monastery than all previous and later wars. Once again the entire community had to leave Mount Zion, suffering internment until June 1948; but worse still, our Abbey lay at the dividing line between two worlds: Mount Zion was occupied by the Israelis while the Jordanian-Arab side held the Old City. Dormition, located at no-man’s land, was on the front line between the opposing sides.
After the end of the war, Leo von Rudloff OSB, from the Abbey of St. Joseph in Gerleve, was sent to evaluate this very difficult situation. Once again, he attempted a new beginning. After negotiations with the Israelis he was able to repossess the monastery, becoming prior and later abbot of Dormition. He developed many contacts in the Jewish world, opening the Abbey up to its new situation in a new state.
In June 1967 the Six Day War dragged the Middle East - and Dormition with it - into the next crisis, the shadows of the 1948 war having scarcely been dispelled. But at its conclusion Jerusalem was again united and completely under Israeli control.
Weston Priory, which Abbot Leo von Rudloff had founded in 1953 as a help for Dormition, became independent from the abbey in 1968 and decided to go its own way. In 1969 von Rudloff resigned as Abbot and went to live there. Once again our community stood at a crossroads in its history, with the possibility of imminent closure.
This time it was Laurentius Klein OSB, former Abbot of St. Matthias in Trier, who read the signs of the times. He too was sent to Mount Zion to assess the situation and gain an impression of whether, and in what form, life in Dormition could continue. As a theologian thoroughly formed by the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, he recognized that Mount Zion is an ideal location, geopolitically and religiously, to focus on the Abrahamic religions and the Christian Confessions, and to pursue ecumenical dialogue and the encounter with Judaism and Islam. He therefore founded the Theological Study Year and is revered as its intellectual and spiritual father by the almost 1000 students who have taken part in it over the years.
Once again the life and work of the Abbey experienced a new beginning, so that since the 1970’s Dormition has become not only a centre of prayer and liturgy, but a place of exchange of ideas and the encounter of religions, a place of cultural and scientific pursuits.
In 1979 for the first time, the monks were able to elect their own abbot, all previous superiors having been appointed by the respective authorities of the Church and Benedictine Order. During the mandate of the new Abbot, Nikolaus Egender OSB (originally from the Monastery of Chevetogne in Belgium) there were many ecumenical and cultural activities focused on the abbey. But by 1995 the future of Dormition once more hung in the balance: the monastery’s dire economic situation and lack of monastic personnel made its future appear problematic. However, Benedikt Lindemann OSB, originally from the Abbey of Könisgmünster, Meschede, was elected abbot in 1995. He successfully introduced a process of economic renewal and structural consolidation which saved the day.
After our monastery in Tabgha had been raised to the level of a dependent priory (August 2003) the old inadequate monastery building was replaced by a new one (2009-2012) more appropriate for the development of monastic life and culture at the place of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes.
Since his election in July 2011 Gregory Collins OSB formerly of Glenstal Abbey, Ireland, is the sixth abbot of Dormition. Shortly into his term of office the abbey and its priory at Tabgha were enthusiastically accepted into full membership of the Congregation of the Annunciation.