Basel Switzerland, The Historical Church of the Barefoot Monks by Deborah Hoffmann

The Barfusserkirche & the Mysterious Grave

This fine old church has a long history dating back to the 11th Century at the time when the City Walls were being built by Bishop Burkhardt to protect the town. Still many townspeople lived on the higher hill overlooking the Rhine where they felt safer and could watch for approaching enemies.  Nearby in the twelfth century, the construction would begin on the large cathedral.

Meanwhile, below in the town, the church surrounded by small wooden houses, was much revered.  A small graveyard grew near church. Water was supplied by the Birs River which flowed down to the Rhine.  In 1250 the church and cloister became the home of the Franciscan Order of the barefoot monks, who wore sandals and believed in prayer and a humble lifestyle.

The area suffered many natural disasters, earthquakes in 1356 and 1428 and in 1339 a major flood.  It is said that the graves with their wooden coffins were swept away into the Rhine.  It was time to rebuild all that was destroyed once again and prominent members of society were sometimes buried under the new church.  In 1610, the plague threatened much of Europe.  Dr. Felix Blatter saved many with his medical knowledge, one of the city hospitals carries his name today.  The Birs was filthy and thought to carry disease and was covered over at this time.

During the Reformation in 1529, the Fransiscans moved to Breisgau in Germany.  The church became Protestant.  A well and fountain were built in 1615, and the Barfusserplatz grew and became a meeting place and a market for townspeople.

As Basel grew into a large town, a remarkable Town Hall or Ratshaus was built with a clock tower, and a large red façade, which is even today the meeting place of the cantonal  government.

Hearing of Swiss church reformers, Calvin in Geneva and Zwingli in Zurich, many Huguenots from Catholic France and Spain brought their trades and philosophy and arts to Switzerland.  Basel was early known for its university which attracted Paracelsus in Medicine and Karl Jaspers and Nietsche, philosophers. The Artist Dürer worked in Basel and Hans Holbein the younger painted murals in the Ratshaus. Historian Jakob Burckhardt traveled widely during this time in Europe and wrote about his travels and how people lived.

In 1947 the Barfusserkirche was in need of renovation. Archeologists were studying and researching the ancient church.  It was then that the mysterious grave was found, and the casket taken to a nearby museum and carefully opened.

The well preserved body of a woman was found. Tests showed that she had died of mercury poisoning which had mummified her body.  Her ancient garments showed that she almost certainly came from a prominent Basel family, but who was she?   The archeologists went back to their sketches of the space below the altar of the church and found the grave number 105.

Then a very long study of Basel’s handwritten archives took place.  These heavy books went way back to the early history of the town.  At last she was found.  She had been born in 1719 in Strasbourg, into a Ministers family, and had grown up there.

Anna Catherina Bischoff, an old Basel family name.  She married in Basel in1737, but again lived in Strasbourg which had strong commercial ties with Basel. She had 7 children and when her husband died she moved back to Basel to live with a daughter.

Her earliest known ancestor was Basel’s famous early printer Johannes Froben, who was born 8 generations earlier and had created a printing center for Greek and Latin volumes and translations.  As the archives were studied they found that she was related to most of the cities’ old families, who today have been prominent in building Basel into a modern industrial city.

Genealogists were amazed to even find a living descendant in Basel,

Rosemary Probst Rhyner born in 1928.  Mrs. Rhyner was the most surprised of all to hear this news.  She agreed to take part in a DNA test.  So 22 generations later, in 2018, DNA tests proved the identity of the lady of the mysterious  Barfusserkirche grave,   Citizen of Basel:    Anna Catherina Bischoff 1719 – 1787

 Today the Barfusserkirche is the home of the HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF BASEL

Deborah Hoffmann


Writing Women of Zurich Website Note:  Deb Hoffmann is a witty and wry chronicler of Swiss history and customs.  She has contributed multiple articles on Switzerland and other nations written in her indomitable style.

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