Our Lady's Priory, Helsingør

Our Lady's Abbey was a house for Carmelite monks in Helsingør, Zealand, Denmark during the Middle Ages. It is the finest example of a complete monastic complex in Denmark, and one of the best in all of Scandinavia.


Our Lady's Abbey (Danish: Vorfrue Kloster) was established in 1430 for a group of Carmelite monks. It was one of three religious houses founded in Helsingør as it grew from a small fishing village to a trading port on the Sound, the strait which separates Zealand from Skåne. The Sound (Danish:Kattegat) was an important fishing ground and busy shipping corridor between the North Sea the Baltic. King Erik VII of Pommerania, the heir of Margaret I, needed funds and the new toll of shipping was a source of steady income. He wanted to impress outsiders and set about purposefully to build Helsingør as a gateway city. One of the things he did was to establish three religious communities. He also established a Franciscan Friary and a Dominican Priory.

The Carmelites were a mendicant order (Danish:tiggermunk) which means that they at least in the beginning depended on the generosity of local residents for their sustenance. The were sometimes called the 'little Whitefriars'. King Erik invited the monks into Denmark and established Our Lady Abbey to ensure that they remained. As time passed the abbey received many properties scattered all over Zealand which decreased their dependence on others to keep the abbey going. Our Lady's Abbey eventually became the headquarters for the Carmelites in Scandinavia.

The property for the abbey was a gift from King Erik with several farm properties to suuport it. THe abbey was constructed out of large re bricks, the most common building material of the day. The three main buildings were built around a central garden and cloister with St Mary's church as the fourth side to the south. The church was built as a three-aisled basilica, but the central nave was built significantly higher than the others in the Gothic style.

The oldest abbey buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1450 resulting in its current appearance which dates to 1500. In 1516 a hospital was created in the abbey for foreign sailors.

The most influential monk from Our Lady's Abbey was Poul Helgesen. He was a university lecturer and student of Erasmus. He was an early propenent of Lutheran reforms in Denmark, but later became disenchanted with Lutheran reforms as well, earning him the hatred of both religious communities. He wrote a chronicle of his turbulent time, but it was never published. A manuscript was discovered inside the walls of Skibby church. It was later published under the title Skibby Chronicle.

After the dissolution of the abbey, the monks were turned out of the abbey, which was abandoned until 1541 when Christian III endowed the abbey as Our Lady's Hosptial with enough income properties to sustain it. The abbey was used as a hospital at times for the sick, the elderly, and the poor until 1916.

In 1577 administration of the abbey church, St Mary's, was given to the foreign community residing in Helsingør, mostly Germans from the cities of Hanseatic League. It remained the 'German' church until 1851, although it was also the church for the garrison at Kronborg Castle. The abbey church became Helsingør's second parish church in 1819 when St Olai's parish split. St Mary's is home to a magnficent Baroque organ built in 1662-1663. The organist was the famed composer,Dietrich Buxtehude.

Beginning in 1900 the St Mary's was restored to its medieval state as far as was possible in an effort to presrve the wonderful medieval frescoes on the interior ceilings and walls. It was restored to its Baroque appearance. The hospital closed in 1916 and eventually was returned to parish control and restored. In 1992 the frescoes there were restored.


* [http://www.helsingørdomkirke.dk Sanct Olai Kirke and Sanct Mariæ Kloster] da icon

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