GOLS, AUSTRIA – Being blasted with jets of hot and cold water by a 70-year-old nun may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but it has some devoted fans. They return year after year to Marienkron, an Austrian health resort 3 km (2 miles) from the Hungarian border.
The regular guests relish the tranquil yet disciplined atmosphere fostered by the Cistercian nuns who run the Kneipp hydrotherapy center, look after the visitors and offer opportunities for prayer and life-coaching.
But the ethos of Marienkron, a low-profile resort frequented mainly by older guests seeking relief from aches and pains and mobility problems, may not survive once the current generation of nuns is gone.
Just five of the abbey’s 12 nuns are still fit or young enough to work in the resort, and management has already been handed over to a secular director.
Its dominant figures, 71-year-old Sister Elisabeth and Sister Bernarda — who declines to give her age — have been there for decades. They fear they may have no successors.
“I don’t think so. Not in the next 10 years,” Sister Elisabeth said when asked about the prospects for new joiners.
She administers the Kneipp treatments with a firm but kindly hand — a skill she learned after the abbey first began taking in guests in 1969.
The nuns who went on to found the resort had moved from Germany in 1955 to pray for the souls on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Before the guests arrived, they eked out a living growing vegetables, raising chickens and teaching.
Today, the retreat is an established health resort with more than 100 beds offering activities ranging from qi gong — a traditional Chinese practice involving movements designed to align body, breath and mind — to water gymnastics.
It lost money last year, though, perhaps due to its modest prices — a week’s full board for €529 ($730).
Marienkron could do more to attract publicity — Sister Bernada’s qi gong classes made it briefly notorious in the Austrian media — but it is wary of attracting the “wrong” kind of guests: weekenders who may not understand its philosophy.
“The word ‘wellness’ is banned here,” Director Gunther Farnleitner said. “We don’t really take visitors just for a weekend.”
The rules are strict. Lights out is at 10 p.m., when even the tea bar closes. Use of mobile phones is banned in public areas. Guests are encouraged to use one of two small Internet cabins if they must get online. Prayer is optional.
An inquiry from British Vogue magazine last year was answered but never followed up by the magazine.
In the hope of showing young women the attractions of a monastic life, the abbey is planning to revive a program this year to offer young women short-term stays with the nuns, from a few days to a few weeks.
“Such lovely work as we have — you can’t find it any more,” said Sister Bernarda. But she acknowledged that the business might not save the abbey. “If someone decides to join, that’s not up to us.”
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