The city of Salzburg was probably the first place north of the Alps to receive Christianity, and was a major early gateway for the spread of faith into Germanic Europe. The city boasts a phenomenal collection of Christian sites, both ancient and famous, which collectively make for a worthy pilgrimage destination. St. Peter’s Church was founded in the 7th century AD and is home to the Tomb of St. Rupert, while the 8th century St. Michael’s Church is one of the oldest intact churches in Central Europe. The 10th century Nonnberg Convent, made famous by The Sound of Music, is one of the world’s oldest continually active convents. All of Salzburg’s major churches are part of the Old Town of Salzburg UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The exact date of the arrival of the first Christian missionaries in the town that would come to be known as Salzburg is unknown. It probably occurred during the late 5th century, when Ostrogoth control of Italy and Austria made travel between the two regions easier. It is unlikely to have happened much later, and in fact may have occurred at an even earlier date. This early, tiny Christian community became one of the key springboards from which Christianity would spread further north into Central Europe.
Early missionary activities notwithstanding, Salzburg did not become a major Christian center until the arrival of St. Rupert at the beginning of the 8th century. Rupert, who had already served as Bishop of the City of Worms in the Rhineland, moved to the Danube region around 700 AD, where he worked as a missionary for much of his life. He spent his last few years in Salzburg, establishing it as the mother city of the Catholic Church north of the Alps. It has been one of the most important Catholic Archdiocese ever since, and the city’s archbishops subsequently played a major role in the history of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire.
Among Rupert’s legacies in Salzburg is the Abbey Church of St. Peter, which he founded soon after he came to the area. Although the original building which he constructed is long gone, Rupert’s tomb is still there, making the abbey church one of the most historic Christian sites in Austria. About a century later, the growing Christian population of Salzburg required more space, and the larger St. Michael’s Church was built. St. Michael’s served as the city’s parish church for the better part of four centuries. Although it has been eclipsed in religious importance, it maintains its historical importance as one of Central Europe’s oldest churches.
However, neither of these churches has achieved the level of international fame enjoyed by the Nonnberg Convent, an abbey of the Benedictine order. Originally founded by Rupert in the early 8th century, Nonnberg is home to one of the oldest female monastic orders in Central Europe. But despite this distinction, more than worthy on its own merits, Nonnberg Convent is most famous for being the abbey where Maria von Trapp served as a novice in the early 20th century. For this reason Nonnberg is one of the most popular places in Salzburg, visited and photographed by hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims and Von Trapp enthusiasts every year.
Both the Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Michael’s Church are close to the Salzburg Cathedral, though on opposite sides: St. Peter’s closer to the mountain, and St. Michael’s closer to the river. The abbey that Rupert founded is gone, and the current Baroque complex largely dates from the 17th century. St. Rupert is buried behind the main altar. Behind the abbey is St. Peter’s Cemetery and the church catacombs, which were famously used as a hiding place for the Von Trapp family. The smaller and very ancient St. Michael’s Church was once the most important church in Salzburg and, for a long time, the most important church in Central Europe east of the Rhine River region. Its pink and white outer walls fit in well with the city’s pastel architectural styles. St. Michael’s is often missed by many tourists in their rush to get to the bigger and more famous sites.
The Nonnberg Convent is located close to the heart of Salzburg, just down the hill from the Hohensalzburg Fortress. The immense white-brick, black-roofed complex largely dates from the abbey’s reconstruction in the 15th century, though there are some remnants of earlier structures as well as later expansions. The centerpiece of the abbey is the Church of St. Maria Himmelfahrt. A great time to visit the Nonnberg Convent is in May, especially music lovers, when the resident nuns perform their famous Gregorian Chants in the evenings.
All three of these churches are located in the city center of the Old Town close to the cathedral, and are in easy walking distance of one another. The abbey is open every day from October through March from 6:30am-6:00pm; and April through September from 6:30am-7:00pm. As of this writing no visitor information was available for St. Michael’s Church. Nonnberg Abbey is open year-round from 7:00am-5:00pm (later hours in the summer). There is no charge for admission at any of these locations. Web: www2.salzburg.info (official tourism website of Salzburg)
Aside from the sites already mentioned, there is also of course the magnificent Salzburg Dom, considered one of the most beautiful cathedrals in German-speaking Europe, and nominally the home parish of the Primate of Germany. Other Salzburg Christian landmarks include the 13th century Franciscan Church and three other churches which date from the 17th century: the Collegiate Church, the Holy Trinity Church and the Loreto Convent Church. Outside of Salzburg, in the small town of Oberndorf, is the Silent Night Chapel, where the now world-famous Christmas Carol was performed for the first time.