The Bichlbach guild church, or ‘Bichlskirche or Josefskirche,’ as the people of Bichlbach affectionately call it, is a true cultural gem in the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena. Paul Strolz, executive president of the guild brotherhood, explains how the guild in Bichlbach takes care of its preservation and why this place is so special.
Paul Strolz has been the executive president of the guild brotherhood of St Joseph zu Bichlbach since 2015, and as a native of Bichlbach he has a special bond with the guild church. ‘I first got to know the church back in the 1960s,’ says Paul. At the time, it was in a state of considerable dilapidation. ‘My father was the first chairman of the renovation committee, and I, as a young boy, got to help with the work,’ he continues. ‘That stays with you for a long time.’ When, later, the mayor asked him to take the position of the Bichlbach guild’s executive president, he didn’t have to think twice before accepting. ‘Through the experience I’d had with my dad Josef, I knew I would say yes and work hard every day with the members of the brotherhood council to preserve this church and continue filling the guild brotherhood with life,’ says Paul.
As Paul says, ‘We need to go back in time a bit to understand the history of the guild brotherhood. It was 4 February 1689, when a serious avalanche hit Bichlbach’s neighbouring village of Lähn. Following this disaster, the local priest Lucas Egger pledged to establish a brotherhood and build a church,’ Paul continues. ‘And he did both of these things.’ The guild brotherhood of St Joseph zu Bichlbach was thus born. ‘It’s called a craftsmen’s guild or guild brotherhood. After all, a guild is all about the crafts,’ says Paul. From 1694, Bichlbach was therefore the centre of all craftsmen in the Außerfern region.
Craftsmen built the guild church in 1710. ‘It’s the only one in Austria,’ says Paul. The main work of the guild brothers and sisters today is the preservation of this church. ‘It’s a baroque gem. When the guilds were disbanded from 1859, this wonderful building fell into oblivion. Then, in 1973, a newspaper article appeared with the headline ‘Bichlbach – site of a cultural scandal – Austria’s only guild church facing ruin?’ This marked the start of a meticulous and loving renovation process. The ceremonial opening took place on 12 and 13 October 1974. Today we work to make sure that the stories of this place are preserved and that people will always remember this gem. It’s a very special place,’ says Paul with pride. The guild church is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, and you’re free to visit at any time.
The guild brotherhood also offers guided tours, showing visitors the church and the guild hall with museum. ‘At this time, we’re doing tours of the hall, museum, and church from 4 pm on the first Thursday of the month. From four to a maximum of 20 persons, in cooperation with the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena,’ says Paul. ‘Together with guild hall/museum, the guild church is a cultural treasure in the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena and most definitely worth a visit.’
The church is architecturally simple, but there is still much to discover. One such thing is a crucifix covered in wounds that immediately catches the eye of every visitor. ‘That’s an image of Christ with stigmata, briefly also known as a ‘plague crucifix’ (the plague broke out in 1611 and 1635/36 were epidemic years in Bichlbach). It bears a striking similarity with four other stigmata crucifixes in the Tyrolean Upper Inn Valley. ‘It’s an extremely rare, special work of art,’ says Paul.
In addition to the guild church, there’s also the guild museum to see. It is located in the guild hall (‘altes Widum’). ‘The valuable objects in the museum show the rich history of a lively guild in the Außerfern region. But there are also many old tools, as they were used in the 17th to 19th centuries, to marvel at,’ Paul explains. ‘The building as it stands today was constructed in 1761 and reopened in 2006 after careful renovation.’
Currently on display in the guild museum is the birth certificate of the guild brotherhood of St Joseph zu Bichlbach. It was discovered by chance in the ‘Jäger Collection’ in Ötz (Ötz Valley) in 2017, and even includes the Holzgau guild document chest (Lech Valley) As far as is known, it is the oldest founding document of a Bichlbach document chest still in existence, with all contracts and resolutions bound together in a book and certified by the lord of the court. It is the only original (copy) that can be admired in facsimile with a transcription in book form.
‘Since its reestablishment in 1977, the guild brotherhood of St Joseph has been working on the basis of updated rules. The work of the brotherhood council is clearly distributed. One particular highlight is the annual guild celebration and brotherhood meeting on 19 March. A symbolic social prize has been awarded annually since 2010. It recognises outstanding achievements in the field of social welfare with a regional connection, taking into account the tenets of a Christian social worldview. We’re also very open to new members,’ says Paul. Anyone, in fact, is free to join the guild brotherhood: women, men, businesses, or institutions. To become a member, all you need to do is go to the guild brotherhood website and fill in the membership application. After submission, the brotherhood council then confirms the admission. The membership fee is 20 euros per year. ‘We live off these dues and donations on the tours, and we use the money to maintain the guild church and pay for renovations. Every cent makes a significant contribution to maintaining this unique baroque gem,’ says Paul.