The job of a lifetime

The place where Cornelia Keller works within the venerable walls of Menzingen Convent is surrounded by beautiful nature. As Head of Infrastructure, she has for the past four years been part of a four-member lay committee where her role is to interface between worldly proceedings and the spiritual life of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Starting two years ago, her daily work has been shaped by renovation work on the convent site being performed under the auspices of Alfred Müller AG.

Cornelia Keller likes being an early bird, always the first to arrive in the morning. That brings her some hours of peace and quiet, when she can place orders and answer mail before meetings start. Since radical renovation of the convent site began two years ago, her workaday life has been like one long fire drill. Nonetheless, this likeable all-rounder loves her work: "I consider it the job of a lifetime. There's no other like it in Switzerland," she enthuses.
She manages around 90 employees and is responsible for the three buildings on the convent site: the main house, the St. Francis nursing home and the Maria vom Berg retirement home. With this site and its other properties, the Franciscan congregation is a major employer and economic force in Menzingen.

A visionary construction project

The convent is now too large for its congregation, which is set to downsize in the coming decades. Anticipating this, the Sisters of the Holy Cross began thinking about their convent's future years ago. Advised by specialists at Alfred Müller AG, they opted for a radical renewal and opening-up. The west wing was renovated and now includes living and working quarters. Refurbishments were done in the church and on the dome. But that is only the beginning: the whole site is to be converted. Rental apartments are planned at the southern end, while premises for commerce and services will be developed on the east side. The sisters aim to leave a sound solution for posterity. "They are very liberal-minded, innovative women who have long thought about the future," affirms Cornelia Keller. Alfred Müller AG is responsible for project development and construction management. As the convent site is deemed worthy of protection, there is also close cooperation with the cantonal office for preservation of monuments.

The magnificent new church brings daily delight for the sisters.
Photo: Selina Meier

A life of tranquillity

Those sisters who still have particular duties to manage and can take on work relocated after Easter. A total of 131 currently live on the Menzingen site. In its heyday, there were more than 500. Through the years following its foundation in 1844, the order helped women to receive an education and the sisters were inundated with applications. Today the youngest sister is 54 years old, the eldest 103 – a ripe old age, which raises the question of whether that is attributable to a life spent within the convent walls. "The sisters' daily routine isn't comparable with worldly life; they don't experience the dual burden of career and family. They may have similar worries to ours, but physically they are not subject to the same stresses," explains Cornelia Keller. Each sister has her task, along with clearly defined periods of rest; retreats play an important part in their lives. The days have a rhythm, the framework of life is pared down to essentials: morning meditation and prayer, midday quiet hour, vespers. "After seven in the evening, it's hard to believe there is anyone left in the house. That's when calm descends and the sisters go about their own pursuits," adds Cornelia Keller. One often encounters them in the village, not only in religious garb, but also some in everyday clothes. Only a small silver cross attests to their membership of the order.

"The sisters are very liberal-minded, innovative women who have long thought about the future."

A time for letting go

On completion of the construction work, the order's provincial leadership relocated to the west wing, adjacent to the church and tomb of the founder, Mother Bernarda. The team consists of the Provincial Superior, Sister Antoinette Hauser, supported by three sister councillors. The sisters' living, prayer, recreation and ancillary rooms as well as the administration offices, meeting and seminar rooms are entirely located in the west wing. They were looking forward to this, for these areas are indeed magnificent – bright and modern. Nevertheless, there was much melancholy in that step. The remaining sisters have moved to other convent congregation houses and could only take with them just under a third of the furniture. They had to relinquish the rest and trust that their treasured items would be re-homed in fitting places. Among them a monstrance, a sumptuously decorated holder for the Eucharist at the altar, which found its way to the archbishop in Slovakia. Cornelia Keller is a key interface between the sisters and construction management. During the relocation phase, she conducted interviews with each sister to ascertain how she would like her room done up and the things that particularly matter to her. "The sisters are part of the decision-making; it's their home. They're my employers. Nevertheless, being also responsible for safety I cannot always fulfil every wish," she says, explaining her difficult task.

The freshly renovated hall stands ready for the order's new museum.
Photo: Selina Meier

Challenges and pleasant surprises

Thomas Odermatt, manager of Menzingen Convent, and Cornelia Keller acted according to the sisters' needs as best they could. Which is not always so easy, because the cantonal office for preservation of monuments has imposed conditions on the construction work. The west wing was completely gutted right up to attic level and the entire supporting structure was replaced. This consists of new wooden beams, whereby integrating them with the existing brickwork posed quite a challenge. "What if there were a fire? We didn't have fire detectors. It was tricky work, yet the experts at Alfred Müller AG mastered it all with aplomb and did a top job," recounts Cornelia Keller, adding: "With support from the architects and above all from the three construction experts, we always found good solutions. The chemistry was right, and I was very happy to have them around. Without them, everything would have been more difficult still." Praise indeed from Cornelia Keller for the general contractor's employees, who came to be regarded almost as "family". It's a bond that will be missed.

"With support from the architects and above all from the three construction experts, we always found good solutions."

There was more than one pleasant surprise as construction work progressed. For example, the coffered ceiling of painted slate slabs, which has been uncovered and restored. Cornelia Keller is delighted: "The original chapel had a dark coffered wooden ceiling, not especially pleasant to the eye. Opening it up exposed a beautiful ceiling behind, large panels painted with daisy-like flowers. Fantastic!" Now the original painted coffered ceiling graces the church vestibule and the ground floor chapel. Cornelia Keller is thrilled with the result of the work, especially as she knows all the deliberations that went into it. She finds the "Raum der Stille" (space of silence) wonderful. Also the stairwell with the new glass lift, where the traditional and modern meet. The sisters are incredibly happy about the church, and that they have the organ back. But there is still much they must grow accustomed to.

A meeting of historical and modern: the new glass lift in the stairwell.
Photo: Alfons Gut

Time for reflection

Cornelia Keller learned all her plentiful skills from the ground up. Originally a trained chef with experience in the hotel industry, she then gained further training in facility management through part-time study in Bern, took on a management job at a long-stay home in Lucerne's Seetal region, and thus became acquainted with the construction sector. Broad-based knowledge and joined-up thinking are now benefiting her. But it is probably human qualities that make her so competent at managing the worldly–spiritual balancing act. When the intensive period of construction is over, she relishes the prospect of holidays and getting away from it all. But before that, she and her staff want to use old pillars for creating a snug outdoor seating area for the sisters. Her employers, with their great love of nature and flowers. After that is done, she is looking forward to some peace and quiet, both for herself and for the sisters. So the convent ambience will finally be back the way it should be: silent and devout.

The freshly renovated hall stands ready for the order's new museum.
Photo: Selina Meier


A complex building renovation

What's interesting about renovating an out-of-the-ordinary building like Menzingen Convent?

It's the complexity involved in this project. For example, works go on in the setting of an operating convent, and that must be respected. This is not something we handle every day, which gives it a lot of appeal. In addition, there are regulations on preservation of historical monuments that we must comply with.

What makes Alfred Müller AG capable of executing such a job?

We have always been active in building renovation; in fact, we established a department dedicated to this business about 25 years ago. In that time we have been able to acquire a wealth of knowledge about building renovation and preservation of value.

This enables Alfred Müller AG to execute jobs in complex environments. Here I am thinking, for example, of conversions at various bank branches.

How different is this job from others?

Every job is basically unique, whether in terms of the project itself or the people involved along the way. The special thing about this job was that we did a full rebuild from the inside out. The outer walls and the roof are all that is left of the original building; inside, everything is new except the structure supporting the outer walls. As you can imagine, this approach was demanding on the fabric of the building.

What is your personal take on Alfred Müller AG renovating a convent?

I think this job is a great thing, especially for our employees. They are entrusted with highly interesting planning and execution tasks, which is really the icing on the cake. I have already come across employees in front of the convent, proudly showing off the results of our work to friends and family. That was of course gratifying to witness, and proves this is indeed an out-of-the-ordinary project.

Interview Kevin Blättler
Photo Martin Rütschi