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Barbara, the patron saint of miners

Saint Barbara is the patron saint of miners.  She is among the 14 Holy Helpers of the Roman Catholic Church, the “Patron of Good Death”.

Saint Barbara is probably the longing of the miners for light, transferred from the Christian legend.  Since the Day of Saint Barbara is also celebrated in non-Catholic regions, its origin likely dates back to before the Reformation.  Even in Protestant areas St. Barbara has kept  her position despite the disapproval of the veneration of the saints.

St. Barbara Day

The “St. Barbara Day” is on December 4th.  In many families of our country the custom of the “Barbara branch” has been upheld.   On this day cherry tree sprigs are cut and placed in a vase filled with water close to the light.  After 21 days, exactly at Christmas, these branches blossom.  Before the “Christmas tree” was known more than 100 years ago in the Westerwald, the Barbara sprigs were regarded as a symbol of Christmas as well as Christmas decoration.  With their blossoms they symbolize the light and remind people that the spring sun, which will produce new flowers, is not far off.  Barbara altars and windows can be found in almost all the churches of the mining communities.

The Christian Legend

According to the Christian legend Barbara lived at the end of the 3rd century AD in Nicomedia, which is now known as Izmit in Turkey, and was the daughter of a rich, pagan businessman named Dioscuros.

Against her father’s will the pretty, young woman chose Christianity and was baptized.  Out of sheer anger over her dedication to the new religion, hated and revered by him, Dioscuros held Barbara captive in a tower in order to dissuade her from Christianity.  Neither the imprisonment nor the punishments inflicted on her by her father would persuade her against her choice; on the contrary, they strengthened her faith in Christianity.

Barbara managed to flee and hid in a rocky cliff, that opened and allowed her to hide.  This is how she became the patron saint of miners.  However, her refuge was betrayed, and out of sheer hatred Dioscuros condemned her and the governor of that time sentenced her to death.  Her own father beheaded her, but was then hit by a deadly bold of lightning.

Barbara celebrations as well as devotions on December 4th have become long-standing customs, particularly in mining regions.  On this day the miners commemorate their patron saint, St. Barbara.  Therefore, each year on Dec. 4th there is a quiet, solemn atmosphere in front of the “Erbstollen”of Copper Plate (drainage tunnels of copper plate), and one is grateful for the accident-free mining year and prays once again for protection.

The Jochberg ore deposits, located in the Kitzbuehel Alps, have been of great mining interest for some time.  One of the oldest copper mines of this region can be found at the Kelch mountain pasture near Jochberg at an elevation of approx. 1750 m.

In the copper mines established around 1000 B.C.  one was searching for copper, but discovered mainly copper plate, from which objects, jewellery and tools were created.  For unknown reasons the mining activities were stopped, and once again in the 15th century the Jochberg ore deposits were re-discovered.  At this time the tunnels were dug even deeper into the mountain and primarily fahlore (a grey crystalline copper-containing mineral) was mined, which was particularly valuable due to its high content of copper and silver.

The “Erbstollen” (Drainage Tunnels) to the Holy Spirit

The “Erbstollen” to the Holy Spirit (drainage tunnels) in Jochberg were damaged around 1600, which provided the mine with fresh air and served as its drainage.  The extracted ore was taken to a nearby processing plant.  In the middle of the 18th century the name “Copper Plate” was given to this mining area to the north-east.

From the 17th century on the sovereign rulers controlled the copper mining in the Tyrol, however the Jochberg mines only brought in low returns.  The mining authorities in Schwaz had a new smelting plant built in Jochberg, but, due to the constant problems that arose from it, the last bit of copper was melted in 1875.  The time of active mining at Copper Plate was not yet over.   The year 1920 saw a revival of the processing plant, that broke up the ore from the mine in order to deliver it to the smelting ovens in Brixlegg situated approx. 60 km from the plant.

World War I and the End of Mining

During World War I all the facilities for copper production were renovated, even the Erbstollen (drainage tunnels) in Jochberg, since the overseas trading of inexpensive copper came to a standstill.  Towards the end of World War I the need for Jochberg copper declined again.  Copper was available all over the world; provided that the economically hard-hit countries could afford it.  In the years following there was a reduction of workers, and on July 31st, 1926 the responsible ministry finally closed the mine known as Copper Plate.

At the end of 19809 the Grander Family bought the “Erbstollen” to the Holy Spirit.

After intensive renovation work the front part of the “Schaubergwerk Kupferplatte” (Public Mine – Copper Plate) was officially opened in a ceremony on July 28th, 1990 and has been open to visitors since then.

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