Prof. Dr. theol. Vitus Georg Tönnemann

Paderborn diplomat at the imperial court in Vienna
Confessor to Kaiser Karl VI

Army bishop

Pater Vitus Georg Thönemann (1659 to 1740), the Paderborn diplomat at the court of Kaiser Karl VI, was a descendant of an old Westphalian patrician family. His father came from the strongly academic Thone family in Warburg, called Thönemann or also Thönnemann; he was Dr. juris utriusque Heinrich Thönemann, royal judge in Corvey and Gograf to Höxter and councillor to the royal bishop Bernhard von Galen of Münster. The great uncle of Heinrich Thönemann was Johann VII Thöne, called Thonemann, who is the ancestor of the Thonemann branch in Scherfede.


Joist I. Thöne, called Thonemann, in his second marriage from 1556 was married to Angela von Listingen (daughter of the Mayor Bernhard von Listingen and his wife Angela Nabercord, widow of Herman Volmar, who died in 1552). The couple had three children, Johann VII., born in 1557, the founding father of the Scherfede Thonemann branch and his brothers Christoph and Joachim Thöne (born after 1557). Both are registered as councillors of the city of Warburg. It is not known which of the two brothers married a woman named Hencken or Heinken, who bore a son Georg Thöne, who is expressly named as the grandson of Joist I Thöne. In the case of the Warburgers descended from Georg, the spelling varies from Thonemann to Tonnemann, Thönemann or Thönnemann. Georg Thöne married a Catharina von Hoxar (before 1620), daughter of Mayor Dietrich von Hoxar (1607 to 1619), died after 1653 and his wife Anna von Geismar. Catharina had two brothers: Jodocus von Hoxar, born 1608, died 1648, Canonikus in Fritzlar, and Martin von Hoxar, born 1610, from 1641 to 1651 councillor and chamberlain in Warburg.

From the marriage of Georg and Catharina, Heinrich Thönemann was born in 1620 according to the baptism register of the Altstädter Kirche in Warburg. He was called after the founder of the Warburg grammar school, Heinrich Thöne. Georg must have died soon after the birth of his son. Already in 1620 the parish registers bore the remark: “Catharina uxor quondam Georgii Thöne”. The widow was listed after 1644 in the tax lists of the town of Warburg.

While in the case of Joist I Thöne, called Thonemann, the name Thone or Thöne mostly appears in the tax lists, he is called Thonemann in the old documents – with the exception of Hardehausen from the year 1672, where he was named with his brother Johann VI. The Scherfede branch and the Nörder branches of the family later only went by the name Thonemann, which was originally a pet name. On the other hand, the brother of Joist I, Johann VI and his sons Martin and Heinrich always called themselves Thöne.

Heinrich Tönnemann – also called Thönemann – is outstanding in the family. He would also be honoured as a significant personality within the Thonemann family, not only because he was married five times, but because he became a very wealthy man. He laid the foundation for a new, very considerable upswing of the family by his cleverness, the good family relations and the many connections to important personalities of Westphalia. He was the first in a long series of academics in the Thonemann family. The name Thöne is finally left behind and is presented as Thönnemann, Tönnemann, Thönemann or Thonemann.

It is not known where Heinrich Thonemann studied; however he is shown as doctor of jurisprudence and theology; in this capacity he became councillor to bishop Bernhard von Galen in Münster, who ruled the royal abbey in Corvey as Administrator. At the beginning of the 1650s, Heinrich Thonemann married Maria Wiedenbrück, daughter of the privy councillor Bernhard von Wiedenbrück. The couple had five children. In 1654 he was involved in a witch trial against a certain Catharina von Sudershausen from Vörden, who was declared innocent and set free. On 20th May 1663 he was inaugurated as judge and Gograf in Höxter. He called himself Consilarius of the sovereign, whom he also represented in the state parliament. It should be noted here that in former centuries only aristocrats were appointed senior government officials; but at this time more and more from the middle classes, who were well educated having studied law at university, held these government offices.

On 22nd May 1664 the ruler in Corvey rewarded him and his sons, Vitus Georg, Arnold, Bernhard, Hermann and Franz with a noble feudal tenure in Höxter. After the death of his first wife he married a von Loe, daughter of Alexander Maximilian von Loe from Holland, who lived in Höxter. His third wife was a von Ketteler, daughter of Goswin zu Merlsheim and Anna Elisabeth von Neuhoff, known as Ley. The couple had three daughters. In his fourth marriage Heinrich wedded Metta Theodora Meyer, daughter of the Hildesheimer Chancellor Dr. of law Konrad Meyer and Theodora Wippermann.

After this wife had also died prematurely in 1687, Heinrich married for the fifth and last time, on 8.8.1691, the widow Elisabeth Schilder (Seuteantiy), née Blömer zu Albaxen. The Habsburgers had the motto: “Others may go to war, you happy Austria, marry!” This motto also applied to Heinrich Thonemann. “Tu felix Thönemann, nube!” In this way he succeeded in making up for the great damage inflicted on wealth of his family by the thirty Years War. But more than this, he accumulated such a fortune and to left it to his children as was unusual for the good Warburg circumstances: just one of the sons, Mayor Franz Friedrich Thonemann in Warburg was able to call 1,000 acres of landed property (1 acre = 0,25 ha) his inheritance. This was a record in the family up to then.

At the age of 75 Heinrich Thönemann died on 16.3.1696 in Höxter.

The Career of Vitus Georg Thönemann

Vitus Georg Thönemann became the best known of Heinrich‘s sons, indeed a man of international reputation. He was named after his grandfather Georg Thöne, called Thonemann. Vitus Georg was born in 1659, the date of baptism is known: 4.10.1659. After attending the Jesuit grammar school in Paderborn, he studied four semesters at the local university and finally did his doctorate to Magister Artium. The intelligent student attracted the attention of his teachers at an early stage. This led to his entry to the Jesuit order on 7.2.1677. His noviciate followed at the college in Trier, a further year‘s study of philosophy and the fine arts, in between also a position as a lecturer in Paderborn, studies in Münster and in the monastery at Geist as well as final examinations as professor of theology and philosophy in Paderborn with the citation “magna cum laude”. Afterwards he taught poetry and rhetoric in Meppen and philosophy in Paderborn, where he also took the four vows on 20th February 1693.

Pater Vitus Georg Tönnemann SJ

(*1659, †1740)

Faculty of theology Paderborn, permanently on loan from Verein für Geschichte und Altertumskunde Westfalens, Abt. Paderborn e.V. (Association for the History and Archaeology of Westphalia, Dept. Paderborn), Inv. Nr. 81/977 (AV2), Height 85 cm, Width 68,5 cm. All copyrights are with the Association for the History and Archaeology of Westphalia, Dept. Paderborn.

He had proven his first great skill when he arranged a settlement with the elector Friedrich von Brandenburg after a long and difficult dispute of the Jesuits of Paderborn about the inherited control of Büren by Moritz von Büren, the imperial chamber court president, after his death. In the course of this he is supposed to have called Pater Thönemann an extremely competent Jesuit.
With the in-born conciliatoriness of a man of the world, who had grown up in the circles of senior government officials, he had moved on the polished floor of the imperial court of Vienna with sureness, admirable calmness, determination and perseverance, as the agreement of the sovereign to a settlement as well as confirmation by the Pope and the Kaiser had to be obtained. In Vienna he used every free hour in order to get at the university the necessary knowledge in civil and constitutional law and to acquaint himself with the intricate ways of a world diplomacy. In volume 8 of the journal of the society for history and antiquities on this protracted inheritance trial Rosenkranz writes the following: “Without Thönemann‘s involvement, Büren would hardly have become the site of a Jesuit college, maybe the Jesuits there would not even have succeeded in saving Moritz‘s inheritance out of the chaos of so many legal disputes and hostile conspiracy. Therefore, even after his death, he enjoyed the honour to be praised by the Jesuits as one of the greatest credits and pillars of the society of Jesus.”

Undoubtedly in recognition of this “immortal merit” – singulariter de hoc collegio, cujus magnus benefactor extitit, immortaliter mertio – in 1727 the son of his brother Arnold, the Paderborn University professor Christoph Thönemann, was appointed rector of the college in Büren. This splendid rococo construction was being built then. At the same time Vitus Georg became better known day by day to the court and people of power and influence also by various legal treatises, which he published in German and Latin, and the esteem his person enjoyed grew and grew. Thus he was also entrusted with fighting against certain theological-legal theses. He was appointed doctor of theology by the university of Vienna.

With the Kaiser in Vienna

Due to the cleverness and reliability shown by the young diplomat, it was no surprise that the attention of the imperial court was drawn to Dr. Vitus Georg Thönemann. The German Kaiser Leopold I in Vienna (1658 to 1705; born 9.6.1640, died 5.5.1705 in Vienna), who was especially pleasantly touched by the upright and straight character of the scholastic diplomat, took him into his service and made him tutor and travel companion of Herzog Joseph of Lorraine (born on 26.7.1678 in Vienna, he ruled for only a short time from 1705 to 1711, died on 17.4.1711). In this way, Pater Dr. Thönemann got to know the Austrian inherited lands, Lombardy and Hungary. In this due to his unconditional reliability and his tactful behaviour, he was also able to win the full trust of his Kaiser to such an extent that in 1705 he sent him to Spain as confessor to Archduke Karl, King of Spain, whose confessor Pater Andreas Pauer had died on 8.10.1704. Like Kaiser Joseph I, his brother and successor, Kaiser Karl VI had Jesuits as confessors from their youth on. In 1693 at the age of eight he received Pater Andreas Pauer as instructor and confessor. After his death Pater Vitus Georg Thönemann took his place.

It was a great mark of confidence of Kaiser Leopold I in Pater Thönemann when he sent him to apply for a bride for Prince Karl to Schloß Salzdahlum to the court of Duke Ulrich von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, to get to know Princess Elisabeth Christiane von Braunschweig (later mother of Kaiserin Maria Theresia). Besides the portrait of the princess, Pater Vitus Georg was able to bring the reassuring information to Spain that his canvassing for the Prince was successful. As this contract was settled to the complete satisfaction of both sides (the engagement of the young couple was celebrated in Barcelona on 1.8.1708), Pater Thönemann accompanied his lord on all trips afterwards.

In this time due to his absolute honesty and correct fulfilment of his duties he won with King Karl – meanwhile crowned Kaiser – complete trust because the monarch realised immediately that his confessor, as opposed to the courtly submissiveness of the other court servants, did not woo favour and prestige and in no way tried to exploit his generosity. A close relationship of confidence developed between the monarch and his advisor. Back in Vienna – King Karl took over government in 1711 after his imperial brother – Pater Thönemann was made responsible for the pastoral care of the military with the title of grandchaplain to the imperial troops. The total pastoral care for the soldiers was newly organised, discipline was enforced , independence of pastoral care for the army was introduced (despite the resistance of the bishops) and finally an independent imperial army episcopate was founded. Its occupancy was confirmed by the respective popes.

Thus the imperial councillor Dr. theol. Vitus Georg Thönemann had created a unique position of great significance for himself, not by the favour of wealthy patrons, but by his own skill and merit, and in total agreement with the Kaiser, who always used to call him “our Thönemann” – in order to testify to his favour in public. The imperial councillor gladly involved himself for every just cause and was helpful to many applicants at the court; with a sharp eye in the assessment of people and also the political circumstances, he was quickly able to “separate the wheat from the chaff”.

“It is unbelievable with what circumspection he had to act and indeed also acted so – in his exposed situation, in which he was exposed to so many looks, and so much was said about him; no despondency let him falter in the fulfilment of his duty and in his belief, he did not gamble away the goodwill of the ruler by brusque behaviour, and he punished slanderous accusations by his blameless conduct of life.” (eulogy…)

His influence at the imperial court

In many things, whether it had to do with the right of the small positions, top-political decisions, recognition of the illegitimate son of the marquis from the aristocratic house Nesle-Mailly (niece of the archbishop of Reims) or the return of principalities (e.g. Nassau-Dillenberg, Hardamer, Siegen) to Catholicism, the imperial councillor Vitus Georg Thönemann always appeared with the same steadfastness and justice and encouraged no evil machinations. Political relations to dukes and principalities were improved due to him and his clear manner in confidential negotiations. “The Kaiser with his sensitive piety had made a habit of the following: if a difficult legal dispute, in which the legal position was completely undecided, was referred to the highest court of appeal, then he took a look through the papers, with an added hand-written note, in which he warned him, regardless of political considerations to state his opinion, which seemed to him to be right. He used to do this with the greatest precision, in blameless execution, with knowledge and such great discretion so that he moved the big things, but remained unknown as mover. In order to keep his personal independence, he moved between the disputing parties, without which no court state can be, exactly in the middle, so that neither could assume he was fonder of them, and likewise nobody could complain at being disadvantaged.” (eulogy..)

According to his mission, Pater Vitus Georg undertook especially also the needs and wishes of the church. “Almost no petition of Catholic interest of any ecclesiastical position came to the imperial court without turning to him as intercessor and mediator.” Also the papal chair in Rome first of all contacted the imperial councillor and Pater in important matters. (e.g. Pope Clemens XI or Pope Benedict XIII).
Thus it came about that the imperial confessor became “the refuge of bishops, monasteries and missions”. It was also thanks to him that the Paderborn Jesuits again got possession of Büren and Falkenhagen. Therefore in his obituary the province of the Austrian order and the monastery at Freiburg, which had lost lands in Alsace in the wars with France praised him. “The mercy of the sovereign remained undiminished for him, he liked him more and more, and as often as he mentioned him, he spoke of him in no other way as of “his Thönemann”. The general opinion concerning his capability, the worthiness of his behaviour, the bearing radiating earnestness, his winning humanity, the weight of his words and his unpretentiousness, all that brought him admiration in the whole court”.

His composure:
Kind-heartedness – tolerance – incorruptibility

It is said in a statement about his charity and kind-heartedness: “Innumerable are those whom he again gave life lost by a court judgement through his request to the kind Kaiser or whom he helped in the struggle for reputation and honour. He helped nobles who got into need by support, others whose fortune had been used up by legal disputes dragging on for decades, he helped by expediting the court case. He especially took widows and orphans under his wing. He used to act like a father with them”.

The spiritual greatness summoned up by this ingenious man in his religious tolerance is really worthy of admiration. The scope of his view and of his decision was far ahead of his time and contemporaries, by centuries. For this tolerance was no empty talk, but an irrevocable decision based on fact. An example of this: as the government of Saxony forced the founder of the Herrenhuter community of brothers (a religious community devoted to piety – evangelical brotherly church) Graf Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (born on 26.5.1700 in Dresden, died on 9.5.1760 in Herrenhut), “for the will of the cry of evangelical theology” to leave the country with his brothers, he fled to Mähren; from there he turned in his great need to the well-known confessor to the Kaiser in Vienna; Thönemann arranged the matter, took care of him and his people so well that Zinzendorf declared, “he will keep an everlasting memory of him for this”.
As a second example for an ecumenical attitude of Dr Vitus Georg Thönemann may be the efforts the very foresighted man took in the interests of religious peace: Archbishop Leopold of Salzburg, based on the decisions of the Augsburg religious peace, forced his subjects who did not want to profess to the same faith practised by him to leave the country. This incident caused a stir in the whole of Europe. Pater Thönemann did his utmost to prevent this evil order of the ruler. In Salzburg he arranged for the emigrants to be granted what they were entitled to according to imperial law. “The efforts in the interests of the evangelical Salzburgers will also be a credit in the history of our great relative” (Dr. Thöne).

From a report of the British envoy to Vienna to Lord Townshand in London of 17th December 1721 can be seen that there were only three people at the imperial court who were totally inaccessible to bribery (which was customary at the time), namely Prince Eugen von Sayoyen, the court chamber President Graf Gundacker von Starhemberg and the Kaiser‘s confessor, the Jesuit Thönemann. The statement is indeed doubly honourable, on the one hand, to be mentioned in the same breath with the leading general and statesman of the Austria of the time, if not even of Europe, on the other, in a time of daily, obvious and boundless corruption to stand like a steady rock in a raging surf for right and justice. This was an exemplary person.

Vitus Georg was a person who was driven to work by an untiring zeal; he seemed to feed on strain and to relax from it; in order not to let the briefest moment slip away idly, he turned to his desk or to prayer immediately after lunch without allowing himself a breather, and he never refreshed his strength by a short nap. This was only the external, official side of Pater Vitus Georg; his inner beauty, the nobility of his pious soul will have been much more impressive.

“The higher the position he reached, the deeper the roots of a real humility in him reached; he was never heard talking about the favour of the sovereign or about matters which he had carried out gloriously; when others began in this way, he broke the unwelcome conversation off immediately and showed how foreign such vanity was to him. There was nothing decorative or valuable in his room except for the jewellery of pure poverty and of honest praise that his noble visitors gave him, who could not express enough surprise at the excellent modesty of this pious courtier.” (eulogy)

“The following is really worthy of mention: during all the years he had to spend at the court in Laxenburg, where all the joys of spring were sacrificed, he did not get away from the house once in order to take part in the royal falcon hunt or to go for a walk in the nearby woods in the evening. In the city he behaved himself in the same way; although the court coach was always at hand, he only used it to go to the court and to the houses of the lords and ministers, never to go out of the city in order to go for a walk or to breathe fresh air, thus it was that although he had lived such a long time in Vienna, he remained almost a stranger there. He barred himself even more from going to theatre performances, although he was invited by the Kaiser himself, which were staged in Vienna in the grandest fashion, and he never attended one; in this way he avoided the temptations of the wealthy life and did not deprive useful activities of useful hours.” (eulogy)

The relationship of the Kaiser to Pater Vitus Georg

Is it surprising that in the case of such honourable behaviour that the Kaiser and his whole family were truly fond of this great man of honour? Moreover there was also total harmony in theological and religious questions. The Kaiser attended the holy mass of the priest – for more than thirty years – and received the sacraments only from his hand. Vitus Georg should have been promoted to the highest ecclesiastical positions of honour, but Kaiser Karl could not part from him. The priest in his modesty refused all high honours and awards.

Pater Vitus Georg Thönemann presented his home church, the Nikolai-Kirche in Höxter with a valuable monstrance. There is a dove at the top of the monstrance, on the left of the showcase Christ ascending to Heaven and on the right Mary with the infant Jesus and below God the Father.
In the base there are four medals with Nikolaus, Franz Xaverius, Ignatius of Loyola and Vitus. The bottom of the base bears the following engraving:
VITVS GEORGIVS TÖNNEMAN SOCIETATIS IESV SACERDOS DEDIT ECCLESIAE AD S · NICOLAVM HVXARIAE · SINT ILLIVS MEMORES IN OMNI BENEDICTIONE SPIRITVALIThe letters in the Latin inscription are of different sizes. The bigger letters also indicate numbers. They have to be added up in order to establish the year the monstrance was made.

(Photo: Rainer Ante 2001)

On the day of his golden jubilee as a priest, which was held two years late because Vitus Georg so strictly refused it, but finally the Kaiser commanded it, the whole royal family celebrated with him in the court chapel of Laxenburg. Numerous guests of honour, including Cardinal Sigismund von Kollowitsch from Hungary and the Venetian envoy took part. After the celebration Vitus gave all those present the priestly blessing – and it is reported – Kaiser Karl and Father Thönemann faced each other silently for a time, moved and with tears in their eyes.

At the royal lunch attended by the Kaiser and all the highest officials of the court, Durius, the imperial chamberlain and attendant of the private treasury of the Kaiser, handed a golden commemorative coin over to the surprised and perplexed Vitus Georg. It was decorated with numerous diamonds and the picture of the Kaiser; with sincere words he passed on the thanks of his majesty for the loyal services. Also the general of the order of the Jesuits wished luck and blessing to this honourable distinction, “whereby the Kaiser wanted the whole world to know how highly he appreciated your spiritual services over so many years. About the valuable commemorative coin, which he hung around your Grace, you cannot use for any other purpose than what the Kaiser determined, namely for your family, which I give you total permission to do”. Unfortunately this valuable piece is no longer available.

The End of Pater Vitus Georg – crucifix to the Kaiser

On 14 th March 1740 Kaiser Karl VI, visited the aged priest, dying of bronchial catarrh, alone in order to take leave of his trusted servant who had stood at his side in such an exemplary way for 34 years. Sitting in the poor cell on the bed of the patient, the Kaiser spoke with the beloved priest for over an hour.
On his departure the priest – with death approaching – gave his kind and beloved sovereign a present of his crucifix in his memory, which the Kaiser took with great emotion as a last memory out of the hand of the doomed person like a valuable present. Seven months later on his deathbed the Kaiser clutched this crucifix until his last gasp. The Kaiser is supposed to have said to Pater Vitus Georg on his departure that he would follow him into eternity quite soon. Three hours after this conversation with the Kaiser, the patient choked on his deadly phlegm and returned his gentle soul to his maker. Thus Pater Thönemann ended his wise life on 14.3.1740 with a wise death.

On his return to the court, the Kaiser confirmed that if the loss of a person had ever hurt him deeply it was the loss of this man. Pater Vitus Georg was ceremoniously buried in the tomb of the Profeßhaus (house of the novices) in Vienna. Kaiser Karl VI died on 20th October 1740 at the age of 56 after a 30-year reign. With him the male line of the glorious Habsburg family was extinguished.

The procurator of the province of the Austrian order Pater Michael Bliemel wrote on 16.3.1740 to the procurator of all Germany:
“Yesterday we lost a great credit and pillar of society, Pater Vitus Thönemann, a man of immortal merit in connection with the church, the whole society and our province, whose death is lamented by everybody but by nobody more than by the Kaiser.”

Without question our relative was suited to this high position with the Kaiser in Vienna – like no other. His innate kindness, his universal education, connected with his immense energy and straightness, on top of that his reliability, coupled with absolute faithfulness and incorruptibility, were the clear signs for the suitability of this distinguished personality. Due to his origins and upbringing, any arrogance, exaggerated opinion of himself and favouritism were totally foreign to him. He loved simplicity and modesty, was happy with his simple and busy life. The general of the order had to warn him repeatedly not to endanger his health through overly strict fasting. This superior of the order also had to keep him from leaving the imperial court with its underhanded intrigues, as such behaviour did not correspond to his nature, his deep piety and broad-minded tolerance.

Nikolai Church in Höxter, the former parish church, received as a present from Pater Thönemann a valuable keepsake, a magnificent chalice and a monstrance. These beautifully worked splendid rococo specimens are an expression of the great goldsmiths‘ art of the time.

This handmade chalice was likewise left to Nikolai Church in Höxter by Pater Vitus Georg. The chalice has three pictures: crucifixion group – Anthony with the child Jesus – Vitus.

The engraved writing on the bottom of the base says:
The letters in the Latin inscription are of different sizes. The bigger letters also indicate numbers. They have to be added up in order to establish the year the chalice was made.

(Photo: Rainer Ante 2001)

The order had a portrait of this great Jesuit painted for the college in Paderborn.
From Vienna Pater Vitus Georg made the Jesuit residence in Büren a donation of 1,000 gold guilders (Herrschaft Büren, file 705 state archives Münster).
He was a good example for us all.
Should such personalities not live in our times too, who are a model for our children?
We need them very much.

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