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Wanted In Switzerland: Um, A *Sociable* Hermit

The St. Varena Hermitage is trying to recruit a new hermit to oversee see its chapels, but the job description raises a dilemma: how to find a recluse who can schmooze with visitors.

The hermit's residence at St. Varena Hermitage in Switzerland
The hermit's residence at St. Varena Hermitage in Switzerland
Elisalex Henckel

When Verena Dubacher was chosen in January 2009 for her last job, there was a lot of excitement around the announcement. She was the first woman in 600 years to be awarded the hermit position at St. Varena Hermitage in Switzerland, which dates from the 17th century.

The 63-year-old religion teacher didn’t care for all the hoopla, but having been chosen filled her with joy. It was a dream come true, she said in front of all the cameras and microphones suddenly focused on her. “I hope the stillness, meditation and wonderful natural surroundings will add depth and vitality to my relationship with God,” she said then.

She then moved into St. Varena Hermitage in the Verenaschlucht canyon in the Swiss city of Solothurn. The reporters who went along to cover the move assumed that she’d be spending the rest of her life there. But five years on, she’s turned in the key and moved to a retirement home, citing “health reasons.”

The task of finding a replacement for Dubacher falls to Sergio Wyniger, president of the Bürgergemeinde Solothurn, an entity that manages several properties, including the hermitage. That this is no easy task is clear from the recruitment ad, which says that they are looking for a “hermit, male or female” who “enjoys contact with people” — in other words, a walking contradiction.

It’s not lost on Wyniger. “It’s the dilemma of the St. Verena Hermitage,” he says. On the one hand, the hermit has must embrace the solitude through the cold winters and long nights in the canyon. On the other hand, an increasing number of people want to visit the hermitage — sometimes to celebrate a marriage or baptism, sometimes just to light a candle. Many of them are also looking for somebody to offer spiritual advice. Over the years, the hermitage has become the most-visited excursion site in the Solothurn area — and the hermit living there is a big part of the attraction.

[rebelmouse-image 27087965 alt="""" original_size="640x479" expand=1]One of the churches at St. Varena Hermitage — Photo: Baikonur via Wikipedia

Finding the right recluse

Verena Dubacher, a farmer’s daughter, was chosen in 2009 because she possessed both theological (her education was in theology) and practical abilities. Until her unexpected retirement, she was very capable in her role. In fact, people regarded her as highly committed to it.

“The Bürgergemeinde valued her marked sense of order and the care in keeping the canyon and both the St. Verena and St. Martin chapels in good, clean condition,” the Solothurner Zeitung wrote after she left. She made sure the rules governing the canyon, which is a protected natural site, were obeyed — dogs couldn’t be let off the leash, and bikes had to be walked, for example. But she also had an open ear for anybody who wanted to talk or were hoping for some sort of consolation.

But “the increasing number of weddings, religious services, and other events” and the to-do about her personally became so overwhelming that she started spending her weekly day off at a nearby cloister. Sergio Wyniger told a regional TV channel that “she really preferred to be alone.”

Apparently, Verena Dubacher wasn’t the first hermit who missed some peace and quiet. According to Neue Zürcher Zeitung, her predecessor had also apparently expressed concern about this. The newspaper suggested that, instead of a hermit, perhaps a caretaker might be more suitable for the job, which requires the upkeep of two chapels, the pathways and fences, and janitor services before and after baptism and wedding ceremonies.

But Sergio Wyniger has no intention of changing the job description. The janitorial duties are just part of the job, he says. What’s more important is that the hermit pass on the legend of Saint Verena and be prepared to listen to people’s problems. There are no formal conditions to be met, but candidates should be Christian.

The compensation package for the job is free board at the hermitage — a small (25 square meters) house with a garden, running water and electrical current, but no landline connection — as well as a monthly stipiend of about 820 euros. “That’s not enough for a family or to lead a life of luxury,” says Wyniger, “but it’s fine for somebody who’s already getting a pension or doesn’t need a lot to get by on.”

So far, 40 candidates — about a fifth of them German — have sent applications to Wyniger. He isn’t currently in a position to say anything about the candidates’ backgrounds, he says, because he is accepting applications until May 5. The decision should be made by council vote by the end of May or beginning of June so that the hermitage is occupied once again before the summer season rolls around.

Verena Dubacher won’t be present either during the vote or to show her successor the ropes. When she left, she asked not to be contacted. She wants to find the space that she’d initially hoped to find when she accepted the job of hermit.

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