By Evan Wing
Most people today have no idea that the Catholic Church was the first Western institution to provide hospitals and housing for the poor.(For an example of a medieval Catholic hospital, click here.)
The Fuggerei, a walled village within the Bavarian city of Augsburg, is considered the oldest still-operating social housing program in the world. It is over 500 years old.
Founded by the wealthy Fugger family in 1516, the Fuggerei was built to be a place where the disabled, homeless, and disenfranchised of the city could find refuge.
The rent today is the same as it was in 1516: a single Gulden (about 0.88 Euro) per year. Residents also pay “rent” through daily prayer for the souls of the Fugger family, which still owns the village: the minimum requisite is one Our Father, one Glory Be, and one Nicene Creed daily. Latin Mass is celebrated at least once daily, and usually more than once.
The conditions for residence are also the same as they were in 1516: one must be a practicing Roman Catholic or seriously desirous of entering the Church, have lived in Augsburg for at least two years, and be homeless or facing homelessness through no fault of one’s own.
The Fuggerei earns most of the revenue it needs to survive through donations, tourism, and the sale of Christmas trees. Of particular interest are the elaborately carved door knockers on every apartment door; upon receiving a large influx of blind residents, Jakob Fugger (the original founder) ordered every house to have its own uniquely-shaped knocker; this way, blind tenants could find their house just by feeling the door.
A statue of Saint Michael, dating to the 1530s, still stands guard over the main gate; in World War II, a bunker was built for the residents beneath the streets of the Fuggerei; today the bunker is used as a storehouse and houses a small museum.
Though technically within the municipality of Augsburg, the Fuggerei has all of the trappings of an independent city: a flag and coat of arms, a unique postal code, an independently functioning city council, municipal services such as street sweepers and mailmen, and even a tiny police force and fire department.
The five gates are still closed at the traditional curfew hour of 10:00 PM every night.