St. Nicholas’church and friary were erected for the Dominican Order, brought to Toruń by the Teutonic Order in 1263. They were then endowed by Great Master Anno von Sangerhausen with a construction site to the east of the mill stream. In another document from 1264, the great master allowed the convent to move to this place, with the proviso, however, that the Dominicans did not put their buildings too close to the Teutonic castle. It was probably not a literal move, but the inclusion of the monastery plot within the newly planned New Town of Toruń, officially founded a few months later.
The construction of brick buildings of the convent began in 1265 at the latest, as evidenced by a forty-day indulgence granted by the Chełmno bishop Fryderick, intended to bring income to finance construction works. The Dominicans, despite obtaining the right to fish in all rivers and lakes of Toruń, lived mainly from donations from the congregation. Another indulgence, announced for the same purpose, was organized a year later by the bishop of Kujawy, Wolimir. The first friary church could have been ready before 1285, because in the indulgence organized this year by Archbishop Jakub Świnka, or in subsequent privileges of this type for Toruń Dominicans, there were no calls for generosity for construction works. The erection of the most important cloister buildings was probably completed before 1276, i.e. after the completion of the construction of the defensive walls of the New Town, to which the monastery buildings adjoined.
Around the second decade of the fourteenth century, the Dominicans began building a new, more magnificent church. It is not known how long it lasted, only the indulgence letter of the bishop of Chełmno Otto from 1334 indicated that the choir and sacristy were not yet finished due to the financial problems of the convent resulting from the war. The bishop’s exhortations had to have the desired effect, because the new chancel was built before 1339, when Prior John the White committed himself to holding services for members of the Redzey family. In the following years, numerous altars were also recorded in written sources. Among others, in 1343, when the Sambian bishop granted an indulgence to the praying in front of the altar of St. Augustine. It is not certain, however, whether it was related to the completion of the construction of only the eastern part of the church or also the nave. It seems that the construction of the latter was carried out until the second half of the fourteenth century, until around 1383, when works of the cloister vaults adjacent to the church were mentioned.
The monastery buildings were damaged many times as a result of wars, fires and lightning strikes. The entire friary burned down in a fire in 1423, and in 1598 the church was struck by lightning. In 1648, it was necessary to renovate the side aisle and built vaults in three southern chapels. During the siege of the town in 1658, the area belonging to the Dominicans was shelled, while in 1685 a fire broke out in the church, destroying the new organ. Another war devastation took place during the siege of Toruń by the Swedes in 1703. In 1709, another lightning damaged the church and injured the people, and in 1764 a fire that broke out in the monastery buildings moved to the church. The next destruction was the result of the sieges of 1809 and 1813, after which the buildings were rebuilt for the last time. When the order was dissolved in 1820, in the following years the monastery buildings were demolished, the church was set up as a warehouse, and in 1834 it was finally pulled down.
The friary was located in the north-west corner of the New Town of Toruń, in the immediate vicinity of the defensive walls, from the north facing the foreground of the town, and on the west side facing towards the moat, behind which was the line of the Old Town wall. The northern part of the complex was a courtyard surrounded by cloister and friary buildings, while the southern part was a monastery church, facing the southern façade towards a small square, with which the Pauline Gate connecting both Toruń towns was linked. The monastery area was separated from the streets and town buildings by a low wall.
It is not known what the oldest monastery church from the 13th century looked like, except for the fact that in the corners its eastern end was reinforced with diagonal buttresses. On this basis, it is assumed that the oldest chancel had a rectangular plan of about 20 meters long and was divided into two square bays. The nave was probably already two-aisle at that time, although probably narrower and lower than the later one.
The friary church from the fourteenth century was a two-aisle hall with an elongated, polygonally ended chancel, about 26.5 meters long, which was placed on the axis of the northern aisle, not on the line of pillars. The northern aisle was about 40 meters long with five bays. The slightly narrower south aisle from the east ended with a polygonal chapel of St. Jack. Both aisles were covered with a common, high gable roof, and from the west they were closed with an atypical, oblique wall, due to the mill stream flowing there. From the outside, the body of the building was clasped with buttresses reaching the crown of the walls, set more densely in the chancel than in the nave. In the middle of the eastern gable of the nave was an octagonal turret 49 meters high, the other gable adorned the nave from the west. The interior of the church was almost 21 meters high. In the nave, this space was separated by four octagonal pillars supporting the vaults, with smooth stems and finials in the form of stepped bands, while the chancel from the west was preceded by a rood screen located on the axis of the eastern wing of the monastery. The rood screen separated the part of the church accessible to the laity (nave) from the part accessible only to monks (choir and presbytery).
Since the church could not be expanded on the south side due to the street, in the second half of the fourteenth century, the original northern wall of the nave was pierced and the former southern cloister of the convent was included in the church, keeping its original height. The cloister was topped with a five-support vault, and after being incorporated into the body of the church, it obtained the form of a series of interconnected chapels. A row of rectangular, low chapels was also added to the southern facade of the church, and after the old cloister was incorporated into the church, a new one was built on the southern side of the monastery courtyard.
The factor influencing the irregular, two-aisle layout of the Dominican church in Toruń, similarly to other Mendicant churches throughout Europe, was the limited size and shape of building plots. Dominicans and also Franciscans were usually brought to already functioning towns, which made it usually impossible to obtain a full, regular land for development. In addition, the ground was often received piece by piece at considerable intervals, which naturally influenced the complex construction history. At the origins of the Mendicant, asymmetrical two-aisle churches, there were also buildings that originated from semi-secular architecture. The oldest two-aisle halls adapted for liturgical purposes the type of interior that previously appeared mainly in refectories, chapter houses and hospitals (eg the Dominican church in Paris transformed from the hospital of St. James). The last important reason for the irregularity of the churches could be the deliberate abandonment of regular, spatially ordered plans by the Mendicant monks. It could have been a deliberate demonstration, a manifestation of architectural modesty (as well as the limitation of the vaults’ shafts and the preference for smooth, inarticulate planes of the walls), showing that the monks did not care about the traditional monumentality of their churches, which were to be primarily functional, and only impressive in terms of mass.
The monastery buildings surrounded with cloisters on the northern side of the church a quadrilateral courtyard. The entire length of the chancel was adjacent to the sacristy, and between them there were two more small rooms interpreted as penitential cells. Further to the north there was a two-aisle chapel, perhaps the original chapter house, above two similar elongated rooms, of which one had passages, and in the corner of the eastern and northern wings, a square refectory. It adjoined the kitchen and other rooms of the northern range and the mill. In the west wing, located closest to the mill stream, there had to be latrines, while its southern part was the chapel of St. Catherine, illuminated by three large pointed windows.
Dominican friary and St. Nicholas’church, apart from a few relics and fragments of the foundation walls, unfortunately, has not survived. It was undoubtedly one of the most interesting Gothic sacral buildings in the Chełmno region, therefore its senseless demolition in 1834 is a great loss not only because of the importance of the convent for the history of the town, but also because of its monumental, complex and interesting form that shaped the former Toruń.
Adamski J., Kościół dominikanów w Toruniu i niesymetryczne korpusy mendykanckie w Środkowej Europie [w:] Dzieje i skarby dominikańskiego kościoła pw. św. Mikołaja w Toruniu, red. K. Kluczwajd, Toruń 2017.
Grzeszkiewicz-Kotlewska L., Kotlewski L., Kościół dominikański pw. św. Mikołaja w Toruniu, Toruń 1997.
Mroczko T., Architektura gotycka na ziemi chełmińskiej, Warszawa 1980.