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Austrian town finds its hermit after international search

April 20, 2017

THERE’S no running water, electricity or pay but 50 people from around the world still applied to be one of Europe’s last hermits. Now there is a winner, Austrian officials said on Wednesday.

“We opted for Stan Vanuytrecht because his personality appealed to us. He radiates calm and comes across as well-anchored,” said Erich Rohrmoser, mayor of Saalfelden near Salzburg in the west.

Vanuytrecht, a divorced, Trabant-driving former artillery officer, surveying technician and Catholic deacon from Belgium with a white beard and a pipe, said he was surprised to be chosen.

“I thought I didn’t have a chance,” the Austria Press Agency quoted the 58-year-old retiree as saying. “When I read about the Saalfelden hermitage I thought to myself: that’s the place for me.”

Although the spartan 350-year-old hermitage is built into a cliff above the town, the job doesn’t offer total solitude. People often hike up to enjoy the view and sometimes to confide in the hermit.

But Vanuytrecht said that he believes his previous experience working with the homeless, alcoholics, drugs addicts, prisoners and psychiatric patients will stand him in good stead. “It’s important just to listen without talking oneself and without judging,” he said. His ex-wife’s mental illness and the poverty he experienced after their divorce also taught him important lessons, he said.

His predecessor, former priest and psychotherapist Thomas Fieglmueller, returned to Vienna after just one season — the hermitage is only open from April to November — to write.

“Life in the hermit’s cell is spartan but the nature is very beautiful. I met lots of nice people and had good conversations,” he told the Salzburger Nachrichten daily.

“But there was also criticism from apparently arch-conservative Catholics because I didn’t have a cowl or a beard,” Fie­glmueller said. Vanuytrecht starts work on April 30.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2017