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Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn
Echter von Mespelbrunn, Julius, Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, b. March 15, 1545, in the Castle of Mespelbrunn, Spessart (Bavaria); d. September 13, 1617, at Würzburg. Descended from an ancient family in the service of the archbishops of Mainz, he received a good education in the schools of that city, also at Louvain, Douai, Paris, Angers, Pavia, and Rome; it was in Rome that he became a licentiate of canon and civil law. In 1567 he entered on his duties as canon of Würzburg, an office to which he had been appointed in 1554; in 1570 he became dean of the cathedral chapter, and in 1573, at the age of twenty-eight, even before his ordination to the priesthood, was appointed Prince-Bishop of Würzburg. Various causes had combined to bring the diocese into a sad state. Deeply in debt and poorly administered, it had an almost entirely Protestant population. The clergy, in point of virtue and learning, were for the most part unequal to their task, and the cathedral chapter was adverse to any ecclesiastical reform. During the first ten years of Echter's government the attempt to unite the Abbey of Fulda and the Bishopric of Würzburg, after the deposition of the Prince-Abbot Balthasar von Dernbach, caused much confusion. This was due to the youthful ambition of Echter, and not, as some wish to interpret it, a sign of any anti-Catholic sentiments on his part. From the outset he endeavored to carry out a thorough ecclesiastical restoration. For this reason he encouraged, as far as possible, the Jesuits and promoted their beneficent ministry. In the same spirit he conceived the plan of founding a university at Würzburg, and despite all difficulties it was solemnly opened (January 2, 1582) and became a model for all similar Counter-Reformation institutions. Under the Jesuits it flourished, grew rapidly, and furnished the see with the priests and officials needed to counterbalance the more or less irreligious temper of the population. The bishop was now able to take decisive steps against Protestantism. He banished all Lutheran preachers from his territory and removed all priests who were unwilling to observe the rules of their office. The public officials had to be Catholics, and none but Catholic teachers could be appointed. He began, moreover, courses of careful instruction for non-Catholics, and to some extent threatened them with penalties and even with banishment. Within three years about 100,000 returned to the Catholic Church. Public worship was also improved by the introduction of new devotions, processions, and the establishment of confraternities. Bishop Echter restored ruinous monasteries or devoted their revenues to the erection of new parishes and to the building of three hundred new churches. The tapering towers of these churches, called after the bishop "Julius towers", still preserve his memory. His most beneficial and lasting monument, after the university, is the Julius Hospital, which he founded with the endowment of the abandoned monastery of Heiligenthal. By skillful administration he improved the decadent economic conditions of his ecclesiastical states, reduced taxes, perfected the administration of justice, and established many primary schools. In a word, he proved himself one of the most capable rulers of his time. Not only in his own diocese did he display an extraordinary and varied activity, but as the founder and soul of the Catholic League, he exercised a decisive influence on the future of Germany.