The first time that „Stambs“ was mentioned in an official document was in 1065 AD, long before the abbey was founded. It was then known for its pilgrimage church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, not far from the current parish church.
Some two hundred years later, Count Meinhard II of Görz-Tyrol made a decision that was to bring fame to the small and insignificant village. His aim was to found and build an abbey the main function of which was to provide a place of burial for the Tyrolean rulers.
A famous legend, on the other hand, implies that the Abbey of Stams was founded at the request of Meinhard’s wife Elisabeth. Her son Konradin had been executed in Merano five years earlier and she might have wanted a monument built for him.
In the year of foundation, 1273, a first, small convent moved in. They were monks from Kaisheim, a Bavarian abbey.
Meinhard had secured privileges and land for the abbey and it soon prospered and flourished. He and his wife were the first Tyrolean aristocrats to be buried there.
It did not take long for Stams to become a place of economic and political importance. It was not until the 16th century that the first severe problems had to be handled.
The abbey was pillaged in the course of peasant revolts, devastated by a war and eventually burnt down in 1593. From around 1650 to 1750, it was rebuilt in baroque style and a much lighter basilica replaced the previous romanesque one. The distinctive onion-domed towers completed the striking appearance of the new abbey, which has largely remained the same ever since.
Abbot Thomas Luga is said to have founded the convent school and by the end of the 18th century, the abbey also ran a choir school for boys. It was Jospeh II, the most famous proponent of enlightened abolsutism among Austria’s emperors, who brought an end to this period of flourish. In 1807, the abbey was dissolved, but it was re-established by his successor just nine years later.
The next severe crisis came in 1938, when Stams was occupied by National Socialist troops. The abbey was once again dissolved in 1939. The padres underwent ill-treatment for the next few years: they were questionned, imprisoned and driven to exile for no reasons at all.
After the war, a number of monks from Yugoslavia took refuge in Stams and thus helped to re-establish the abbey in very little time. Among them was Bernhard Slovsa, who initiated a broad renovation of the abbey when he was abbot in the 1970s and 80s and it soon became a site for political events and a travel destination for important visitors.