God only knows what will happen to all the surplus churches

For hundreds of churches in Switzerland the question is whether they should be demolished, sold, rented out or put to a completely different use. These surplus churches are tangible proof of the rapid change in Switzerland’s religious landscape. And this raises new questions: is the church in the village centre just a place of worship, or something more?

How simple things used to be in Switzerland. Everyone was either Catholic or Reformed. Everyone paid church taxes. Almost everyone attended church services. Up until the 1970s. And today? Only six out of ten inhabitants are still Catholic or Reformed. The free churches have increased in popularity. Every twentieth person professes Islam. And those with no religious affiliation, who have turned their backs on the once powerful national churches – especially the Reformed Church – now account for 25 % of the population.

Things are particularly tough for the parishes in the large, traditionally Reformed cities. In the city of Bern, for example, the number of Reformed Church members has shrunk by over a third in the last 30 years alone, from around 84,000 to just under 52,000. But the churches and other church properties are still the same size. Maintenance costs are as high as ever. In Bern, the Reformed Church has long since sounded the alarm: if nothing changes, it was said five years ago, the equity capital would be used up within a very short time and the church would be declared bankrupt.

Since then the talk has been about how the church should cut its coat according to its cloth. The solution proposed is that it should invest in people rather than in walls – in other words, spend money on establishing a church community that impresses people through its work rather than preserving impressive but barely used buildings. The first step is obvious: the 12 parishes in Bern are tasked with halving their building expenses.

Surrender the church?

But churches, parish houses and rectories cannot be replaced as easily as clothes. Especially not the churches. Beatrice Tobler and Franziska Huber, the president and vice-president of the Paulus parish, know this only too well. One of them is a lawyer, the other a theologian. The Paulus Church, which was consecrated in 1905, is not just any place of worship. It is regarded as one of the most important Art Nouveau churches in Switzerland. “We are sitting in a national monument with a high conservation value,” says Beatrice Tobler, “this church is a complete work of art”. Nevertheless, there is a proposal to give up the church and move the parishioners to another church in the city. Give up this church? “No”, the two women say in unison. Church life also needs “large and dignified rooms”. They have other ideas. They are looking for a forward strategy.

Johannes Stückelberger’s workplace is not far from the Paulus Church. The art historian is a lecturer at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Bern and is regarded as the expert for all things regarding the conversion of churches. He is the one who established the Swiss Church Construction Day, which arouses great interest. Strictly speaking, it was originally a Church Dismantling Day, since the first conferences in 2015 and 2017 focused on the question of how churches can be converted. Even the third meeting in 2019 will not be able to avoid the question. “This is an issue that is currently topical in Switzerland,” says Stückelberger.

“A strongly increasing trend”

But it hasn’t been for long, it must be said. In countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain it has been virulent for decades. In Switzerland, the trend to convert was initially curbed by the complex financing of the national churches, which was interlocked with the state. Nevertheless, in the last 25 years alone around 200 churches, chapels and monasteries have been used for other purposes. This is shown in Stückelberger’s database. But not every conversion project is made public. The expert therefore assumes that in the meantime “many more buildings are involved and there is a strongly increasing trend”.

So, what are good ideas for dealing with surplus churches and what are bad ones? Demolition, sale, renting out and extended use: according to Stückelberger, these are the possibilities at the moment. So far, the demolition of Catholic or Reformed churches remains an exception though. Buildings from the post-war era that are in need of renovation and not yet listed as historical monuments are candidates for demolition. One such exception is St. Mark’s Church in Basel. In the near future, demolition work will commence.

On the other hand, a considerable number of the 200 places of worship recorded in the database, about 70, have been sold. These include a noticeably large number of Methodist and New Apostolic chapels. If such a chapel is transformed into a residential building or a concert hall, it does not spark a major debate, since it does not greatly change the neighbourhood. If, however, a very large church is under consideration, things are different and can also go badly wrong. This is what happened to the St. Leonhard Church in St. Gallen, an urban landmark. It has been closed for 13 years and is a bone of contention.

Addressing the non-religious

The remaining churches were either rented out or given extended use. Stückelberger’s recommendations also clearly point in this direction. It is an advantage if a parish remains in possession of its church and thus stays involved, he says. If it is possible to make it available to outsiders this sends a “strong signal” for the development of the church as an institution, showing that activities that not only benefit the church population are taking place under its roof. According to Stückelberger, “Churches must open themselves up to a non-religious society and show that they are not giving up on themselves”.

He sees the Maihof Church in Lucerne as a prime example of this. It was also in need of renovation. However, the parish decided to combine pastoral care and neighbourhood work. The church space is now a multifunctional hall. According to Stückelberg, such spaces do not aim at winning back believers and thus taxpayers: “It has to do with the overall social mission of the churches”.

Multifunctionality seems to be the keyword. And when Beatrice Tobler and Franziska Huber talk about the future of the Paulus Church in Bern, they also envision multifunctional premises. On the one hand, they would like to give up their unfortunately somewhat remote but very busy parish hall and build a versatile “house for the neighbourhood” directly next to the church. This would concentrate parish life locally. They are also pursuing a forward strategy for the church building itself: If the church were to be used by several partners – “while sharing all costs”, as the specification reads – then the continued operation would be an option. However, Beatrice Tobler doubts whether a profitable use would be possible in the case of the church, as it presumably would be in the case of the neighbourhood house outlined above, thanks in part to rented apartments.

The nave as a lecture hall?

Despite the doubts and difficulties, there are ideas. One of them concerns the expanding university in Switzerland’s capital. It is in need of large rooms. “This could be an opportunity,” says Beatrice Tobler. “We would have a reliable tenant. It would be more than just a drop in the bucket.” The question is whether the medical faculty could use the nave as a lecture hall. Franziska Huber does not consider this a problem. On the contrary, it would close the circle. She says education is “ultra reformed” and to some extent part of the reformed heritage. In addition, the first universities emerged from ecclesiastical institutions, from monastic and cathedral schools.

But objections have already been made. For example, would it be reasonable for students of other faiths to study in a Christian church? Theologian Huber shakes her head over this question. Reformed church spaces are theoretically, unlike Catholic church spaces, only considered sacred spaces when a congregation holds church services in them. And the lawyer Tobler says: “Students are grown up and can deal with it.” The case would be quite different if non-Christian schoolchildren were to be taught in a church.

She sees the biggest obstacles elsewhere: the church interior is not designed to be heated continuously – especially the organ, which is highly sensitive to the indoor climate. And the pews are unsuitable for lecture hall seating arrangements. But here too, the optimism of the two women is evident. They believe these problems can be solved. The department of monument preservation is open to concrete projects. “Abandoning the church and letting it decay is not in their interest either,” says Tobler.

These words could come from Johannes Stückelberger. He says that much more is possible than is generally assumed regarding church conversions. There are churches, for example in Olten or Schaffhausen, in which offices and a kitchen were installed and the parish hall given up. Of course, there is always a balancing of priorities, “but one must not forget to add the symbolic value of a church building to the equation”. A church has potential and is a “spiritual asset”. Making the church brand visible in public works much better with a church than with a parish hall. He therefore advises church representatives to seek dialogue with the public more often: “They must make it an issue that is talked about and show what is possible in their premises”.

These could in turn be the words of Franziska Huber. It runs counter to her image of the church when churches seek self-preservation on their own account, she says. She speaks of a break with tradition, which has taken place in many areas: “There are many children who are no longer religiously socialised.” Now it is important to prevent the connection from breaking, she says. Churches opening their doors to everyone would be a logical step. “If a person comes to us, eats with us or worships with us, it doesn’t matter what their motives are.”

The church as a structural manifestion

Church spaces for everyone, although “everyone” no longer means the same as it used to – that no longer sounds like “only Reformed” or “only Catholic”. Rather, it sounds like interreligious “open churches” or so-called city churches, which already exist in several Swiss cities. And this is reminiscent of what Jean-Daniel Gross, a curator of historical monuments in Bern, noted on the first Church Construction Day: Churches should not be understood exclusively as symbols of the Christian religion. They are – in a very broad sense and independent of religious feelings – places of identification. They must be seen as “structural manifestations of a centre of whatever kind in our society”, he said. “Deep in our subconscious minds, we consider them to be guarantors of social, cultural and spiritual stability.”

Swiss churches that are no longer traditional churches (only in German).

Dölf Barben is an editor with the newspaper “Der Bund” in Bern.

Exemplary solution: Maihof Church Lucerne

The Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Lucerne’s Maihof neighbourhood, which was built in 1941, has undergone a unique renovation. Instead of renovating the parish centre as usual, the church leadership decided to adapt the building to the needs of the residents of the neighbourhood and the city. In the church, whose pews have been removed, it is now possible to hold meetings, exhibitions, concerts, seminars and banquets in addition to church services. A kindergarten and a playgroup occupy the basement.

A radical decision: St. Mark’s Church Basel

Since 2009, no church services have been held in the Protestant-Reformed St. Mark’s Church in Basel’s Hirzbrunnen district, which was built in 1932. The parish in question chose the most radical of all possibilities and will demolish the church in 2019. This will also lead to the disappearance of the slender, free-standing bell-tower with a weathercock designed by the renowned graphic artist Celestino Piatti (1922–2007). Apartments are to be built on the grounds instead.

Poor outcome: Leonhard Church St. Gallen

The renovation of the Reformed Church of St. Leonhard in St. Gallen, which was built in 1887, would have cost 4.5 million Swiss francs. This was too expensive for the parish. The demolition of the protected building, whose land was used profitably, was out of the question. The church was finally sold to an architect for 45,000 Swiss francs. He wanted to turn it into a cultural centre with restaurants, concerts, theatres, film screenings and fashion shows. None of this has happened so far.

Comments (29)
  • Daniel Perret
    Daniel Perret 3 weeks ago
    Eine ganze Anzahl unserer älteren Kirchen stehen auf vorchristlichen Kultplätzen und befinden sich somit in einer sakralen Tradition von Kultbauten, welche durch darinterliegenden Energiegitter-Kreuzungen oder Ausgrabungen belegt und z.T. datiert werden können.
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  • Dario Schäffer
    Dario Schäffer 3 weeks ago
    In Bezug auf die Leonhardskirche in St. Gallen muss aber gesagt werden, dass sie lange Jahre hindurch, genauso wie die Elisabethenkirche in Basel und die Johanneskirche in Bern, als Offene Kirche - city Kirche - fungiert hat. Und zwar mit grossem Erfolg. Auch sie wurde als Kulturlokal in der ganzen Region bekannt. Finanzielle Schwierigkeiten und die notwendige Restaurierung haben schliesslich dazu geführt, dass sie verkauft werden musste. Aber die Erfahrung als Offene Kirche St. Leonhard ist sicher in der Stadt registriert und an sie muss erinnert werden. - Pfr. Dario Schäffer
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  • D.G.
    D.G. 3 weeks ago
    Die Kirchen sind allerdings ein Symbolbild, nämlich von systematischem Kindesmissbrauch und Pädophilie. Weshalb sie schützenswert sein sollen, ist mir schleierhaft. Abriss ist das Beste, was mit diesen Sinnbildern geschehen kann. Das ist mit Stalin-Statuen gleichzusetzen. Mir ist es noch so recht, wenn die Kirchen sowohl an Unterhalt der Bauten und an Prozesskosten/Schadensersatz und so weiter Pleite gehen. Good riddance.
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  • Wave Dancer
    Wave Dancer 3 weeks ago
    Die von Saudi Arabien finanzierten Islamisten in der CH werden freudig zugreifen! Die islamistisch demographische Bombe ist längst gezündet! Seht euch vor!
    Show Translation
  • Perrin
    Perrin 3 weeks ago
    Garder les églises ne pas démolir.
    Show Translation
  • Niklaus Durrer
    Niklaus Durrer 3 weeks ago
    Bitte die Kirchen nicht abreissen, weil sie in den Ortschaften oft schon alt sind und schön erhalten sind, obschon in dieser Zeit wenige in die Kirche gehen. Wir müssen bedenken, dass wir eventuell schwereren Zeiten entgegengehen und auf einmal könnten die Kirchen wieder mehr populär werden. Ich war in der Schweiz mehrmals auf Besuch und beim herumreisen war ich immer hingerissen, wie schön die Kirchen sind, vor allem in den vielen Dörfern, aber auch in grösseren Orten. Es wäre schade, wenn das verloren gehen würde.
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  • Maurice COTTET
    Maurice COTTET 3 weeks ago
    Ma fille est musulmane et vit à Genève et se plaint depuis plusieurs années du manque de mosquées en Suisse pour la pratique de sa religion.

    Dans un esprit d'ouverture inter-religions, les églises pourraient être adaptées non seulement au culte musulman qui représente un vingtième de la population, mais aussi bien entendu à d'autres religions qui en feraient la demande.
    Show Translation
    • Renaud DUBOIS
      Renaud DUBOIS 3 weeks ago
      Maurice, la décroissance de la pratique religieuse chrétienne n'est pas une fatalité, les époques passent et ne se ressemblent pas. Quand nous aurons expliqué à nos enfants la force du symbole inscrit sur notre drapeau, une spiritualité nouvelle pourra renaître dans leur esprit et remplacer les catalogues du commerce et les injonctions comminatoires et autoritaires venues d'ailleurs. Rouvrir les église au Monde, bonne idée. Favoriser l'arrivée d'autres pratiques qui ont fait le malheur de leurs pays d'origines, c'est beaucoup moins futé !
      Show Translation
    • Gilles BERANGER
      Gilles BERANGER 3 weeks ago
      Démolir une église c'est démolir une partie de notre culture, de notre civilisation.Le multiculturisme a ses limites et on en connaît certaines dérives plus que préoccupantes. Par ailleurs n'aborder ce problème que sur le plan financier et choquant.C'est nier l'aspect historique donc chrétien de nos racines.
      Show Translation
    • Denys Philippe
      Denys Philippe 3 weeks ago
      Scandale
      Nous sommes chrétiens et nous ne pouvons admettre pareil sacrilège.
      Show Translation
    • Nix Mati
      Nix Mati 3 weeks ago
      Ta goule, the last thing Switzerland needs is a mosque! This religious practice should be banned all over the world.
      Show Translation
    • C Marche
      C Marche 3 weeks ago
      Le jour ou nous pourrons pratiquer sans risque notre religion chretienne dans les pays musulmans, peut-être pourrons nous revoir la question mai pour l'instant et au vu de ce qui se passe, je hais l'idée d'installer des mosquées dans nos églises.
      Show Translation
    • Jean-Marc Salvadé
      Jean-Marc Salvadé 6 days ago
      Gardons-nous bien d'islamiser la Suisse!
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  • Fabienne Raines
    Fabienne Raines 3 weeks ago
    L'idee de transformer une eglise en centre communautaire serait ideale mais pas rentable financierement .

    Mais l'activite communautaire est souvent plus importante que le benefice
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  • Max Luethi
    Max Luethi 3 weeks ago
    Etwas fehlt
    Jesus Christus ist der Herr über alles...
    Vergessen Sie dies bitte nie....
    Alles kommt von Ihm
    Wir sind zu selbstherrlich geworden und leben wie
    zu Noah's Zeit

    Max Luethi, Spotswood NJ, USA
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    • Monika Deveraux-Tschuor
      Monika Deveraux-Tschuor 2 weeks ago
      So true ! Sadly people have it so good, they don't need God anymore. One day, when it's too late, they'll call out to God to save them. Hard times coming for godless Europe. But in hard times people turn back to God. A church can be full of people but not have God present, Christians, people, are the church. I'm sad for all the lost souls.
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  • Hugo Yonke
    Hugo Yonke 3 weeks ago
    Die Situation um die Kirchen ist symptomatisch für die abscheulichen, meist vertuschten Verbrechen des Klerus an Jungendlichen in den letzten 25 Jahren.
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  • Bertiz Benhamid
    Bertiz Benhamid 3 weeks ago
    Why Christianity is shrinking?
    It is shrinking because people are too busy in our indulgent society to be religious or they don't find that Christianity is open and relevant enough to meet their needs.
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  • Jean-Benoit Levy
    Jean-Benoit Levy 3 weeks ago
    Du centre communautaire aux centres multi-religieux pluri-fontionels, il n'y a qu'un pas à franchir. Imaginons que au lieu de séparer les croyances, nous pourrions renforcer l'esprit de communautés en partageant. En offrant ces espaces pour diverses religions, nous pourrions offrir à nos quartiers une plus grande liberté de croyance, flexibilité d'usage, et respect vers l'autre. ( vendredi pour les musulmans / Samedi pour les israélites, Dimanche pour les chrétiens ) Reste quatre autres jours pour diverses fonctions de vie de quartier et autres activités communautaires.
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  • Christopher Egli
    Christopher Egli 3 weeks ago
    I'm an American; both my parents were Swiss, my father was an architect. I hope the decision of which churches to save and which to demolish is made mostly on aesthetics; if they're of artistic interest because of their design, they should be saved and renovated for other purposes. Beyond that, I don't mind saying I find it delightful that there are decreasing numbers of religious people in Switzerland, and I wish that were the case everywhere, especially here in the US.
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  • Joelle Osman
    Joelle Osman 3 weeks ago
    Il manque cruellement de logements à Genève. Pourquoi ne pas les transformer en lieu d’hébergement d’urgence ou communautaire pour personnes démunies et à la rue ?
    Show Translation
  • Paul Lehmann
    Paul Lehmann 3 weeks ago
    Wann will die Landeskirche zurück zum Evangelium und klare Wort Gottes Verkündigen? Gibt den Menschen wieder Geistliche Speise, dann werden die Kirche wieder voll, denn die Menschen hungern nach Wahrheit. Siehe Gellert-Kirche in Basel.
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  • Mayer Margrit
    Mayer Margrit 3 weeks ago
    Diese Kirchen mit Wohnungen ausbauen.
    Show Translation
  • jean.marc Delforge
    jean.marc Delforge 3 weeks ago
    Il ne faut pas hésiter à démolir les églises en surnombre, et concentrer son effort sur celles qui sont encore utilisées. A quoi bon dépenser tant d efforts, les mentalités évoluent, cette situation m attriste beaucoup
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  • A. Heggli
    A. Heggli 3 weeks ago
    I agree that unoccupied Catholic or Reform churches should be put to use as Community Centers, Artist Cooperatives, or sold to families who can afford to renovate them into unique and historic homes. The use should not, however, be in any way used to perpetuate the islamist migrant crisis which is taking over Europe. Switzerland was a safe haven for the Jews during the war, and now, because of political correctness, Switzerland is allowing in not only the enemy of the Jewish race, but the enemy of all of Western Civilization. Switzerland needs to "Swexit" the Schengen Agreement.
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  • Sonja Kunz
    Sonja Kunz 3 weeks ago
    Die Freikirchen mit ihren gesichtslosen grauen Hallen wären doch potentielle Mieter der schönen alten Kirchen!
    Show Translation
  • Toni Kuhn
    Toni Kuhn 2 weeks ago
    In Pazcuaro, Mexiko wurde vor vielen Jahren eine Kirche in eine Bibliothek verwandelt.
    J'ai vu a Dehli un temple qui servaiit a quatres différentes réligions.
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  • Susanne Singh, GB
    Susanne Singh, GB 2 weeks ago
    To save them from closing down, quite a flew churches have made efforts to widen their appeal. One example is the Swiss Church in London which dates from the 18th century. Following a dwindling congregation and rising costs, it was decided to expand its use, for example, allowing access for the holding of cultural events such as music recitals, talks and exhibitions, whilst still remaining a Protestant place of worship where Sunday services, christenings and marriage ceremonies take place. After a major refurbishment project in 2011, the church is now a vibrant multifunctional centre, welcoming people of different religions and backgrounds including the homeless that live in the neighbourhood.
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  • Ernst Ruetimann, Trang
    Ernst Ruetimann, Trang 4 days ago
    Als Protestant in der Schweiz in den Fünfziger- und Sechzigerjahren aufgewachsen, musste ich schon früh feststellen, dass mit den Weltreligionen etwas stark im Argen lag. Als Nichtgläubiger muss ich trotzdem die Leute bewundern, welche trotz der modernen Aufklärung sich fest an den Glauben klammern; seien das Christen, Muslime, Hindus, Taoisten, Buddhisten oder andere Glaubenrichtungen! Zu den Gotteshäusern: Falls sie ein schützeswertes Bauwerk darstellen, sollen sie anderweitig genutzt werden für die Bevölkerung.
    Show Translation

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