In Switzerland, new uses for religious heritage

Swiss. The inventory is impressive: 189 churches, 330 chapels, monasteries and convents of 33 congregations, religious institutions; in all, there are nearly 900 religious buildings in the canton of Friborg alone, a Swiss region of Catholic faith. A symposium organized at the end of March by the cantonal and ecclesiastical authorities of the region sounded the alarm: how to maintain and maintain this imposing real estate heritage? And this, in a general context of a decline in religious practice, and therefore a drop in income for the Christian churches in Switzerland, which are financed through denominational tax.

The problem is twofold. On the one hand, the Swiss parishes have a building stock that exceeds their needs and, on the other hand, they are no longer able to meet the maintenance costs of these buildings. Could the reassignment of places of worship and religious buildings be a lead? The concept is not taboo, far from it, recalls Johannes Stückelberger, professor at the University of Basel, expert in the conversion of places of worship, because “Church reassignment has been around since churches have existed”. But according to him, the question must be discussed “from a theological, urbanistic, political, legal, economic and sociological perspective”.

Distinguishing use value from symbolic value

Reflections are thus taking place in the four corners of Switzerland. In the Reformed cantons, the guidelines issued by the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany apply. These distinguish the use value of a Protestant temple (its use as a place of worship) from its symbolic value (a marker of the cultural history of the place in the broad sense). In fact, the Federation of Protestant Churches of Switzerland, in a study of 2007, already posed as a principle that “all forms of use that correspond to areas of the Church’s commitment are perfectly compatible with this symbolic value”. A temple, like a church, once desacralized, can thus be transformed into a training center, a cultural center or a meeting center with a social vocation. This is the case at the Reformed Church of Saint-Paul in Bern, which is exploring a partnership with the University of Bern for the use of the nave of the church as a conference room, or in Lausanne where the Temple of Saint-Luc became a neighborhood house. When spiritual use prevails, as at the church of the Ursuline Mariahilf convent in Lucerne, a time anticipated to be transformed into a music conservatory, then into a mosque, it is the rapidly expanding evangelical or charismatic communities that take possession of the premises. .

Johannes Stückelberger, who also created the annual Swiss Religious Heritage Day in 2015, regrets that this question of reassignment has only recently been topical: “In countries like Holland, Germany or England, it has been ubiquitous for decades. In Switzerland, the trend was initially slowed down by the complex financing of the national churches which was intimately linked to that of the state. Nevertheless, in the last twenty-five years alone, about 200 churches, chapels and monasteries have been used for other purposes. »

Demolition, sale or reassignment

A database, available online, makes it possible to consult the 183 identified cases of reassignments. The cases of demolition (19) remain exceptional and concern churches dating from the post-war period, in dilapidated condition, and not listed in the register of historical monuments. With nearly 70 cases, the sale is the majority but the results are sometimes mixed. This is the case with the reformed church of Saint-Léonard in Saint-Gall, the renovation of which would have cost 4.5 million Swiss francs. [4,6 M€] ; it was one of the first churches to have been sold to a private individual, an architect who acquired it for 45,000 Swiss francs [46 000 €] in 2007, in order to transform it into a cultural center and a restaurant. Since then, due to a lack of funding and a clear vision, the project has come to a standstill, to the great regret of the parish, excluded from any scrutiny of the place. Because not everything is possible or desirable according to Stückelberger, who has enacted a methodology for the transformation of places of worship. According to him, “a church has potential, it constitutes a ‘capital in the spiritual sense’ and if the Church is to open up to a non-confessional society, it must show that it does not necessarily renounce its beliefs”.

He sees the best application of this with the MaiHof church in Lucerne. The place of worship which needed to be rehabilitated was opened for mixed use. In the church, meetings, exhibitions, concerts, seminars and banquets can now be organized in addition to the religious services which continue to be offered. A crèche and a games room are rented in the basement. The versatility of spaces, this is perhaps the middle way that will be favored for religious heritage in the future.

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