St Ursula's Church
Berne, Switzerland

A Church of the Anglican Communion, welcoming all who seek the Lord Jesus Christ

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Anglicans in Berne - 1832 to the present

Apart from activity in Geneva, Basle and other cities at the time of the Reformation, the first regular English church services in Switzerland were to cater for the tourist trade. This sprung up after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, as peace followed the Napoleonic Wars. Soon afterwards, resident chaplains were officiating in Geneva and Lausanne, and by 1845, there was also a permanent chaplaincy in Vevey, and seasonal chaplaincies in Interlaken, Thun, Zurich and Lucerne.

1832-1904

The chaplain in Lausanne between 1822 and 1857 was Isaac Kendal Cheesborough, and between 1832 and 1847, he held 21 services in Berne at the invitation of David Morier, the British minister. These were probably held at the British Legation. We also know that Hubert McLaughlin, who was chapain in Nice, officiated at the wedding of Charles Joseph La Trobe, later to become first Governor of Victoria, at the legation on 16 September 1835.

Hoteliers throughout Switzerland were eager to offer facilities for worship. Some fifty churches were built between 1840 and 1914, and many other hotels provided rooms where a temporary chaplain could lead services. Thus, part of the old church in Interlaken was converted into an English chapel in 1840, and the foundation stone was laid for the English chapel in Thun in 1841. (This chapel, at Göttibach, was set up by Herr Knechtenhofer, innkeeper of the Gasthof Bellevue in a corner of his spacious grounds. It is now used by the Old Catholic church, but Anglican Christmas carol services are still held there.)

In 1845, the Bernese authorities gave permission for English services to be held in the chapel of the Bürgerspital. A group of innkeepers undertook to pay the cost of bringing a chaplain from England. Twelve years later, the former deer-park outside the city walls was sold for redevelopment. The Cantonal Forestry department made a grant of land at the top of Hirschengraben for building an English church. Plans for a church were drawn up in 1858 by the influential English architect, George Edmund Street, but although the community raised Fr 8454.50 towards the construction, this was not enough, and the grant was revoked.

In 1859, the Colonial and Continental Church Society undertook to support a chaplain in Berne, and in 1861, George William Mackenzie was sent. Little is known abut where services were held, though the substantial altar cross still used at St Ursula's was ging in 1881, which suggests the community had a permanent place to keep its ornaments. We know that in the early 1880s, services were held in the Münster, but this proved impracticable.

Then in 1885 an invitation from Bishop Herzog led to services being held in the Old Catholic church of St Peter and St Paul. The first service was held there on 28 June. However, there were complications caused by the bitterness felt by Roman Catholics against the Old Catholic movement, which spilled over into the diplomatic field. The complaint that the Old Catholics had "stolen" the church meant that a number of people felt uneasy at attending services, so attendance became very small. In the end, the congregation moved in 1887 to the hall of the Lerber School. (This school, now the Freies Gymnasium, had moved to new premises in Nageligasse in 1881.)

In 1887, funding was taken over by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. A 'correspondent' reported in the Anglican Church Magazine:
No words can convey an idea of the joy and gratitude we experienced when, at Christmas 1887, we gathered for worship in the Saal of the Lerberschule where after changes and disturbances, we found a haven of rest. 40 present, very unusual number for Berne in the middle of winter. In previous years we partook of the hospitality of the Old Catholics.... Our little congregation was lost in the stately church which, in spite of a well-heated stove, was icy cold. The pulpit, too, was so far removed from the congregation that some of us had great difficulty in understanding the whole of the sermon.... The chief fault lay with us, in being so few in number, even in summer, when the season was at its height; and everyone knows how chilling is the sight of a place of worship all but empty. Removal to Lerberschule has great advantages. The Schul-Saal is the place where the pupils of the establishment meet for public prayers. Most comfortably heated in winter. The voice of the chaplain can easily be heard from all parts of the room.

The city authorities offered St Anthony's Chapel (the Antonierkirche in Postgasse) to the Anglican church in 1889. The architect Reginald Blomfield (best remembered today as architect of the Menin Gate in Ypres) reported favourably on the opportunity, and criticized an alternative plan, for building a church on the opposite site of the Aare from the Cathedral, on a spot now part of the "Englische Anlage". (Such a church would have to be large and imposing to make an impression, and the English community simply could not afford it.) At this time, the Antonierkirche was being used as a fire brigade storehouse. Despite the enthusiasm of Herr Kraft, proprietor of the Hotel Bernerhof, and of Bishop Wilkinson, the offer failed for lack of financial support. Permission was given for services to be held in the Cathedral (or, if service times clashed, in the French church), but the church did not act on this offer. Services continued to be held in the Lerberschule.

1904-1954

Berne began to expand on the other side of the River Aare, and in 1881, the English-Berne Land Company bought the area of Kirchenfeld, getting permission to develop it on condition that they build a bridge spanning the Aare to link it to the city centre. At their meeting on 14 June 1904, the Directors, "being very anxious to meet the wishes of the promoters of the Church", offered a central site in their development at Jubiläumsplatz on condition that money for funding a church be provided by the end of 1905. (Jubiläumsplatz was so named to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the founding of the city of Berne (which was also the 600th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation) in 1891.)

An appeal fund had already been set up, with the British Minister, Sir Conyngham Greene as its treasurer. However, by July 1904, only Fr 13318.50 of the hoped-for Fr 25000 had been raised, largely Fr 10000 from the Gasthofverein and the Verkehrsverein. An intensive campaign was launched to raise the remainder, which was reckoned as the equivalent of £468, a considerable sum at the time. Lady Greene undertook to raise funds in England while she was in London. (Prospective donors were reminded that "the few resident English people pay for a clergyman which costs them £95 per annum, and cannot do more.")

A wealthy American episcopalian, Mrs John Castleman from St Louis, Missouri, came to Berne with her adopted daughter, who was to have an operation at the clinic of Dr Theodor Kocher. (The daughter's name was said to have been Ursula Postlethwaite. However, in fact it was Margot Postlewaite.) There she met the mother of the then Chaplain, Gilbert Sissons, who was having a similar operation. Both made near-miraculous recoveries, and as a thank offering, Mrs Castleman donated a large sum for the building of the church.

The application for building permission was published by the "English-American Church" in the Anzeiger for 11 and 13 November 1905. An objection by Mrs M.F. Dawson that the application should have been in the name of the Fund-Raising Committee was overruled, on the grounds that this was an internal matter, and that the name of the applicant was immaterial to whether permission should be granted or not.

The land was transferred to the SPG on 16 January 1906.

The church was designed to seat a hundred people. It was completed in only a few months, and was ready in the spring of 1906. The architects were Eduard Rybi and Ernst Salchli. (Interestingly, they designed and built Berne's synagogue the same year.)

The last service in the Lerberschule was on 15 July (with 58 communicants). There were 55 communicants at the 10.30 service on the 22 July 1906, the sixth Sunday after Trinity, the second service in the new church (the service book records that there had been one member in the congregation at the 08.30 service that morning). The church was consecrated on Thursday, 20 September 1906 by the Bishop of Fulham, Thomas Wilkinson, in the presence of Ludwig Forrer, the President of the Confederation, and of Sir George Bonham, the British Minister to Switzerland.

Maintaining the church represented a considerable expense for members of the congregation. Funds were also established for an "east" window, dedicated by Bishop Bury in memory of Cecil Bonham at the end of 1911. (Cecil was the youngest child of the British Minister, and had died in September 1908 at the age of 21.) There was a bell fund, and a fence fund (for one of the conditions on which the land was given was the construction of a substantial fence, which was to cost Fr. 5000). A fund was also established to buy a permanent house for the chaplain. Richard Pring, writing in 1912, remarked that even when the new Lötschberg railway had been opened, and the Bellevue and Schweizerhof Hotels reopened, the chaplain's income was unlikely to exceed £130 or £150 a year, "and that, without a house, especially for a married man, is totally inadequate." He hoped that a house would soon be built, so that "Berne may no longer be looked upon as quite one of most underpaid chaplaincies on the Continent."

In 1914, the church received a grant of Fr 1752.30 from SPG, and 29 individual subscriptions added Fr 1690. Collections totalled Fr 3079.70. Out of this, the church had to fund the chaplain's stipend, which amounted to Fr 4432.50 (the equivalent then of £180). The remainder went to pay the cleaner, the gardener, and the expenses of running the church.

The chaplain at the time lived in the Pension Herter in Kramgasse. Although a Vicarage Fund existed (amounting in 1914 to Fr 435 (or £17)), successive chaplains found their own accommodation up until 1956 (latterly at Kirchenfeldstrasse 50, adjacent to the church). The Bell Fund and the Sanctuary Fund were regarded as more important. (The bell was cast in 1918 by the firm of Rüie.chi in Aarau.)

During the First World War, the church was sometimes filled to overflowing. However, in the interwar years, the congregation seldom exceeded 30, and consisted largely of Anglo-Swiss families, with a small representation from the diplomatic community. (A notable event was in 1922, when General Booth of the Salvation Army was the guest of the chaplain, Alexander Bassell Winter, who was chaplain from 1921 until his death in 1935.) The permanent English-speaking population of Berne was relatively small between the wars. An insight into church life between the wars is given by some of the annual reports from this time. (An undated photograph gives an impression of the interior of the church at this time.) A major factor was the severity of taxation in Berne, which "had driven away the only English families who seemed likely to become residents." The majority of the congregation consisted of the diplomatic community, augmented by patients of the several clinics in Berne and their visitors.

After war broke out in 1939 it was reported that, although there were many Anglo-Swiss, there was "not a single purely British family in Berne" apart from the Legation and Consular staffs. Sunday morning attendance in the autumn of 1939 was 40, in the winter as few as 25.

1954-today

In October 1954, the Revd Reginald Bernard Gray was appointed chaplain. As part of the Coronation celebrations in the previous year, the church community had already started an ambitious campaign to raise Fr 120000 to build a hall and adjacent house for the chaplain. The city architectural department gave support and advice, but part of the plan involved the city's education department using the hall during the week. This was contrary to the covenants which the Berne Land Company had given the church's neighbours when the church was originally built, that the land would only be used for a church. After a public inquiry, the city withdrew its plans to use the hall, and permission was given. Preliminary building work was completed in 1956, but the final structure was only finished in January 1960.

Barney Gray served for 14 years as chaplain, and was succeeded in 1968 by Canon Sidney Baggott. In 1976, the Revd Peter J Hawker, who had been lay assistant under Barney Gray and had trained for the ministry on his and Sidney Baggott's encouragement, became chaplain, serving until 1988.

After the evening service on Tuesday, 21 September 1976, an electric heater was left on. At 6.45 the next day, the organ burst into flames, and although the fire brigade was called promptly, the damage was considerable.

In 1989, Peter Hawker moved to Zurich, and in 1990, the Revd David Colin Wotherspoon became chaplain. A change in tax legislation two years later made a windfall sum available for additional building work. As a result, the church hall was extended in 1992-4, and other church buildings were improved. Further work was done on the church roof, walls and porch in 1998, and the hall roof was repaired in 2006.

David Wotherspoon was chaplain until January 2001. He was succeeded by the Revd Dr Richard Lawrence Pamplin from March 2001 until August 2007, and by the Ven Canon Peter Maxwell Potter (June 2008 to July 2016). The Revd Prependary Stephen Stuckes became chaplain in May 2017.


HD - Page last modified 10 July 2017