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Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2017/3 posted by hidden europe on

Berlin is not normally a place for liturgical theatre, at least not of the Catholic variety. But St Afra is a place apart. And the musical flourishes in this service are remarkable for their provenance. One of the great English organs of the Victorian era does daily service in Berlin.

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Dear fellow travellers

There is a dramatic organ voluntary prior to the Aspérges me. The congregation are sprinkled with Holy Water, drenched with grace even, and now the people kneel for the start of Mass. It opens with Psalm 42: Júdica me, Deus. This is the Tridentine rite of the Roman Catholic Mass which until 50 years ago was the Church's regular Sunday liturgy. These days it is celebrated only rarely, one of those half-forgotten rites that have slipped into liturgical history. Many younger churchgoers have never participated in a Tridentine Mass; most have no experience of other rare rites, such as the Ambrosian, Dominican or Sarum liturgies.

The German capital is not normally a place for liturgical theatre, at least not of the Catholic variety. But St Afra is a place apart, a haven in the heart of the city where the everyday din of life is hushed, a space for Latin and good church music. The musical flourishes in this service are remarkable for their provenance. One of the great English organs of the Victorian era does daily service in Berlin.

The tale of the Burton organ is just one thread in the extraordinary story of the Catholic community of St Afra in Berlin’s Gesundbrunnen neighbourhood. Graunstraße is generally unremarkable. A plaque at number 31 recalls that one of the founding fathers of the European Union, Robert Schuman, lived here while studying in Berlin in the early years of the last century. Graunstraße 31 is also one of the most Catholic addresses in Berlin. For many years it housed a convent and now the red-brick building is home to a Catholic institute which strongly favours those traditional liturgies swept away by Church reforms in the 1960s.

Devout Catholics will of course argue that the mystery of the Mass is unfailingly the star of the show, but casual visitors to St Afra might be excused for thinking that the organ stands centre stage. This instrument was built by William Hill, who in the mid-19th century was in the premier league of English organ builders. Hill was a Lincolnshire man who married into the Elliot family which had a fine reputation in the organ trade. Thomas Elliot's last great work was the organ for York Minster. When he died in 1832, his son-in-law William Hill took over the business.

The Berlin organ was initially built for the Methodist community in Burton-on-Trent, a town in the English Midlands more renowned for its faith in beer than its faith in the Almighty. Over 150 years, this fine organ saw service in two different Burton churches. Many a Wesleyan hymn was sung with gusto to the accompaniment of this organ. But the organ fell silent in June 2011 when the Burton church was closed.

A few months later, Catholic priest Father Gerald Goesche from Berlin visited the abandoned church in Burton-on-Trent and arranged for the organ to be saved. It was dismantled and transported to Germany, where it was renovated in Weimar. The organ was then installed at St Afra in Berlin where the neo-Gothic architecture reinforces the organ's status as a remarkable piece of high Victoriana that now every Sunday supports the celebration of the Tridentine Mass. There is something of the spirit of Cardinal Newman in St Afra. As the incense wafts high through lace and Latin, one might almost be in one of Europe's great Oratorian congregations. But this is Berlin - a city where understatement is the norm and liturgical theatre, insofar as it exists at all, is tucked away in a backstreet.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.