Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/32 posted by hidden europe on

In the heart of the City of London, there used to be all manner of Strangers Churches (as churches for foreigners are commonly termed). There was a Spanish church, a Scots church and a Lutheran church from Hamburg. The Dutch community at Austin Friars, established in the mid-sixteenth century, is still very active today, albeit not in their original church which was destroyed in 1940.

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Dear fellow travellers

Participating in a church service is often a potent expression of identity. As travellers with an eye for cultural issues, we always relish finding churches that appeal to diasporas. Rome's French churches, of which there are several with the most notable being San Luigi dei Francesi near the Piazza Navona, are little outposts of France. One of our favourite spots in Brussels is the Bulgarian Orthodox church on rue Victor Hugo. To cross its threshold is verily to enter another world.

In the heart of the City of London, there used to be all manner of Strangers Churches (as churches for foreigners are commonly termed). There was a Spanish church, a Scots church and a Lutheran church from Hamburg. The Dutch community at Austin Friars, established in the mid-sixteenth century, is still very active today, albeit not in their original church which was destroyed in 1940. A new church on the same site opened in 1950 and still every Sunday morning a service is held there in the Dutch language. Just east of the city in the docklands area there were churches that catered to visiting seamen: St Olav's Norwegian church in Rotherhithe is a fine example of a diaspora church that still functions today, even though the social composition of London's docklands has changed beyond recognition. There are not a lot of Norwegian seafarers who nowadays step ashore in Rotherhithe.

Berlin is in a part of Germany that doesn't have a strong Catholic tradition. Look at who actually goes to Mass on a Sunday and you'll find a good percentage of the city's Catholic population are not German. There are foreign language Roman Catholic missions that attend to the religious needs of Polish, Italian, Croat, Slovene, Tamil and Vietnamese speakers. Plus a dozen more besides. Many of these communities are little cultural enclaves. The former American military chapel of All Saints in the west of the city, which celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its consecration this year, will mark US Thanksgiving Day this week in much the same way that it did during the years of the American military occupation of that part of Berlin.

Elsewhere across Europe, we've found thriving English-language Anglican churches everywhere from Bucharest to Copenhagen - each a little outpost of English values and culture, complete with a picture of the Queen. In Brussels, there is even an Anglican pro-Cathedral. Sometimes the location of old Anglican churches reflects the travel patterns of yesteryear. There was an Anglican chapel for over a century in Pontresina, a favourite Alpine haunt of nineteenth-century English literati. It was demolished in 1974. But the old red brick Anglican church in the Czech spa town of Mariánské Lázne (formerly known as Marienbad) is still standing. There was a time when Marienbad cut a dash on the royal tourism circuit. The English king, Edward VII, was a regular visitor and came to church here. It has been a while though since any services were celebrated in Marienbad's old Anglican chapel. Today the building is used as a gallery.

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.