hidden europe 13

Rest-stops for the soul

by Nicky Gardner


There is little that is religious about modern mass travel. But seaports, railway stations, airports and even motorway service areas have chapels and churches that address the needs of travellers.

At Leeds station in northern England, a pale woman rushes for the morning business train to London. Clutching her laptop and bag, she runs… but to no avail, for as she reaches the platform the long train starts to move and snakes out of the station. Frustrated, annoyed both with herself and the railway company, she turns and walks slowly to the door on the station platform that is marked ‘Railway Chaplaincy’.

A thousand kilometres away at Zürich’s main railway station (Hauptbahnhof), Toni Zimmermann, an engaging man with a winning smile, is doing what he always does at half hour intervals during the morning commuter rush: presenting his ‘thought for the day’ at the station church. Like Swiss trains, Toni Zimmermann’s thoughts are timed to perfection. There are two dozen people in the small chapel, among them the darksuited banker who always arrives one minute late and takes a seat in the back row. He is a creature of habit, this well-heeled banker from Zug. A first class seat on the fast train from Zug has him in Zürich just before eight; he ambles slowly down the platform and enters the station church just as Toni Zimmermann is a few seconds into his morning homily. By a quarter past the hour, the chapel is empty again and the banker, never one to think of church on a Sunday but a regular at Zürich’s station church, is on his way to his office.

At Rome's Fiumicino Airport, Don Giorgio Rizzieri gets ready to celebrate the 8.30 Mass, as he does every weekday morning in the chapel of Santa Maria Degli Angeli, while across in the airport's international arrivals area a young man just off a flight from Dubai goes to a prayer room, and, numb with tiredness, turns to the east and performs a short salat.


It may not seem so today, but prayer and travel have often been intertwined. Were not the pilgrims of yesteryear the precursors of modern European travellers? Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury, Rome, Iona and Mount Athos have all appealed to the soul. Communities and churches along the pilgrim trail fed both body and soul.

With the growth of mercantile shipping, churches found a new flock - one that did not always quite so naturally incline to prayer: seafarers, far from home and hearth, found happy solace in the rituals of religion. Wander through the erstwhile port districts of east London and you will find any number of churches (and other places of worship) that looked to seamen and migrants from overseas for their congregations. Even before the end of the seventeenth century, the first Danish church had been built in the dockland district of Wapping. A Swedish church followed a few years later. In nearby Rotherhithe, Finnish and Norwegian churches still function to this day.

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