Stami Leben Glauben Evangelical Church Lörrach, Germany

Stami: Glauben Leben Church in Lörrach, Germany

Not all my church visits begin with touristy curiosity.

I drove past this building on the way to the grocery store many times (my favorite discount chain Aldi is around the corner), and though I wondered what the deal was with the slick blue and green logo high on the side of a squarish new modern-looking building, it didn’t occur to me to just Google it. How many buildings, stores, houses—churches—do we pass by every day, most we don’t even notice, some stand out. Why is that?

Then one Sunday morning I awoke with a heavy heart, emotionally and physically exhausted and feeling hopeless from a break-up that was still unfolding, I looked online for “churches near me” (yes, turns out a lot of people type that in to Google) to find something that I could get to in time. Sunday-service for all generations every Sunday at 10:30! Stami Leben Glauben it was.

Stami meant nothing to me initially, but sounded vaguely German, the motto “Glauben Leben” is a play on words. Glauben means “faith” or “belief”, and Leben means both “life” and “to live”, so Living Faith, or Live (your) Faith is pretty good for an evangelical protestant church motto.

I was curious to find out what kind of non-traditional church could be located in what looked like a big toaster, and though Stami is part of the larger Chrischona International, an evangelical Protestant association of mostly German-speaking independent congregations, this particular building is their newest addition and not one of the quaint older ones.

Entering the church, I passed through the community rooms to the main hall, where already at least 300 people, 40 of which were children were gathered in plastic and metal chairs facing a stage. I was encouraged to find a free seat up front by an elderly greeter, but when I told him I was there for the first time and preferred to sit I the back and watch, he welcomed me and said something about picking up a welcome packet somewhere, and that sweets were involved. I sat down and was immediately awed by the technological set-up. Other than the large wooden cross on the back front wall, technology was the priority: a well-lit band on the stage fully outfitted with all the latest electronic gear, the drummer in a glass-walled booth, the projector overhead leading the congregation in song with the lyrics, multiple video screens hung overhead, no-one was on the stage without a microphone, and the whole show was orchestrated from the technician booth in the back.

I kept waiting for the service to start, but it appeared that there was some kind of youth action happening. There were huge wrapped presents on the stage, and then several young people proceeded to put on a full 20 minute skit and action on behalf of the Christmas Shoebox Charity for (poor, developing-world-type) Children, complete with audience participation Oprah-style (everyone look under your chairs for a gift!) and a boy/girl competition to gather said gifts and put them into a shoebox, all to demonstrate how it works. Then we got to watch a video about the Christmas shoebox program, and how they bring the Good Message of Christ’s love to poor children everywhere, by giving them shoeboxes full of toys and toothpaste. Well, that sounds a tad cynical, they also do other missionary work, but in this case, it was about getting the congregation on board to bring in their shoeboxes full of goodies.

Then they sang a song led by the big band up front, it was so simple that in a minute I was singing right along.

Darum danke ich dir so sehr

Ich gebe dich nie wieder her

 

Es ist so toll dich zu kennen Herr

Jeden Tag ein bisschen mehr

(English: That’s why I thank you so much/I’ll never give you up

It’s so great to meet you Lord/Every day a little more)

If I didn’t know any better, I say it sounded like a love song! I did feel a bit awkward when everyone started waving their hands in the air, although I’ve been to other evangelical churches or worship situations, it doesn’t cease to make me uncomfortable. I stand there with my hands behind my back, or in my pockets, maybe sway a little to the music, but even at a full-on rock concert, I’m not the type to lose myself and go berserk with enthusiasm. I gotta say too, the guy next to me looked similarly pained, but perhaps like me, he was waiting to hear The Word.

The main pastor was away, so the youth pastor took the reigns this Sunday, and his sermon was a bit like a Ted Talk with Clip-art pictures in a Powerpoint presentation. It went something like this in summary:

Life is like a labyrinth (picture of a labyrinth). We don’t know the way out, we need help, and God is there to help us. (Picture of a guy with his head in his hands). Nicodemus also asked Jesus at night for clarification (picture of nighttime). Doubting Thomas also asked God, “When will you show yourself to me?” (picture of doubtful looking person). Peter wanted to do everything with Jesus but then denies Him at the crucial hour. We also want to do right by God, but fail and have weaknesses, (relevant image, at this point I forget which one). The young rich man asked how to get into heaven but went away sad because Jesus said to give up everything, (picture of a sad guy). We also experience in our lives how we have to let go in order to find true divine happiness. The last stock image is of two obviously happy women. The pastor describes the woman who kisses Jesus’ feet, saying “You made everything possible”. He then quotes Romans 6:36, the wages of sin are death and reiterates that Jesus Christ is eternal life. He is the greatest gift of all time. May you recognize Him. Amen.

We’ll call it the shotgun approach to preaching. Say it all! Reference every major story and personality from the New Testament in fifteen minutes! See what sticks. When you only have people’s attention for a few minutes once a week, you gotta make the most of it.

Despite the style, culture, and presentation of this sermon being nothing like what I am used to, I indeed felt relieved, comforted, and understood hearing these words! It was precisely what I needed to hear. Being filled with adolescent-grade feelings of rejection and soul pain enabled me to be open to a sermon of similar quality. I needed to be reminded that even though my relationship was ending, it didn’t mean that I was unlovable, God loves me. And the main point of the sermon that jumped out for me was that, like the young rich man, we must let go in order to find the divine. Time for me to let go of the things I thought I wanted, the things I do even have, and follow Him. I had my pick of stories and teachable moments, and I found the ones that spoke to me at the time I needed to hear it. This experience is the mark of The Good Message; this is the meaning of being a follower of Christ.

I guess if you’re not hurting, or in emotional or psychic distress, if everything in your life is going fine the way you want it to, hunky-dory is your keyword, and you are content and satisfied with your lot, then you might not find yourself in a church very often. But if you are looking for the divine, and your fellow man and yourself for that matter disappoints yet again, then Jesus is still there, getting the message across through His most-varied of followers.

I wandered out of the hall before it was officially over, an hour is all I was mentally prepared for and it wasn’t clear when it would be finished. (There was more singing and then it was done). I started looking around, reading their literature by the entrance (Bring Christ to the Arab refugees of Europe!—a missionary flier), and then began chatting with an elderly lady in the front room near the coffee who quickly took me under her wing. Turns out I was standing in the “seniors corner.” She was lovely and showed me how to first reserve a chair, because the place fills up quickly once the service ends, and then get coffee and fresh pretzels. Who needs wine and bread when there’s southern German coffee and pretzels? Wink. She explained to me how almost as soon as they moved into their new building they outgrew it, now that they have over 100 children. In addition to the thriving youth and children’s work, they also do refugee and social work, and many kinds of missionary work too.

The greeter from the beginning found me and brought me my welcome packet, complete with gummy bears as promised, a program and a nice pen. My collection is growing. Another elderly couple sat down and the conversation continued, covering church-life, the beauty and quality of life of the region near Basel, and the growing wealth-gap in the world. The gentleman says that he read that ten men control 50% of the world’s resources! I reach for another pretzel. Gotta even things out somehow. I ask whether they have always come to this church. No, they used to be mainline Protestant. His wife sheepishly admits that she prefers Catholic mass to other Protestant sects, “If you’re going to go for ritual, might as well do it the right way,” she says. To say that this place lacks ritual would be, well, besides the point. According to their website, Stami Leben lists a summary of the points that keep their community healthy as an acrostic of the German word for grace: GNADE. In English however, it would be Community, Discipleship, Prayer, Service to others, and the Gospel for everyone. Not much mention of sacraments or rituals, but common experiences defined through service, prayer and missionary work. They do have the bread and wine once a month, as many Protestant churches do, but it is symbolic.

The experience of community, prayer in song, and the Gospel was very real for me that Sunday, despite the cultural unfamiliarity. Meeting people who welcome with open arms anyone who comes in their door, is the sign for me that the divine is indeed at work.

Bethlehem – Church of the Nativity

As it is still technically Epiphany season in some churches, the topic of the Magi and their gift-bearing visit to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem shortly after his birth is still on my mind. I was reminded of my own visit to Bethlehem and the church of the Nativity there in 2013, a pilgrimage of sorts to see this most famous of birthplaces.

To refresh our memories, the Gospel of Matthew in the second chapter recounts Jesus’ birth in a house in Bethlehem and the Magi coming from the East with specific gifts, following a star. The Gospel of Luke recounts how Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be registered there for the census and were visited by shepherds after Jesus was born, in what must have been for Mary quite an experience, in a manger. For an excellent modern interpretation of these events, see the following video from Saturday Night Live.

Mark Chapter 2:4-6

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”

Matthew Chapter 2:1-2

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Back to current day Bethlehem. It lies in the Palestinian controlled part of the occupied West Bank territory, 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem, and a whopping 156 km from Nazareth. Private car is the most popular way to get there from Jerusalem, as you have to pass through a checkpoint which limits the vehicle options, and as I went with a friend who is of Armenian origin, this proved to be a bonus to us in several ways, the last being on our return to Jerusalem when we were offered a ride by an employee of the Armenian church. The Basilica of the Nativity is old. It was first built by Constantine the Great in 327, to mark the place of Jesus’ birth. It’s basically remained a big deal since then, with now over 2 million pilgrims annually. It is a big deal. A lot of history has happened in Bethlehem, and in this small part of the globe, and the UN has designated it a World Heritage Site, amongst others. The property of course has evolved over the years, with various chapels, buildings, grottos, corners, nooks and altars, all managed by the various patriarchates (Roman Catholic, Greek and Syrian Orthodox….etc.) as designated by the 250 year old “status quo” of the Holy Land sites, an understanding among religious communities with respect to nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (A note of update, the Basilica is currently undergoing renovations since 2016 which might affect visitors).

The hi-light of course is seeing the Grotto of the Nativity, the birth cave which lies underneath the basilica. We were not part of the huge tour group of eastern Europeans which arrived around the same time, but as my friend asked one of the church employees a question and they determined that she was Armenian, and he was a representative from the Armenian Apostolic —which administers part of the property—so he showed us the way to go down and later gave us a tour of other parts of the place, including a rooftop view. As we went down into the grotto we were part of a huge crowd being shepherded through by their tour guides. The guides were encouraging “their” tourists to push others aside and get their view of the golden star which is embedded in marble, said to mark the very spot where Jesus was born. The shouting, the jostling, the clicking of cameras and phones (mine being one of them), everyone was trying to get their moment to be close enough to touch the star, and take a photo. There was no room to breathe, it was claustrophobic, stinky, and crowded, and the way people were treating one another in their rabid crush to get their sacred moment left an indelible mark on me. I don’t remember all the details of the many important historic items, sites, monuments, pieces of art and plaques that I saw that day, but what I will never forget is how an elderly woman nearly fell onto the star itself, from being pushed by a crowd of Christians insisting upon getting their Jesus blessing.

If Jesus could see what took place there that day, he’d be turning over in his gra……oh wait. It reminded me the pool of Bethesda story from the Gospel of John, Chapter 5. There Jesus heals a man who was waiting his turn to be the first into the water- which were alleged to heal the first person to get in, once the angels had stirred them. The man waited 38 years and had no luck because everyone else who was crippled and sick rushed in before he could! That story always bothered me for several reasons: one being that all these sick people didn’t form any kind of community being there for so long waiting to be healed. Ya know, maybe get to know one another, figure out who had priority to be healed…I mean, anyone who’s stood in a line for the bus, the bathroom, or the DMV, or even a taco-stand knows how you form a sort of waiting-community, and if someone steps out of line everyone is aware of it. I digress though. Things were only slightly different 2,000 years ago turns out. People still want their spiritual healing to come through touch. Through contact with something physical, tangible, preferably with photographic evidence, everyone else be damned. They—we—demand blessings.

This Christmas, I heard a lovely sermon at midnight about the child that must be born again each year within our souls. What conditions can we cultivate to welcome this Star, the Light, the Love? What manger needs to be cleaned up and made ready for the birth of the Being who is no longer to be found in one place on the globe, but potentially in all our hearts?

 

Mosque opposite church in Manger Square
View from the roof of the church onto Manger Square
Inside the Basilica, the crowd gathers to enter the grotto
Underneath the floor
Because of our Armenian connection, we were given a special roof-top tour
The Grotto of the Nativity
Hills of Judea
Grotto of the Nativity, aka mosh pit, some of the men were the tour guides
In the grotto, everything is covered with something by someone in a very haphazard yet completely adjudicated manner
getting my two seconds near the star
the star is behind that ladies bag

Pittsburgh Cathedral of Hope

East Liberty Presbyterian Church

Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Hope looms large over East Liberty and the greater east Pittsburgh area. It dominates the main corner of the increasingly gentrified neighborhood and houses the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. For a while I was under the false impression that this building was featured in the movie Dogma, because everyone always referred to the church in East Liberty that was, and this one is so impressive that I just assumed it was “the one.” But that is a different one. I show up on Palm Sunday and am duly impressed by the neo-gothic architecture, the huge organ, and the full pews. It somehow reminds me of the National Cathedral in D.C., but the more churches I see, the more they all seem to be some kind of gothic, either original or new/revival gothic.

Drone bird's eye view of downtown Liberty and the Cathedral Photo by Adam Tripp https://www.instagram.com/trippac/
Drone bird’s eye view of downtown Liberty and the Cathedral Photo by Adam Tripp https://www.instagram.com/trippac/

As over 200 parishioners wave green palm fronds and sing Hallelujah, my heart soars and the devotion brings tears to my eyes. The sermon begins with a Pittsburgh sports trivia question: Who had the home-run at the bottom of the 9th inning at the World Series in 1960? Only in the US, where sports and religion are one and the same, could this be the way to begin a high feast day. I have no idea what the preacher is talking about, but I try to get with the program to appreciate his message. Ignoring some distracting hand gestures, I understand the analogy he is drawing for us. Sitting behind me is a Gregory, I find out later a native Pittsburgher, who cheers out loud during the sermon. It seems he was there during that historic game in 1960 when the PGH Pirates won the World Series against the Yankees! (Full disclosure: I had to Google this all later). The sermon goes like this: First picture: the huge crowd which rushed the field at that historic game is our common heritage and part of our identity for many Americans—especially Pittsburghers. Second picture: The experience of being caught up in the crowd cheering for our team, that is Palm Sunday when Christ rode into Jerusalem and was triumphantly welcomed by the crowd shouting Hosanna. Third picture: only a few days later, however, the same people turn on Him and call for his crucifixion. Conclusion: the true essence of Christianity is not being part of a jubilant crowd celebrating the victory of the Super Bowl, or World Series, or what have you. No, being a true follower of Christ requires conscious intentionality in the difficult times, when the crowds disperse and the fun is over. I never thought I would relate to a sermon that began with a baseball trivia question yet somehow, I made it.

palms
Jesus carries the Cross Stained Glass windows by Charles Jay Connick

Friendly Gregory is an elderly African American, and is wearing a yellow shirt with handprinted letters that says “Free Hugs”. After the service, we chat a bit and he tells me about his beloved Cathedral and community. There is a labyrinth to walk during Holy Week which I find quite progressive for a somewhat Mid-western town like Pittsburgh. I mention that I walked the labyrinth in Chartres, France and Gregory exclaims: “Me too! We went on a church trip there!” Whatyaknow. That’s the kind of church this is, progressive, worldly, and welcoming. In the program, they have every kind of social activism and ministry possible. Prisoners, women, Taize prayer, youth ministry, literacy, homeless outreach, refugee outreach, LGBT rights, the bathroom is a freedom bathroom…

Nondiscriminatory bathroom

and the pews are full of people of all ages, all ethnicities, and classes, including a goodly share of man-buns. The liturgist and other celebrating officers are all women. I learned a new word: beadle, also a woman today.

Touring the grounds, I pass by the Meditation Room and peer through the window, seeing a middle-aged white woman sitting cross-legged on some cushions. She appears to be deeply focused—on her smartphone. Ah, even entering a special space for meditation is no guarantee that peace and quiet from the distracting Maya of the interwebs are possible.

Thank you, Cathedral of Hope for making me feel welcome, and proving that even the most staunch anti-sports American, would have her eyes opened to the joy of sports analogies.

the high altar
the faithful

http://cathedralofhope.org

St. Joseph’s in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

St. Joseph’s Church

While studying Persian in Central Asia years ago, I found myself missing me some Christ-talk. Jesus is revered in Islam as a prophet, but not the Son of God, so Tajikistan being a Muslim country, I had to look hard for some Easter action. Thus I found the Roman Catholic church in Dushanbe, St. Joseph’s. I did not happen upon it, I Googled “church in Dushanbe.” The first time I visited, I took a taxi and the driver found the place by asking people on the street. It was the first he’d heard of it too!  Although it did not look much like a church initially, when I looked up and saw crosses, I was in the clear. I looked around a bit, then went into the chapel and sat down towards the back, my usual spot where I attempt to be inconspicuous. First, several Mother Theresa nuns in their white uniforms with blue trim (Missionaries of Charity turns out, interesting infos on their work in Tajikistan here) came and introduced themselves (mostly they were from India) and immediately asked if I would do the reading. I had no idea what this reading was, what that entailed, or even what I would be reading! I demurred. Not being Catholic, or particularly familiar with the mass at that point, I felt like I was trespassing. I had that feeling I’ve had at other religious events where my only desire was to melt into the background and observe – the last thing I would want was to participate in an unknown ritual. The priest introduced himself, an Argentinian, he said all three priests assigned to Tajikistan are from Argentina—seems an odd place to send them—but what do I know about the inner workings of the Vatican and its priestly assignments. Father Lopez was charming and welcoming, and I was immediately reassured. I felt the strange urge to confess my lack of Catholicism, which I blurted out as soon as possible. He invited me to come up for a blessing instead of communion. The second time I went back to mass (for those still living in Dushanbe and interested, it’s in English on Saturdays at 6 pm, at least it was in 2011 when I lived there!) I was asked by the same nuns to carry up the wine and bread. Again I demurred, how was I to know when that appointed time is? Would I mess it up? Maybe I’m not supposed to because I’m not Catholic… I felt the same horror, being asked to participate in a ritual on my first visit to as an outsider to this group. Or was I denying the calling of service to the Lord? I decided it was probably ok, but I wasn’t ready yet to play an active role. I recognized half the hymns we sang, and as the words rang out to the accompanying organ, I felt shivers. Perhaps others were there also mostly for the music. The small community consists of a wide variety of expats, who come depending on their schedules and varies constantly. The service is in Russian on Sundays, so perhaps the crowd is bigger then. The second time I attended mass, it was held by a more junior priest whose eerie similarity in speech, tone, and posture to Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite distracted me from his message about the raising of Lazarus. It took me at least 15 minutes to stop my mind from making this hilarious connection, which was about as long as his sermon. I felt some serious sympathy for the 5-year-old who kept shifting in his chair, looking around the chapel and generally struggling to focus, though in my case the pollution of the sacred by pop culture was to blame.

There’s something fitting about the church being named after St. Joseph. It simply wouldn’t fly in the misogynistic and patriarchal culture of Tajikistan that I experienced, to name a church there after a woman, despite the many options of females played important roles in the Bible. Christians in Central Asia have it hard enough as it is, and I would imagine they don’t want to cause any extra trouble. Of course, Joseph was also muy importante, after all the father (legal, biological, or otherwise—it’s complicated) of Jesus, and husband to Mary, the last patriarch you might say. He surely played a big role in the most important story of human history, but his role is not as clear cut as I had expected. I thought it was settled that he was the father of Jesus, and thus also the father of several of the disciples, who were also Jesus’s brothers. But again, it’s complicated. The Catholics and Orthodox don’t agree on any of the details (what did ‘betrothed’ actually mean, who fathered whom when, ya know, the Virgin Birth issue) and when examined closely, the two synoptic Gospels which do relate anything about Joseph, Matthew and Luke, relay two different genealogies from David on down! The Gospel of Matthew relates that Jesus was descended from David’s son Solomon. Luke relates that Jesus descended from David’s son Nathan. There are many other important Joseph’s in the history of religion. The second most important I’d say, is the Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Oops, I mean, Joseph from the book of Genesis who was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt, only to get the best revenge ever by becoming viceroy, the most important man second only to Pharaoh himself. The third most important Joseph is Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus Christ. More perhaps in a later post on the many Joseph’s and their interconnectivity.

For a short article from 2003 with a brief history of the church in Tajikistan see here. For the fascinating history of the Soviet deportations which made this church in Dushanbe possible, see here. For the Spanish-speakers, here’s an update about the first Tajik priest, ordained June 2016.

(this is an adaptation of a post to my now-offline travel blog in Tajikistan 2010-2011)

St. Joseph’s Dushanbe
Moonrise over Orthodox graveyard in northern Tajikistan

First United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh

I have walked by this place so often, it was time to finally go in and see the grandness from the inside. Also, what is Methodist actually? I couldn’t say I’ve actually consciously ever been to a Methodist service. Oh wait, I take it back, Christmas 2005 in Copperas Cove, TX when I didn’t have enough leave accrued to go home I went to the Methodist church nearby, and I recall finding the music very moving. The location of this church is prime real estate, at a major intersection of several key up and coming neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. I walked past on my way from the grocery story on a Saturday and decided to visit the next day. There were several homeless-looking men hanging around at the front drinking beer, and as I walked around to see the other side, so did one of them and he proceeded to urinate against the building. The next day I could see from inside that he at least hadn’t urinated against the wall where the altar was…This is a truly beautiful building, the architectural symmetry made me feel comfortable, and it is well maintained. The choir wore gowns, I always get a kick out of that—not having grown up with lots of pageantry or uniforms, my only connotation is the Gospel Choir in uniform scenes from TV—but this choir sang beautifully, and it got me in the Spirit. At some point, at least 20 minutes after services had begun, what appeared to be one of the friends of Saturday’s hobos came in and proceeded to ‘greet’ the congregation. Better late than never, they say! What I’m still trying to get my mind around is the order of the events in these services. There is an observable order, but it doesn’t always appear to culminate in communion that everyone participates in. Yes, I know, some of you are probably going ‘duh’, it is Protestant! But this is new to me. I have since informed myself about Methodism further here and here. I asked how often communion is celebrated and learned about how the Methodists celebrate a service of Word and Table. Though I did not get to see it on this Sunday, they don’t use wine but grape juice and everyone regardless of denomination is welcome to receive the Communion. Apparently once a month is the norm for communion, though this goes back to the early days when there were not enough ordained clergy and so congregations had to wait for their ‘rotation.’  The senior pastor lead an attempt at a group prayer situation, which seemed somewhat awkward, because no one publicly volunteered the incriminating information which was needed to be prayed upon; the congregation seemed more comfortable submitting prayer requests by paper, or allowing the pastor to speak generally about and pray for the types of challenges a community, heck, every community, faces such as illness, incarceration, unemployment, and death. The sermon later was not particularly inspiring, and involved lengthy personal anecdotes and lamentations about the state of the world (yes, I already know, it sucks I live here too) but finally got to the message that we are called to help those in need, to be His disciples. This is in line with the Methodist “practical divinity” and putting love into action. From the community bulletin and bulletin board, it was evident that this church is very active socially and is doing charity, interfaith and community work, the opportunities to be His disciple are quite numerous. I find it interesting that Methodism was founded by John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England in the late 1700s. How many denominations, movements, and independent churches were founded by people seeking renewal or a renewed emphasis on an element they find lacking in their church? The freedom ultimately possible in Protestantism for individuals to follow their conscience and results of their own study of theology—regardless of where it might lead—them is for me the main draw of Protestantism itself.

St. Elisabeth’s Church in Vienna – Wieden

The Church of St. Elisabeth sits in a lovely little square in the 4th District of Vienna, Austria. It’s three blocks from the gorgeous Belvedere Palace and Museum, and right around the corner from a good friend’s apartment. On a cold and dank February Sunday morning, I decided to venture out and see what was happenin’ at St. Elisabeth’s, she being my patron Saint after all. My name is Bettina, a derivation of Elisabeth, and although in Europe, especially in the German-speaking areas, this is a well-known and common name (the most famous Bettina for me is the poet and contemporary of Goethe, Bettina von Arnim. I also mention her, because her uncle was Franz Brentano, priest, and professor of Philosophy in Vienna, and the connections come full circle…), in America, this name has garnered me much attention, even ridicule throughout my life. Ah, the cruelty of children. There was an entire summer in grade school, where a classmate called me “Butt” for months. But thankfully, working menial retail jobs where I had to wear a name tag, I experienced more than enough compliments and oohs and ahhs to make up for that summer. When saying my name to people over the years in America, I have gotten, “Oh, Petunia, that’s interesting,” to “Latina! Nice.” Or, the best, from my drill Sergeant in Basic Training: “Bettina!! Isn’t that a black name?!” So now I like to explain how Bettina in the German-speaking world (and I was named after an actual German woman named  Bettina), does mean little Elisabeth. Now we all know a bit about me, and why I shall begin my blog with a post about St. Elisabeth’s Church.

Though not raised Catholic, I find myself drawn more to Catholic Churches than other denominations, and have learned a lot about Christianity through the names of all the churches I encounter, all named after Saints. And there are so many Saints! Over 10,000, depending on who’s counting. Starting with St. Elisabeth is easy because she was the mother of John the Baptist, cousin of Mary and thus Auntie to JC Himself. Oh, and she is amongst other things most famous for becoming pregnant at an advanced age (meaning there’s still hope for me at age 38, ahem). She is also revered in Islam as a pious woman, to top it off.

From the booklet I purchased in the church I discover that this church is dedicated to an Elisabeth—obviously— but not the first one that I had in mind. The patron saint meant here is St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231). She was the Princess of Hungary and known for a miracle of roses and immense charity. As to the architecture, the book tells me “the neo-gothic brick-built church…can be glimpsed from Karlsplatz. The 74-meter high bell tower, set above the main facade, is one of the highest church steeples in Vienna and rises above a three-aisle nave with a slightly protruding transept and a south-pointing polygon-shaped choir. The red brick construction is accentuated with highlights of ashlar (such as buttresses, door and window frames).” This spot had been recommended for the building of a Roman Catholic church twice before but it wasn’t until a decree from the Ministry of Education in 1857 that the church was ordered to be built and funded by the Religious Fund Trust, and the Wieden District petitioned to dedicate the new church to St. Elisabeth, in memory of the recovery from a lung infection of the immensely popular Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sisi. The pamphlet explains further that the front portal, reached via seven steps, is divided by a middle pillar—a typical characteristic of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Above is the statue of St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231), the church’s patron, and featured on the altar painting of the High altar. How many Elisabeth’s can we associate with this place now?

The congregation and Parish seemed quite busy and full, despite the cold pews and lack of heating, there were at least 35 people attending, and I had seen a group of children being taken to a children’s activity in the community building (called a presbytery) in the square nearby before mass. The community flier presents a wide variety of activities, from men’s groups to children’s Fasching (Carnival) celebrations. My favorite was finding a little mini pamphlet called “Kirche im Kleinen: So feiern wir gemeinsam die Heilige Messe” or “Miniature Church: This is how we celebrate the Holy Mass” published by the St. Boniface Association in the back literature table, which tells you how mass is celebrated, and what is happening at each step. A very helpful guide for us outsiders.

The priest spoke German with a slight Eastern European accent, and his sermon was about loving your neighbor, and how much more difficult it is than we think because Jesus didn’t mean just your nice neighbor, the one you like, who is just like you, but strangers too—even the refugees, oh my—and that’s what it means to be Christian, to walk the talk. I left Mass feeling uplifted and interested in expanding my miniature understanding of the church. The stained glass windows I found quite beautiful, but the only thing it says about them in the booklet is that the oldest ones are from 1908, and the newest were replaced in 1950 by generous donations from congregants.

Left side altar of Maria, by Josef Kessler
Main High Altar image of Elisabeth of Thuringia
Right side altar, Christ, by Josef Kessler
St. Elisabeth’s Wieden