Strangers in a strange Church

Last Sunday my fiancée and I were away from home – at least five dioceses* (or three countries) to be exact – so Mass was to be attended at an unfamiliar church in an unfamiliar language (well, at least partly). We opted for the Cathedral of St. Erik in Stockholm.

The cathedral is the mother church of the Diocese of Stockholm, which covers all of Sweden, and the seat of Bishop Anders Arborelius (who himself was in Rio when we visited his cathedral). It has been the cathedral since 1953, when Stockholm was established as a diocese, although it wasn’t consecrated until 1983.

As visits to other churches than my own, both in the Netherlands and in Germany, have made me a bit concerned about how the liturgy would be celebrated, I entered St. Erik’s with similar feelings. But, as it turned out, there was no need. The cathedral community and her priests understand liturgy and celebrate Mass as the Church requires. What they don’t do well, however, is architecture.

 St. Erik’s is divided in two parts. There is the original church, which is a perfectly fine 19th century building, with lots of woodwork, paintings, stained glass, statues and two altars. Much is made of the 1989 visit of Blessed John Paul II, and the cathedral is the proud owner of a relic of the soon-to-be saint. The patron, Saint Erik himself, is also in evidence, as is St. Bridget, patron of Sweden. No complaints with this part of the building, except that it contains a gaping hole.

There is no main sanctuary.

Instead, where the sanctuary once upon a time was, there is now a nicely arched entry into the second haf of the building: a standard hall-like structure of the style which suffices for a meeting hall, multifunctional school room or other spacious area where a large number of people can meet. But a space where the sacrifice of our Lord can become present? Not so much. The contrast between the two parts of the church is quite jarring. It is a sign of the power of good liturgy that it is able to transcend this contrast, but why someone once elected to remove a perfectly good sanctuary, designed to elevate the soul and make the sacrifice of the Mass visible to its deepest level, and replace it with a  brick room is anyone’s guess.

But not wanting to be a sour-puss, I’ll share some photos I took at the cathedral:

saint erik's cathedral

^The coat of arms of Pope Francis graces the front of the cathedral.

saint erik's cathedral

^The modern section of the cathedral, which does contain some positive elements: the tabernacle is impossible to miss, the altar has a Benedictine arrangement, and priests, deacons, acolytes and servers sit facing the tabernacle when not at altar or lectern.

st. eriks  cathedral, john paul ii

^A relic of Blessed John Paul II’s blood, in a chapel in the archway leading from the original church to the newer section.

st. eric's cathedral

^ From the old to the new: both parts of the church seen together.

Lastly, a church is also made up out of people. One of these was Blessed John Paul II. Another is the unknown lady who approached us and told us her story in Swedish (we were not able to follow it all). Her tears touched us, as did  her desire and hope for our future happiness. She gave us a tiny relic of the blessed Pope, a piece of fabric with his blood on it… **

*Seen from my home diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, these would be the Dioceses of Osnabrück and Münster, the Archdiocese of Hamburg, and the Dioceses of Copenhagen and Stockholm.

** And yes, it is official, containing an affidavit with Cardinal Vallini’s name and signature.


4 thoughts on “Strangers in a strange Church”

  1. Thank you for this report from my parish church, the Catholic Cathedral of Stockholm, where I also was recieved in the Caholic faith, as my three sons. I agree about your reflections; the 1882 neoroman church is well proportioned and it was just perfect in the traditional liturgy. However, it was too small, it takes only 200 visitors. So when the former dean msgr Johannes Koch came in 1963, he was decisive to build a new cathedral. The plan was that it should be completly separated from the old one, a round church like the temple in Jeruslalem. The parish was covering a whole province by then, and the plan was to let the old church be a resource for weddings and baptisms, without blocking the new cathedral for Holy Mass. However the city government did not allow that.

    So what we have today is a compromise. What one should know also is that there is a mechanic wall between the old and new church. So one can easily shut that wall, and put a movable altar in the abside of the old church.On the movable wall is an enormous painting in the school of Rubens, Christ on the cross. (The so called indult Mass – the traditional Latin Mass – was celebrated in the old church many times.)

    About the architecture of the modern part: It was planned by the architect Hans Westman, he also made the architecture for the Carmelite convent in Glumslöv. It is in the modernist style of 1970s, but already in the 1950s these ideas came of hall-like churches. The ceiling is a construction for best possible accoustic quality.

    To me one could do some makover of the interior, especially the ceiling lights could be removed and an thrrefolded altarpiece would be nice, as a triumph crucifix hanging over the altar. But the room works very well, it takes 600 people and the organs are connected, so the big one in the old part also could be used from the modern part.

    Just another note: Besides from the relics of B. John Paul II – did not know about them – there are genuine relics from S. Ansgar, and S. Erik – in the altar – and from S. Hieronymus, S. Teresa of Àvila, S. Bridget, B. Liborius Wagner and some more, they are visible on top of the sideway altar from Altomünster, to the right inbetween the two churches, where also the Kazanskaja icon “Our Lady of Stockholm” is – one of the oldest in the world.

    So; old and new elements – yes, and one can have some opinions on the solution, yes. But one should be informed that it is not the first solution on a delicate problem, that the domprost msgr Koch had in mind, maybe not even the fourth.

    Ulf Silfverling
    Member of the parish council in the Cathedral in Stockholm

    1. Thank you for your elaborate reply! Our visit to the cathedral was very positive, and I don’t want to give the impression that I disliked the newer section. It has some very good elements, in the sanctuary especially, and the fact that the old church was getting too small is an encouraging development, to be sure. Let’s see it as a sign for the future of the Church in Stockholm. Thanks again!

  2. Despite of all my experiences of the Holy Church here, I have also my doubts on the interior. The windows in the modern part were planned to be stained glass in 19th century style (one can buy from deserted churches in your country! But the parish council choose the cheapest solution, modern, almost Rudolf-Steiner style non-figurative creations from Germany. I was the only one to make my reservation against that decision…Msgr Johannes Koch, a great man and son of the Church, who died in 2006, was very traditional in liturgy and teaching, and surprisingly very modern in his ideas of art and architecture. However, these windows would he never have approved!
    Sincerely in Christ!

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