Greek-Orthodox Church of Divine Wisdom
Griechisch-orthodoxe Gemeinde der Nordwestschweiz
|Type of Building:
|Greek Orthodox Church
|approximately 1000 m2 (land)
|Approximately CHF 5.5 million
|Stiftung griechisch-orthodoxe Kirche Basel (Greek-Orthodox Church Foundation, Basel)
|Denis N. Kopitsis, Wohlen
|Laying of the first stone:
|19th January 2002
|12th October 2003
|Conception through to inauguration:
|approximately 15 years
If one takes the tram number 10 towards Arlesheim-Dornach at Basel main station and gets of at the Zollweiden stop in Münchenstein, it doesn’t take long to see a building behind the roundabout which is easily recognisable as a church: a tower, through whose arches bells are visible, with a cross on top, a main building with a cupola, almost as tall as the tower and also crowned with a cross, an arcaded porch at the entrance – all decorated in white and various shades of grey. A wrought iron fence with a reoccurring monogram of Christ separates the property from the traffic of the neighbourhood street. A walk around the building reveals that this is not only a church on the edge of a residential neighbourhood, with living quarters for the priest. It also becomes clear that the buildings are laid out to make the shape of a cross, which together with the cupola is a strong indication that this belongs to the Orthodox tradition. The sign telling mass times in Greek makes this completely clear: This is Hagia Sophia, the Greek-Orthodox Church of Divine Wisdom.
Northwest Switzerland originally formed a single parish. On weekends, a priest from the Orthodox centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Chambésy would come to Olten and Basel to celebrate the liturgy for the Greek Orthodox people of the region. For over three decades, this was hosted by St Alban’s church in Basel, who also hosted the Serbian Orthodox community. The first concept for the construction of a separate church arose at the end of the 80s. The women were instrumental in ensuring that the idea was implemented: the psychiatrist, Dr. Soumela Terzani, and the Athens-based Asimina Kominou. These two women and their wealthy families contributed the bulk of the finances. Dr. Terzani, who was vice-president of the parish until September 2008, also became involved financially and organisationally.
Finding a plot for the church was far from easy. No support was offered from the city of Basel. The community therefore extended its search to the area surrounding Basel. After years of searching, the parish finally found land for sale in the Gladiolenstrasse in Münchenstein.
The next step was to overcome local resistance. While the local authorities quickly took a constructive approach, the local population, made up of single homes and apartment buildings, took longer. Apparently the foreign origin suggested by the word «orthodox», led to fears that it would harbour fanatical foreigners, who would isolate themselves or possibly even be violent. It took two years of educational work amongst the population and numerous visits from the Metropolitan (Bishop) of Chambésy to allay concerns. Objections from six people were only finally resolved by offering compensation. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I laid the foundation stone on 19th January 2002. Ten months later the building was finished, but it was not consecrated until the following autumn.
The structure of the Church of Divine Wisdom follows two styles: The cross-shaped floor plan and the dome symbolising the sphere of heaven follows the Orthodox tradition – the trustees had made it clear to the local authorities from the outset that the building had to have this form. With this, the congregation are offered a taste of home. On the other hand at fist glance the building is not much different from many Catholic and Reformed churches in Switzerland. However, the bright interior, with its iconostasis (icon screen) and other liturgical furnishings and decorations is clearly in the Orthodox tradition. The murals in the presbytery were even painted on cloth in a Greek monastery before being fixed on the apse wall.
The parish in Münchenstein has been in transition for some time. The former priest, Father Dimitrios Korakas, no longer leads the congregation, and his successor has not yet been determined. Members who were active on the parish council for many years have now withdrawn.
The church is no longer a focus for objections. The congregation regularly invites the local community for informative meetings, especially before Orthodox Easter, which only rarely falls on the same date as Easter in western Churches. An important liturgy takes place on the night of Easter Sunday, in which bells are rung at midnight, and the service may last until 3 o’clock in the morning, after which voices and car engines can be heard. There is no longer a parking problem during the rest of the year, as most visitors come with the tram. Many non-Greek Orthodox members also visit the church, such as Russian, Bulgarian, Ethiopian and Coptic Orthodox.
About 150-170 million believers belong to the Orthodox Church worldwide. Although there are now 16 different Orthodox denominations, it is theologically understood to be an indivisible Church. Their common doctrinal basis is the decisions of the seven Ecumenical Councils (up to and including Nicea II, 787AD). They thus also share the resolutions of thee Councils with the Roman-Catholic Church. Nevertheless, long standing rivalry and antagonism between the «Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople» and the Roman Empire came to a head in 1054 in the «Oriental schism».
A characteristic of the Orthodox Churches are that they are «autocephalous», in that they choose their own Patriarch, Catholicos or Archbishop. This is in order to resist the demands of the Roman Catholic Papacy on primacy of jurisdiction (direct power of control), and the «infallibility» of the Pope in doctrinal decisions. For the Orthodox Church, infallibility lies in the whole Church, and can only be decided by a council of the whole Church. Other differences to the Reformed Churches concern the sacraments and the doctrine of justification (the understanding of original sin and the grace of God).
The Orthodox Church sees its task as the representation of «the authentic tradition of the Church of the Apostles.» The central tenets of the Orthodox faith are the work of the Holy Spirit, the «deification» of man (theosis) and the understanding of the «sanctification of the entire cosmos» (metamorphosis). The pastoral priests are usually married, but widowers cannot marry again. The bishops, however, remain unmarried, and are usually chosen from the monkhood. Monasteries have had an important role since earliest times, and are considered central to the preservation of religious and cultural identity.
Orthodoxy does not see itself primarily as instructive, rather as a eulogistic community of God, whose theology has an experiential character. The Liturgy has a central position in the Orthodox faith, and is intended to appeal to all the senses. The Orthodox mass, known as the Divine Liturgy, can last for several hours, during which the congregation are mostly standing. Chanted prayers play a large part of the service, and are often sung by trained choirs. Musical instruments are not permitted. An iconostasis (screen painted with icons) separates the nave, filled with the congregation, from the altar, in which are the priests, deacons and acolytes. The nave symbolises the earthly human world, while the altar symbolises of the «Kingdom of God.» During the Liturgy, the priest enters through the opened «Holy Doors», the central gate of the iconostasis, as a representative of the congregation. Candles and incense, the «scent of heaven», are central to the Liturgy as a sensual experience.
The metropolitan (diocese) of Switzerland is subject to the Instanbul-based «Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople», among other dioceses within and outside Greece. Within Orthodoxy, the Patriarchate has a leading position, an unofficial «primacy of honour». Bartholomew I, who has been Patriarch since 1991, visited Switzerland in 1995, and laid the foundation stone in for the new Orthodox Church Münchenstein and the spiritual centre in Basel.
Text : Andreas Tunger-Zanetti
Photos : Andreas Tunger-Zanetti
Acknowledgements: We thank Dr. theol. Maria Brun from Lucerne for noumerous important informations in connection with this building.
«Cupola – Temple – Minaret» is a Project by the Centre for Research on Religions, Lucerne
Last updated: 5th July 2015
© 2015 Department for the Study of Religion, University of Lucerne