Church of the Assumption

Zurich, Schwamendingen. Just next to a large road, and surrounded by houses, stands the Serbian-Orthodox Church of the Assumption. With its dome and ornate marble columns at the entrance, the building looks like something from another world. There is a house attached to the church in which the parish priest lives. The church was originally built by the New Apostolic Church and later converted to the Orthodox Christian style. 

Architectural History and Reasons for Development

The painted interior of the dome above the altar room.

Deacon Miroslav Simijonovic recalls: "At first we rented the New Apostolic church in Dietlikon for three months, after which we were able to take over the vacant church in Zurich-Schwammendingen. For financial reasons we rented this for a year, and then officially acquired it in June 2006."

The conversion of the building was planned and work began in 2007 with excavation for the extensions. The project faltered, however, when a neighbour raised objections. This concerned the candle room, which would reach to the boundaries of the property,something which according to Swiss building regulations requires the agreement of the neighbours. After several months, the builders decided to employ a Swiss architect to help drive the project forwards. Agreement was finally reached with the neighbour, and work could begin at the end of 2009. Whether the work will be completed as planned in 2013 is secondary for Simijonovic: "The renovation work is unfortunately going slower than we would want, but we can only invest as much money as we have available. We must treat this rationally and objectively. Our priority is not to renovate the church as quickly as possible,but rather to ensure the quality of the renovation."

As the conversion and expansion of the church has not received the support of a large backer, the building project has been realised almost entirely by donations from the congregation. The dome, for example, was built by volunteers from the congregation. 

The Face of the Building

Father Miroslav Simijonovic (right) and Father Branimir Petkovic in front of the iconostasis.

Miroslav Simijonovic is the church deacon. He shares his priestly duties with Branimir Petkovic: "We celebrate mass together. On Sunday, one priest conducts the service and the other takes confession and gives the sermon. We swap the following week." Both men work full-time for the Church and are also responsible for the administration and renovation of the building. 

Neighbourhood and Conflict

The community reports a very good relationship with the neighbourhood. They have contact with other Christian Churches in the area and occasionally celebrate Mass together. The only thing which repeatedly causes problems is the lack of parking, and residents sometimes complain that worshippers park on their land. The church was once broken into. The Parish Council believes that this was an "Orthodox theft", as only relics were stolen, which have no monetary value, but are spiritually very valuable. 

Religious Tradition

An Icon over the steps to the altar room.
The iconostasis in the church's prayer room.

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 relationship between Serbian Church communities is not currently a problem. In Zurich there are currently two parishes, due to disagreements concerning the Bishop for Central Europe, Konstantin Dokic. The second parish (Assumption parish) is located at Elisabethenstrasse 20, 8004 Zürich.

Special Features

The newly built candle room in the ground floor.

The prayer room of the church is, rather unusually, upstairs, but is accessible to the disabled thanks to a newly installed stair lift. Unlike most other Orthodox iconostases the Schwammendingen iconostasis is made from marble. To demonstrate ties to Switzerland and the city of Zurich, the altar has icons of the city's martyrs Felix and Regula.

The newly built candle room is also a feature of the church. The worshippers can purchase a candle for a small donation, which they can light in the candle room .

Outside the church stands a fountain . This is not used for religious purposes, but decoratively, and to offer thirsty passers by an opportunity to drink.