French church in Switzerland gave shelter to fleeing Huguenots


Central Europe

Wim Eradus, RD

The Dominican Church in Bern. Photo iStock

The French Huguenot church in Bern is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. As a bridge builder between languages and cultures, the French church developed into an important cultural community.

The French-speaking church community in Bern was founded in 1623 by the Huguenot Louis de Champagne, Comte de la Suze, who was in charge of the construction of the Grosse Schanze, Bern's western city fortification, from 1622 to 1624. With that initiative, the Huguenot wanted to ensure that French-speaking Bernese from Canton Vaud (added to Canton Bern in 1536) could attend church services in their mother tongue. The town council agreed and Champagne was given access to the Dominican church.

After Louis XIV revoked the tolerance Edict of Nantes in 1685, many Huguenots fled the country. About 50,000 of them entered Switzerland. Usually near Geneva, which became the Huguenot Mecca. Their numbers increased to such an extent that Calvin's hometown almost burst at the seams. Many had to move on. The territories of the old confederation, to which Geneva belonged, jointly agreed on a distribution key. Since the Bern territory was the largest at the time, Bern would take over half of the Huguenot refugees. Part of French refugees found an ecclesiastical home in the Dominican church.


Still the "Paroisse française de Berne" on Zeughausgasse cherishes its history. "Huguenot heritage is part of our DNA," says pastor Olivier Schopfer. "Our parish has always consisted of a mix of people who have lived in Bern for a long time or are passing through. This is also the basis of its commitment to French-speaking refugees in Bern."

Bern played an important role in supporting the wave of reformed refugees from France at the time, as it organised housing and care as well as further transport into Germany. "The inhabitants of Bern generously helped the Huguenots who had fled their homeland," says Schopfer. "But given the large numbers, most of them could not settle here permanently anyway. Also, the authorities saw them as competition."

The Dominican Church is the oldest preserved church in Bern. It was built around 1300 for the Dominican monastery founded in 1269. With the Reformation, the Dominicans were expelled from Bern and the monastery was converted into a hospital. Since 1623, now 400 years ago, the church has been used by French-speaking Protestants. The congregation now has about 700 members.


Pastor Schopfer organised a seventeenth-century-style church service on the occasion of the commemoration. "The first thing you imagine with that is hours of listening in the hard pews. Sitting for an hour is quite something now, back then it was two and a half hours. With that, the sermon alone lasted two hours. But things were more convivial. The meetings were a very important point in life, where the whole community met."

On 1 October, the sermon was preached, which was originally delivered on 25 March 1688 in this church. The pastor then was Pierre-François Olivier, from Coppet on Lake Geneva. Schopfer, smiling: "We did take a break."

This article was translated by CNE.news and published by the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on November 8, 2023



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