ALTERheritage: protecting worship sites across the EU


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The protection of the architectural patrimony and of the historical and cultural heritage is the aim of an international conference that will take place in Potes, in the autonomous region of Cantabria, in Spain, from 19 to 21 March 2015. A great example places of worship is the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route running from France to Rome that in the last few years has been successfully re-launched.

The event is part of the ALTERheritage project, financed by Leonardo Programme.

The European religious sites are not only a symbol or a pilgrim place: they represent an artistic patrimony, our history and at the same time the future for new generations. They are also a destination for sustainable tourism, in respect of the environment and of local communities. Heritage is often put at risk by wars, robberies, fire and, lately, by unregulated construction projects or just neglected by member states.

This issue is very topical in Italy: the Franciscan monks have recently organized a fund raising for restoring the Basilica di San Francesco D’Assisi’s frescos. Thanks to this successful initiative, they are collecting funds from all European countries. It is not by chance that a Dutch proverb says: “Everything of value is defenseless (alles van waarde is weerloos)”.

The ALTERheritage project focuses on life-long practical training of those working in managing and preserving this precious heritage in national and local contexts.

The project is an initiative of the European network for historic places of worship – Future for Religious Heritage (FRH). Among the partners are the Department of Conservation of the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, Media K Gmbh in Germany, KU Leuven – Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation in Belgium, The Churches Conservation Trust in England, the Sociedad Regional de Cultura y Deporte in Spain and the Museum Catharijneconvent in The Netherlands.

Dedicated to experts, the event will be hosted by Centro de Estudios Lebaniegos in Potes.

The programme includes visits of religious sites, such as the Santo Toribio de Liébana Monastery (that is one of the holy places since the Middle Age, as Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela), Santa María de Lebeña Church and Santa María la Real de Piasca Church.

Among the participants: Miguel Ángel Serna Oliveira, regional Minister for Education, Culture and Sports of the Cantabria Government; Francisco Javier Gómez Ruiz, Mayor of Potes; Joaquín Solanas, General Director of Culture for the Cantabria Government; Pilar G. Bahamonde, Centro de Estudios Lebaniegos Director; Segundo Leonardo Pérez López, Dean of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral; Olivier de Rohan Chabot, President of FRH Future for Religious Heritage and President of “La Sauvegarde de l’Art Français”; the architect José María Páez and Enrique Campuzano, Director of Dioceses Museum of Santillana.

The three-day conference will be the occasion to present Religiana, another project initiated by FRH, on religious heritage and tourism. Religiana promotes those buildings to both secular and non-secular audiences, by developing a multilingual smartphone, tablet and computer application.

Religiana is available not only to individuals, but to organizations who can help promote interest in Europe’s religious heritage, such as tourist promotion offices, tour operators, guide books, and map makers. It is managed jointly by the FRH, who has developed the software, and its members in different countries, who run the scheme locally.

Lilian Grootswagers, FRH Council Secretary, was interviewed by “Religious Heritage represents, and by far, the largest single category of European patrimony and it is widely cherished as part of Europe’s Cultural heritage by its citizens. A recent EU poll showed 4 out of 5 consider the religious buildings in their midst to be crucial. Knowledge transfer and innovation is needed on a European level, if this remarkable patrimony is to be handed down to future generations. FRH’s ambition is to provide a strong structural framework for ongoing inter-cultural and sectorial exchanges of ideas and problems, regarding religious heritage protection, conservation and management, with active participation from organizations and individuals across Europe.

ALTERheritage is an EU project that is focused on collecting and sharing knowledge, ideas and expertise. We are very pleased the Sociedad Regional de Educación, Cultura y Deporte del Gobierno de Cantabria is one of the partners in this project and is willing to share their expertise”.

Directed and acted by George Clooney, “The Monuments Men” is a Hollywood action drama focusing on an World War II platoon, tasked with going into Germany to rescue artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves, and returning them to their rightful owners. The Monuments man put their lives at risk to protect and defend mankind’s greatest achievements, as the sculpture of the Madonna and Child in Bruges.

The aim of Future for Religious Heritage is precisely to support “monuments men and women” across Europe.


FEATURED ARTICLE – Community development and volunteering in a rural parish in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany


Erhaltung und Nutzung des Religiösen Erbes im ländlichen Raum in Europa

FRH-Tagung, 29.10. – 01.11. 2014, Halle (Saale), Deutschland


Community development and volunteering in a rural parish in Sachsen-Anhalt

by Sonja Hahn

Art Historian, Chairwoman of „Förderkreis Entschlossene Kirchen e.V.“, Zerbst

„Sometimes there has to be a fall first

before something new can flourish.“

(Parish priest Thomas Meyer)

Explaining the very special concept of preserving our religious heritage I have to introduce our small parish community at first. The „Evangelische Weinberggemeinde Garitz“ is a parish of the protestant church of Anhalt, which is the smallest established protestant church in Germany, located in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt. Our parish belongs to the church district of Zerbst. Zerbst by the way is now a small town in the countryside but by the time of the reformation it was one of the bigger cities in the centre of Germany and among the first cities that adopted the reformation. Martin Luther often visited Zerbst and preached in the city’s Augustinian monastery.

The church district nowadays includes 61 very small villages with their own village churches. All of them are classified as historical monuments. Not only that the villages are very small – many of them have less than 100 inhabitants – the great majority of the population now is atheistic. To give an example: Our parish consists of five villages with four village churches: one Village (Garitz) has 250 inhabitants, the others have less than 100. Only one third of the population is Christian. And this is not even representative for the situation in the whole state.

In the state of Sachsen-Anhalt only 17,4 percent of the total population are Christians. Christians of both confessions – protestants and catholics – here in Sachsen-Anhalt form a constantly declining minority. Of course the secularization is a late result of the anti-clerical policies of the GDR, but it is an ongoing process for almost several decades now. And what makes the problem worse is the fact that this is a self-reinforcing process, unless something is done about it. We are now facing the third generation of people having left the church. The first generation was still socialized in a Christian manner. But not the following generations. There was nobody to tell them the basics about the faith, the cult and even the Christian culture. So the young generation itself is not anti-clerical, but simply not informed about religion and Christianity.

Few Christians attended church regularly. So it made no sense to hold regular services in each village only for five or fewer churchgoers. Moreover, in our case, there is only one priest responsible for 10 widely scattered villages and half of the city’s district of Zerbst. Under these circumstances it was not possible to obtain a normal church life up. Not to mention the overwhelming problem for nearly all parishes elsewhere in Sachsen-Anhalt: the lack of money. Therefore new ideas were requested as a matter of urgency. Fortunately, we had a very open-minded priest and a young parish council. We understand that it is our chance to live in the countryside in villages where mutual aid still is a matter of course. We wanted to take this opportunity.

Together we decided not to close down and to decommission our village churches. We considered these old churches as a treasure that has been entrusted to us. In our secularised society here in Sachsen-Anhalt often only the existence of the church buildings itself reminds of the cultural heritage of Christianity. So we opted instead for the use of village churches deliberately as churches, even though we do not really need all for our regular services. We decided to open the churches 24 hours a day throughout the year for all villagers and visitors, whether they are Christians or not. And we asked our fellow villagers for help to preserve the old church buildings, whenever it was needed. Doing so we explicitly wanted to address those who are not members of our church and include them. The message was understood. Many of them now regard the village churches as their heritage, too, and feel responsible for it. Young people of the volunteer fire department, for instance, who never before had contact with the church as an institution now regularly come to say prayers in „their“ village churches and help us to organize parish festivals.

Of course it was impossible to perform the necessary basic renovation of the old church buildings only by neighbourly help. The reconstruction and restoration of the churches was done with the help of government subsidies. But the condition to this aid was a viable concept for the maintenance of the buildings. In order to fulfil this requirement the parishes of our church district agreed in 2005 to establish an own foundation for this purpose under the patronage of the „Deutsche Stiftung Denkmalschutz“ (German National Fund for the Protection of Monuments) This new foundation – „Stiftung Entschlossene Kirchen“ (the german Word „entschlossen“ has two different meanings: on the one hand it means „determined“ and on the other “unlocked“, so this name should signal our church is determined and active and this specific village church is unlocked and open to the public) manages the funds paid by the parishes (amounts of 3000 € for each village church) to held equity in stock for future renovations. In addition, a non-profit organization was founded in 2008 – the „Förderkreis Entschlossene Kirchen“ (support group). This organization is responsible for public relations: it hosts concerts, lectures and festivals in the village churches and it offers training for volunteer tourist guides. This indeed, is a very successful activity. The increasing interest of tourists to visit our village churches also raises the curiosity of our non-Christian neighbours. The „Förderkreis“-organization enhanced this interest by opening a little permanent exhibition in 2010: the „Dorfkirchen-Museum“ (village church museum) in Garitz.

The radical opening of our churches and the activities of the „Förderkreis“ (supporters group) were only first steps in our conception. Right from the beginning we knew that it would not be enough to open the churches most of the time only for quiet contemplation. So we were looking for a way to let the old village churches „talk“. The old imagery of churches is indeed no longer understood by those who have no prior knowledge about Christianity. In order to get this alienated generation interested again we would have to provide basic information about church and Christianity in a contemporary and yet unobtrusive manner. This was for sure.

It was our parish priest, Thomas Meyer, who developed the brilliant idea of „Themen-Kirchen“ – themed churches. The largest out of the four village churches was used regularly by our unified parish for the Christmas service. For the rest of the year there were only few occasions for to use the church appropriate. So it was called the „Christmas Church“ even before it was officially named as „Weihnachtskirche“ (Christmas Church) in 2009. A local artist carved in the following years on behalf of the parish a giant Christmas crib from linden wood trunks that remains all the year in the church. The “Weihnachtskirche“ with „Germany’s largest Nativity Scene“ in the small village of Polenzko became famous nationwide. It now attracts visitors from everywhere: travel groups, school classes, choirs to sing Advent.

The keystone of our concept to preserve the religious heritage in our region is the „Easter Church“ in the village of Trüben. As complementary to the themed church in Polenzko the „Easter church“ is a more ambitious project: up to the year 2017 – the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation – a permanent exhibition shaped after the principles of experiential education will be erected around the small medieval church. The Passion Path of Christ should be made understandable especially to young visitors or those without any prior knowledge. A scenery consisting of images and objects will illustrate its individual stations from Jesus entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday up to the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. Almost one third of the planned scope is already completed. For example, a former cemetery hall was remodeled. It is now a little chapel with a mural of the Last Supper. Table and benches „grow“ to some extent out of the picture into reality. So visitors can take place at the same table with Jesus. For the full completion of the project the „Weinberg-Gemeinde“ and the „Förderkreis“ rely on generous donations and active participation of the villagers.

Finally, the last-mentioned aspect is worth to be highlighted again: Our concept of open churches, cultural events and themed churches would never succeed without the active help of many neighbours, whether they are Christians or not-yet-Christians: strong young men who lend a hand, women who prepare food, brew coffee and bake cake for festivities, young people who make music. We asked them for help and they helped. Again, Christians or not-Christians, by participating, they all develop a certain respect for the religious heritage of their region. And so do their families and friends. We are often asked if anything was stolen or damaged in our unlocked churches. The answer is: We have not even once had a bad experience.

We, the Christians, are still a minority in our rural area. But we are a well-respected one. More and more young people accept our invitations with pleasure. Two decades ago, most residents had never set foot in the church in their village. Today there are very few who never had done it. Even the lone visit to the church, the encounter with the silence, gives people new hope. Some time ago, an anonymous entry found in the guestbook of the village church of Garitz: „Get me! Life here is not worth living, it’s a journey back and forth. I wish redemption.“ Several months later a new entry in the same handwriting: „I have arrived and I’m thankful to be here. I love life and my family in good and in bad times. Protect the people who stand at my side!“ Here, apparently, someone had spoken quietly with God. And he or she had received a response. Is there a better reason to open our churches for all people?


FRANCE – Volunteers organise themselves to save their religious heritage


De Kapelle now gathers around 40 lovers of religious heritage to help sustain the five churches of the commune. They also organise visits to help others enjoy the heritage.


Créée en 1996 par la volonté de quelques amateurs du passé historique religieux d’Halluin, De Kapelle recense actuellement une quarantaine de membres. Durant toute l’année, les bénévoles assurent l’entretien et le fleurissement des cinq chapelles que compte la commune et organisent également des visites guidées des différents édifices.

via L’association De Kapelle d’Halluin préserve le patrimoine religieux – La Voix du Nord.

POLAND – Culture ministry rejects request to renovate historic synagogue

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage turned down a request to help fund the renovation of a historic synagogue in Przysucha.

The total estimated cost to renovate the synagogue in southern Poland, about 60 miles from Warsaw, is $52,000. The foundation had requested $43,000 from the culture ministry.

The synagogue’s titleholder, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, said it was trying to convince federal officials to change their minds on the decision they made last week.

“We do not understand why it is not in the interest of the Polish state to assist in caring for Jewish monuments,” Monika Krawczyk, the foundation’s director general, told JTA.

via Polish culture ministry rejects request to renovate historic synagogue | Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The NETHERLANDS – Thinking out of the box for abandoned churches

Out of the box thinking was the task for four young designers when they started with their design for a new use of four different churches. A church like swimming pool with garden was one of the results, an idea that probably will remain a dream nevertheless. Deltateam Fryske Tsjerken wanted new and exciting ideas for filling their church again.


Out of the box denken was de opdracht aan vier jonge ontwerpers toen ze startten met hun ontwerp voor een nieuwe bestemming van vier verschillende kerken. Een kerk als zwembad mét zwemtuin erbij was een van de resultaten. Een idee dat wellicht een droom zal blijven van het project Droomkerk. Opdrachtgever Deltateam Fryske Tsjerken wilde kerkbesturen spannende ideeën meegeven bij het opnieuw invullen van hun kerkgebouw.

Het artikel Een zwembad in de kerk, waarom niet? uit de Leeuwarder Courant van 4 juli 2014 maakte nieuwsgierig en leidde naar de projectleider Jitze Tadema van het Deltateam waarmee de Agenda Toekomst Religieus Erfgoed in gesprek ging en een tussentijdse balans opmaakte. Het project Droomkerk was een frivool uitstapje van het Deltateam dat nu alweer drie jaar bestaat. Een ambulant drietal dat kerkbesturen in Friesland ondersteunt bij herbestemming, sluiting of andere problematiek in het kader van leegloop van hun kerk.

Lees meer…

MALTA – St John’s makes room for more tourists

The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation has plans for a total state-of-the art refurbishment and extension of the museum. This is to accommodate the ever-increasing amount of tourists and locals who visit, and especially because the current layout of the museum is unable to exhibit all its priceless artefacts in the right conservation environment.

The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation has been examining this project for several years in an effort to better showcase its collections. These include, amongst others, all twenty-nine Flemish Tapestries, the Sacred Vestments, the Silver Collection, the Illuminated manuscripts, and the Cappella Ardente. A Caravaggio Centre is also planned, and will focus on the life and works of the most celebrated artist of the Baroque era, whose most prestigious painting, The Beheading of St John, graces the Oratory.

Read more…

GERMANY – Challenges ahead for the Archdiocese of Cologne to maintain their buildings


The reasons are mentioned as the large number of buildings together with declining congregations, which results in declining church tax revenue.


Der scheidende Generalvikar Stefan Heße hat bei der Vorstellung der Bistumsbilanz eine der großen Herausforderungen der kommenden Jahre benannt: Der „riesige Immobilienbesitz“ der Erzdiözese Köln sei „in dieser Form auf Dauer nicht zu halten“, sagte der kirchliche Verwaltungschef. Angesichts rückläufiger Mitgliederzahlen und langfristig sinkender Kirchensteuereinnahmen müsse die Kirche darüber nachdenken, sich von Gebäuden zu trennen – auch von Gotteshäusern. Allein im Jahr 2014 sind nach Angaben von Finanzdirektor Hermann Josef Schon 26,3 Millionen Euro in die Bauunterhaltung der Kirchen in den Gemeinden des Erzbistums geflossen.

via Immobilien des Erzbistums Köln: Kirchenverkauf als letzter Ausweg | Köln – Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.

FRANCE – Local business engages to save church paintings

En septembre à l’occasion des Journées Européennes du patrimoine, des 40 ans du comité des fêtes et du repas de village, une convention entre la Fondation du Patrimoine, les Amis de Clermont et la municipalité avait été officiellement signée pour la rénovation des peintures intérieures de l’église de Clermont-le-Fort. À cette occasion, une souscription d’appel aux dons a été lancée afin de financer ce projet d’environ 40 000 €.

Depuis deux semaines, les travaux ont démarré. Un nettoyage au pinceau fait déjà ressortir les peintures en bon état. Le fixage des parties décollées est en cours et l’on commence de consolider à l’enduit les parties manquantes. De petites fenêtres ont été pratiquées : Un test des peintures sous-jacentes en divers endroits permet de découvrir un motif ancien qui sera peut-être conservé.

En savoir plus…

FEATURED ARTICLE – The Finnish Shingle Roof: The Tradition Lives On in Kesälahti

“It’s a jewel! Truly remarkable! There is no other roof like it in the country.” Olli Cavén, the conservator of Finland’s National Board of Antiquities, finds the Kesälahti bell tower’s shingle roof a wonderful example of the handicraft of traditional folk building. He also recognises the beauty of its intricate patterns.

The need for the restoration project of the Kesälahti shingle roof came to light in the early 2000s. The parish is a small community of two thousand people who didn’t have the means to repair the roof on their own. Would re-roofing with metal, or even abandoning the bell tower altogether, be their only choice?

The project began with preparing measurement drawings and compiling a building history report as well as a damage assessment report. The subsequent dendrochronological dating was done by researchers Margarita Kisternaya and Valery Kozlow of Petrozavodsk, from the Forest Research Institute of Karelian Research Centre of RAS (the Russian Academy of Sciences), using samples from the bell tower log frame and the shingles.

The roof turned out to be roughly 170 years old, one of the oldest in Finland. Roofs are generally a very visible element of wooden churches and bell towers, especially due to often being quite steep. The high surface of the roof was laid into regular patterns, which were created using carefully arranged shingles hewn into different shapes. The structure of the Kesälahti bell tower shingle roof, laid in the 1830s, consists of a layer of pine shingles, in some parts a double layer, over a birch-bark underlay which was originally placed only along the lower and upper edges of the roof.

The tradition of hand-hewn shingles and individually forged nails flourished in Finnish construction until the 20th century, when it was largely replaced by sawn shingles and factory-produced nails. Laying a shingle roof called for competent workmanship from its earliest stages, especially for a patterned roof of hand-hewn shingles of varying shapes. The complex shape of the bell towers and spires also presented its difficulties. The builders started out as only doing local work. By the 18th century, church builders are known to have formed professional working parties for mutual projects.

Architect Hannu Piipponen from The Regional Environment Centre dedicated himself to saving the Kesälahti bell tower. As the project leader, he prepared plans and funding applications. The process turned out to be both complex and fascinating.

The restoration work drew heavily from the original workmanship of the builders who had laid the roof. The goal of the project was a roof that matched the original, not only in form but also in quality. This meant the shingles would have to be hand-hewn. Piipponen hit upon the idea of combining the restoration project with restoration training. The local carpenters were instructed by the most skillful specialists in the country. Several participants earned their restoration degrees while working on the project. This was a successful solution not only for this project but brought later work possibilities for the workers, too.

The North-Karelian Regional Environment Centre started to work on the project “The Shingle Roof, Feasibility Study and Planning” in the autumn of 2004. The funding was provided by the Finnish government and the European Regional Development Fund.

The next stop involved seeking funding for a local cooperation project. COSCNTR signed on as a cooperation partner in the negotiations in Petrozavodsk, February 15th 2005. A project plan was put together according to the guidelines of the Euregio Karelia operational model, and a funding application was devised for the Shingle Carvers project.

The North-Karelian Regional Environment Centre granted the government funding for the project on January 1st 2006 and The Council of Oulu Region the Neighbourhood Programme funding from the European Regional Development Fund on March 9th 2006.

After the funding for the Shingle Carvers project had been confirmed the Kesälahti parish could start looking for timber for the shingles. The parish approached the European Regional Development Fund for the funding of the bell tower restoration project, and it was granted on February 24th 2006.

Unfortunately it was later discovered that the gathered funds were still not sufficient for successfully finishing such a vast project that relied on handicraft and expertise. The Regional Environment Centre began environmental work in the Kesälahti region, and the Central Karelia Employment and Economic Development Centre appointed four people to assist in the work for nearly six months. The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland granted the Kesälahti parish 30, 000 euros for the bell tower restoration.

The Europa Nostra Awards, given each year in cooperation with the European Union, recognise cultural heritage projects, excellence in the restoration, repair, study and training related to cultural heritage and initiatives related to education, guidance and other service in the field.

The purpose of the award is to promote and celebrate professionalism in repairs and restoration work, as well as encourage international exchange of knowledge in cultural heritage. The exposure will hopefully lead to further projects and work in the protection of cultural heritage in Europe.

In 2009, 28 Europa Nostra Award winners were chosen from the 140 candidates. The Kesälahti shingle roof project was one of the winners, and was also honoured as one of the seven Grand Prix laureates.

Antti Pihkala

Kesälahti, elevations

Literature, project material:

Osmo Karttunen, Antti Pihkala, Hannu Piipponen. Kesälahden kellotapuli. The Kesalahti Church Bell Tower. Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment, Joensuu, Finland 2010. (Finnish, English, Russian)

Exhibition, text and picture panels (Finnish, Russian; English abstract), Joensuu 2009. Inquiry:

Antti Pihkala. Paanukatot Suomen kirkoissa ja tapuleissa. Shingle roofs in Churches and Bell Towers in Finland. A study of the building history and restoration practices for shingle roofs from the middle ages to the present day. Oulu University 2009. (Finnish; English abstract)

Study shows that secular Europe backs religious heritage!


English – Français – Deutsch – Svenska – Nederlands

4 out of 5 Europeans think that religious buildings are essential for community life, and want them used more widely. A poll run in April 2014 by the network Future for Religious Heritage (FRH), conducted by Sociovision and Toluna, shows that Europeans of all generations have a strong attachment to their religious buildings and want to safeguard them for the future.

6,000 Europeans from France, Germany, UK, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden were asked to rank the importance of religious heritage for their cultural heritage, the importance of religious heritage conservation for their community’s current and future life, and the possibility of churches and other religious buildings being open for non religious activities.

The poll shows that 84% of Europeans of all ages (18<) in all the regions polled agree that European shared religious heritage – the 500,000 buildings themselves and their contents with a history dating back well over a 1,000 years – represents a unique and essential part of Europe’s cultural heritage and are a key element of European identity.

Europe’s religious buildings have stood central to its communities for hundreds of years and continue to play an integral part in community life today. 79% of people polled also believe that they have a crucial part to play for the future survival of their communities.

The poll shows that 87% of European citizens are also very open to the idea of promoting religious buildings and their architectural or artistic treasures to tourists.

72% of Europeans also think that, as well as worship, religious buildings should be open to other activities.

Olivier de Rohan Chabot, President of FRH says:

“Europe’s religious heritage is under threat and the buildings are often ill adapted to the needs of modern society . Knowledge transfer and innovation will be needed on a European level if this remarkable patrimony is to be handed down to future generations.”

For more information email