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Germany presents first female cathedral stewards

Stefan Dege rb
May 15, 2019

The timing couldn't be better: Just as women across Germany are demanding more rights and offices in the Catholic Church, the Cologne Cathedral has presented its first four female supervisory stewards. A coincidence?

Deutschland Domschweizerinnen am Kölner Dom
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

The Cologne Cathedral is one of Germany's most visited landmarks, and the tens of thousands of daily visitors will now see a sight unprecedented in a German Catholic cathedral: four women serving as supervisory stewards, or what's called a "Domschweizer."

"We are not aware of any other cathedrals that have female supervisory stewards," Cologne Cathedral spokesperson Markus Frädrich said.

Throughout history, the position of cathedral supervisory steward has been filled by men. Such staff traditionally came from the Alps — hence the name "Domschweizer," which unites the German words for cathedral and a man of Swiss nationality. The name's origin dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when former soldiers from Switzerland went abroad to work at courts as security forces or security guards. They were considered particularly reliable. The name has stuck with the supervisory stewards of cathedrals through the present.

Today, the job is not as much about safeguarding the cathedrals as it is about making sure that everything is in order. The stewards are responsible for locking and unlocking the doors in the mornings and the evenings. They ring the bells, fill up the collections and discard burnt out candles. If necessary, they also have to reject uninvited guests. However, if it actually comes to a situation that threatens to get out of hand, an on-site security service steps in.

Cologne Cathedral by night
The Cologne Cathedral gets up to 30,000 visitors a dayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Part of the welcome culture

The new cathedral stewards, Claudia Drolshagen, Andrea Petzenhauser, Hedi Michels and Susanne Rückes, were all beaming as they presented themselves Tuesday to the photographers in front of the medieval cathedral, wearing floor-length red robes studded with black velvet.

For the dean of the cathedral, Gerd Bachner, the female supervisory stewards stand first and foremost for a "welcome culture" in the cathedral and thus are an "enrichment" to the team. The remaining 26 cathedral stewards are men.

Bachner wanted to send a positive message with the new selection — that the public face of the church is also female. "A day of joy," the dean proclaimed, "a historic day!"

Germany's female stewards in front of the Cologne Cathedral
For the first time a Catholic cathedral has appointed women as stewardsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

The supervisory stewards are supposed to ensure peace and quite in the cathedral, and the four new recruits have experience in that from their previous jobs. Drolshagen, for example, is a trained geriatric nurse: "The cathedral fascinated me as a child," the 55-year-old said.

Petzenhauser, at 35 the youngest in the quartet, comes from the southern state of Bavaria and is a business lawyer and translator: "For me, the cathedral is the symbol of my new home!" she said.

The four were selected from a total of 250 applications.

Women in the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has long ascribed different religious vocational roles to women and men. Women have historically carried out serving "activities" and jobs, such as nuns, religious sisters, educationalists and abbesses. Men, on the other hand, serve as deacons, priests, friars and abbots, among other things.

The Catholic Church has been criticized for its positions on women, particularly for barring women from ordination.

This is the reason that Petra, a tourist from the southwestern German of Saarland who preferred to not give her real name, is not content with Cologne's new female staff members. "The church does not need more women," she said, shaking her head, "but women in leading positions, such as priestesses."

"Celibacy for men needs to be abolished!" she added, an issue that ties into the ongoing controversy in the Catholic Church over sexual abuse.

Read more: Pope Francis issues sweeping sex abuse legislation

Her friend Martina still has childhood memories of her time as an altar server in church. But "Today I do not go to churches anymore," she said. "It's too much of a men's association!"

Recent events have shown how some individuals are placing renewed pressure on the Catholic Church to change its positions on women.

In Münster, a city in northwest Germany and a bastion of German Catholicism, a female protest has been raised. Catholic women in that city have been co-ordinating a nationwide, weeklong strike to back their demand for greater female participation and other reforms.

Dubbed "Maria 2.0," the protest involves staying away from mass, holding outdoor services and withdrawing voluntary labor from church institutions. Both Petra and her friend Martina support the one-week church strike.

No connection to 'Maria 2.0'

Cologne's dean of the cathedral, Bachner, claims that the selection of the first female supervisory stewards has nothing to do with Maria 2.0. It should also not be seen as a "signal from Cologne" in the direction of the Vatican, he added.

"But we do not just want to complain about everything that isn't working yet in the church," Bachner said. "Pope Francis says what is possible today."