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Germany: Catholic churches are demolished or repurposed

February 19, 2024

In the last 10 years, the number of Catholic churches across Germany has been dwindling. What does this mean for the faithful?

Climbers hanging from rafters inside a church building
In the city of Gelsenkirchen, a Catholic church has been turned into a climbing gymImage: Roland Weihrauch/dpa/picture alliance

In the northern German city of Kiel, five Catholic churches have recently closed their doors. The majority of the 240,000 inhabitants of the state capital of Schleswig-Holstein are Protestants. It is largely due to financial hardships that Catholic churches are in decline. The entire city of Kiel is now one large parish with just a few churches. Some buildings have already disappeared to make way for housing. Although the Church of the Holy Cross in the district of Kiel-Elmschenhagen is still standing, it has been shuttered.

On November 19, 2022, the Church of the Holy Cross, the only Catholic church in the district, was formally deconsecrated and subsequently closed — despite opposition from Rüdiger Kirkskothen and other parishioners.

"All our protests failed," the 79-year-old Kirkskothen told DW. "We even wrote to the Vatican. That didn't help either."

Kirkskothen said that the closure of their house of worship hit local families hard. Immigrants built the church in 1956 and founded the congregation. "Their children witnessed their parents' devotion, got baptized and took communion there. For them, it was simply home," he said, adding that he understands the bitterness and disappointment.

The Catholic Church in Crisis

Hamburg Archdiocese among the worst-affected

When the church closed in the nearby Baltic seaside resort of Schönberg, the community "almost completely fell apart," said Kirkskothen. More than a few Catholics in Schönberg left the church entirely. At the moment, the Archdiocese of Hamburg is also closing several churches in the Baltic Sea city of Lübeck and trying to foster more dialog with local members.

Some parts of Germany have lost a particularly large number of churches over the past two decades, such as in the archdiocese of Hamburg, which includes Kiel. The number of closures is exceptionally high in Kiel. In response to an inquiry from DW, the secretariat of the German Bishops' Conference explained that 650 Catholic churches have "ceased to be used for worship" nationally since 2005, speaking or a "veritable wave of secularization." From 2019 to 2023, an average of 28 churches were lost each year across Germany.

Church buildings are even being closed or downsized in the financially strapped dioceses of Aachen and Essen but also in traditionally Catholic areas, such as the diocese of Augsburg, where German bishops are currently holding their general assembly.

Years ago official church statistics listed "24,500 sacred church buildings." Today they only show 24,000. Of these, around 22,800 are listed as historical buildings. This makes demolition much more difficult.

This development is affecting Catholic churches far more frequently than Protestant ones.

A decline in the number of faithful

The declining number of houses of worship is in keeping with the trend: every year, the major churches are losing hundreds of thousands of members. As of 2023, one in two Germans no longer belonged to either of the major Christian churches.

information event for parishioners who are sitting in the church looking at a drawing of the planned houses
A Catholic church in Witten will be demolished and make way for housing constructionImage: Funke/IMAGO

Church buildings are, therefore, being demolished. Sometimes, they are successfully taken over by other denominations, for example, by Orthodox Christian communities. But sometimes they are razed to make room for residential complexes or nursing homes; or are converted into galleries, climbing halls, pubs, or burial halls. It is not just clerical academies that are actively exploring how they can be reused, but also architects and urban planners for specialty events.

Moreover, there are church organizations that specialize in the storage of vestments and liturgical items. And in an underground parking garage in Mönchengladbach, a private association set up by a married couple, "Forschungsstelle Glasmalerei des 20. Jahrhunderts" (Research Center for 20th Century Stained Glass), has been collecting decommissioned church windows for around 30 years. There are now many hundreds. But how do the faithful feel about this?

Matthias Sellmann, a Catholic theologian at the University of Bochum, knows such stories well. And he certainly understands the emotions. "People are losing the place where they come into contact with God, where they light candles, walk past the statue of the Virgin Mary or simply sit in the pews, where they know that God also comes into contact with people," Sellmann told DW. If there are no more local churches, things could start to falter.

In most cases, he said, churches that are no more than 150 years old or were built after World War II are demolished or deconsecrated. And yet, for many people, the church building is part of their concrete family history, like for the faithful in Kiel-Elmschenhagen. "It means a lot for someone who knows that their great-grandpa worked on the scaffolding or that their grandma got married there; they still know the stories about the piggy bank that was emptied to build the church."

"You may have read a thousand times in the newspaper that the role of the church is dwindling or that the number of church members is falling rapidly. But when your own church is demolished, it becomes a reality, it hits home," said Sellmann. In many cases, the buildings were not merely religious sites but also had social, political, architectural, or artistic significance. "It always involves the loss of a social anchor."

Catholic Church and reform

A changing society

The theologist Sellmann said he also understands the need to reduce the number of churches. It costs around €100,000 ($108,000) a year to maintain and partially heat a church building. Meanwhile, the number of churchgoers is decreasing. Currently, around five to six percent of the congregation still attends Sunday services. Sellmann said that the loss of a specific church can be difficult, but positive things can also come out of it. Something others view much differently. "It's truly devastating to see the wrecking ball hit the steeple." The theologian has attended many church services where when a congregation bids farewell to its church and deconsecrates it. The church can help in the grieving process.

In the diocese of Essen, this is something they know all too well. According to the diocese, less than a third of the 270 churches there, around 84, will "remain permanently as places of worship" after 2030.

The parish development office in the Diocese of Essen has drawn up guidelines for closing church premises. The diocese proposes offering "tokens of remembrance" to the faithful, for example, postcards, puzzles, mugs, choir concerts, or even a sleepover for children and young people in the old church.

Markus Potthoff, the diocesan representative for parish development in Essen, described grief, disbelief, and also massive protests against past church closures. He recommends plenty of communication and "also space for grieving." It was not uncommon in the past for parishioners to "go to the barricades" to oppose the closure of their church, Potthoff told DW. But nowadays that doesn't happen anymore. "After COVID, church congregations have simply become a lot smaller."

However, the theologian Matthias Sellmann also sees signs of new beginnings. New forms of church life are developing. He cites spiritual events for young people as an example.

In Kiel, Kirkskothen said he now attends church services in a neighboring district. "But the congregation has been decimated," said the pensioner. Only about half are still involved.

This article was originally written in German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C