Sacristan, caretaker, bell-ringer, guardian of the temple and verger. Josef Käser wears lots of different religious hats in Bösingen, a small Fribourg village where daily life is still signalled by the clock and bells of the local Catholic church.
Today is an early start for Käser, who has to prepare the eight o’clock morning service, light the candles, help with the Eucharist and read various religious texts before passing round the collection box among the 30 regulars present.
As it is St Agatha Day – the patron saint of breast cancer patients, martyrs, nurses, fire, earthquakes, eruptions of Mount Etna, and bakers – the priest dressed in his red cloak blesses and hands out bread to the congregation before popping next door to the local bakery to bless the day’s batch. Life in the tiny German-speaking village is still very much driven by tradition.
Eyes bright and a smile on his face, he proudly shows us round his kingdom. After visiting the beautiful baroque church, two chapels, the sacristy and bell tower, we have time for a coffee in the vicarage – empty like many others due to the shortage of new priests.
“In the past mass was held every day but nowadays, except for Saturday evening and on Sunday, it’s just once a week. It’s not so bad if you compare with other parishes. There are also funerals and marriages, of course, but I prefer the big celebrations like Easter, Christ’s resurrection, Christmas and his birth.”
Half of Käser's life is spent attending and helping at religious services. The rest is spent cleaning and looking after the premises both inside and out.
As the internet site of the association of Swiss sacristans explains, the job requires previous experience in another kind of profession and a well-rounded personality. Sacristans also have to complete a certain amount of training.
Käser, who is known as Sepp to most villagers, is an ideal candidate. He started at the church seven years ago at age 48 after working for 30 years as a farm machinery mechanic. The two severed fingers on his right hand bear witness to his old job.
“I got the job thanks to my wife Lizeth. She had been working for a number of years for the parish. She created floral decorations and looked after the liturgical objects and clothing,” he explained.
“I’m spiritually committed to my job. It’s essential for a sacristan so that they can fit in. It’s not just any old job and you certainly don’t count the hours you put in.”
With one weekend off per month and five weeks’ leave a year, the Käser couple, who share a full-time equivalent, do not go on holiday very often.
“What I like is that I can organize my time as I see fit. I’m independent,” he says. “My wife has health problems. One of our three children suffers from cystic fibrosis and I was able to look after the family when the children were still going to school. “
Illness has been present in Sepp’s life ever since he was a young boy. The youngest of eight children, he lost both his parents when he was only 13.
“My mother had multiple sclerosis and I never saw her in good health. My aunt, who was not married, looked after us. My father told us that if she hadn’t been around we would’ve been placed in foster families,” he explains.
When both his parents died in 1972, just three months apart, the eldest child looked after the youngest three.
“My brother and I went to a boarding school. We were only together after the first year. It was tough…,” his voice falters for a second, then his smile returns. “But life also has its bright moments; I’m a rather positive person. My mother said I would become a priest. It was a tradition for the youngest sons. I only became a sacristan but it was already part of the way there.”
“Being a sacristan is not about having a career, but it offers me an excellent quality of life,” he adds. “I have plenty of spare time to help neighbours and for myself. It’s a certain way of life.”
What’s the hardest thing about the job? For Sepp it’s being the “meat in the sandwich” between the Church and the local population.
“As there is no permanent parish priest, I’m the one who gets all the criticism, the complaints and questions. You have to stay neutral, which is not easy as you are only human,” he adds.
Bösingen’s 47-metre-high bell tower has five bells of different sizes beneath its small pointed shingle roof. It rings day and night every 15 minutes, as well as at 6:30 am for the Matins, midday and 7 pm for the Angelus.
The clocks are computer controlled but can be operated manually for special occasions. They play an important role in traditional village life and have become almost a means of expression, says Käser.
“I’ve only used the fifth bell once. It’s the clock that gives the time of day, which the elders say deflects lightning strikes from the village. One day at 7:30 am an elderly woman called me to tell me lightning was on the way. I saw the black sky and went to ring the bell for about ten to 15 minutes. Nothing happened, but there was no lightning either.”
Another tradition that is strictly adhered to by the verger is to ring the small bell in the funeral chapel to announce the arrival of someone who recently died.
“I ring it by hand for 30 seconds. This is an old custom that dates back to when there were no telephones. One ring means that a child has died, two for a woman and three for a man. Normally I’ve hardly finished ringing the bell when people come out to see who died.”
And for burials he rings one hour before the service to give the population, mostly farmers in the past, time to get changed.
Some people fear the job of sacristan may be threatened by the drop in the number of priests and believers. What does he think?
“It’s true that priests are getting older, like the rest of the people in the parish, and people are losing faith. But the buildings must be looked after. And in any case the Catholic faith progresses in other countries and continents,” he says before disappearing into “his” church whistling away.
The German-speaking commune in canton Fribourg has 3,350 residents who are mostly Catholic (1,500-1,600). The Protestant community represents around 30 per cent of the population.
In 2012 the Baroque 18th-century church held 20 funerals, half a dozen weddings and around 20 christenings.
A lay or religious person who is responsible for the sacristy – room attached to a church or chapel where the sacred vessels, vestments, are kept in a Catholic church - and for the organisation of celebrations. The sacristan prepares all the objects and religious clothing required by the priest for mass.
The sacristan is employed by the parish council. The sacristan used to be called “The Swiss”, also abroad. He used to wear a ceremonial costume during religious events and led processions. He was associated with the Swiss Guards created in 1506 by Pope Jules II and who continue to serve the Vatican.
(Translated from French by Simon Bradley)