British skiers’ prayers are answered in Wengen

Say your prayers at the English church for safe passage on Wengen's ski slopes

The Hotel Regina looms over the railway station; the Hotel Victoria stands up on the left, not far from Wengen’s Anglican Church.

This content was published on January 29, 2004 minutes

If Wengen is not a little England in the Alps, it is as close as it gets.

“The English tradition is still very strong here, both in the language and the clubs, and I think as an Englishman my heart rejoices at that,” says Peter Hawker.

Hawker, archdeacon of Switzerland’s Anglican churches, has just led the Sunday service at Wengen’s Anglican church - St Bernard’s - better known in the ski resort as the “English church”.

“There is a strong historical connection which one is pleased to see maintained.”

The oldest place of worship in the mountain village is not a Swiss church but St Bernard’s, built in 1928.

Britannia rules

It’s a holdover from the days when the British ruled half the world - and also had a strong presence in the Swiss Alps.

“Around the 1900s there were something like 170 places of Anglican worship in Switzerland and the Swiss Alps,” Hawker says.

“And most of those places were built by the hoteliers to look after their English guests.”

Hawker, who has stepped in this Sunday for a chaplain who broke his ankle skiing, says the first English church service was held in Wengen’s hotels in 1880.

First resort

Wengen was one of the very first alpine resorts. The British played a key role in the development of skiing and introduced the game of curling to the Alps, which is still played with passion on the outdoor rink here.

Considering the important British influence, it is rather surprising to find that the English church is small and unpretentious.

A small electric organ sits in the corner, but on this day, there is no one to play it so Hawker plunks a tape into a portable cassette player, and then leads the congregation in singing a hymn.

The archdeacon presides over Switzerland’s eight full-time Anglican chaplaincies and another eight in the Swiss Alps, which hold services in summer or winter or – as in Wengen – both seasons.

“There is so much which is still English here, but I think if you are going on holiday you really want to mix in with the locals,” says British visitor, Janine Corner.

But she says the presence of the English church is one reason she chooses to come to Wengen.

And she admits she is not alone. “I think most of us in the hotel are English.”

Holy Communion

“It’s wonderful that people who want to worship on Sunday and are not on holiday in an English-speaking part of the world can come to an English service and have Holy Communion,” says Kirstie Reid from London.

However, Hawker emphasises that the English-speaking chaplaincies in Switzerland are not just open for native English speakers on holiday but for people “of a wide range of nationalities”.

“They may have some link with England and so we do get a lot of tourists coming in here, especially in the high season,” he says.

An 83-year-old Dutch visitor, Ernst van Eeghan, points out that he and his countrymen often make up a sizeable part of the congregation.

Ringing Dutchman

A wealthy businessman, van Eeghan has been coming to Wengen and the English church for more than 30 years. Not only has he paid for repair work and donated the organ, he also rings the bell each Sunday.

But van Eeghan says he was not always happy with the way things were done at St Bernard’s, such as praying for the British monarch.

“I said, ‘I protest, we are not going to pray for the British queen since you don’t pray for the Dutch queen’.”

He says the church gave in to his demands and to compensate, van Eeghan donated 100 Bibles – the King James version.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Wengen

Key facts

Resorts in the Swiss Alps with Anglican Church services:
Wengen (summer and winter)
Interlaken (summer)
Kandersteg (summer)
Mürren (winter)
St Moritz
Zermatt (summer and winter)
There are Anglican chaplaincies with year-round services in Basel, Bern, Geneva, Lausanne, Lugano, Montreux, Vevey and Zurich.

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In brief

Wengen’s Anglican church held its first services in the winter of 1928 and was dedicated to St Bernard, the 11th century priest who built hospices to provide shelter for people crossing the Alps.

St Bernard’s, as well as St Peter’s in Zermatt, is owned and maintained by the Intercontinental Church Society (ICS), which also organises services in Interlaken and Kandersteg.

All services are conducted by English-speaking chaplains who come as volunteers for two-week periods.

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