The Wetzlar Cathedral

Wetzlarer Dom (2)I don’t recall having ever been inside of those before: a Simultankirche, or Simultaneum. But I got to see one this summer, on our trip to Germany. You might recall my pictures of Wetzlar, the Goethe-town? Wetzlar not only has beautiful half-timbered houses and the sentimental association with Goethe’s Lotte, it has the Dom, or Cathedral, one of the earliest Simultankirchen.

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The Protestant altar in front, Catholic in back.

So what’s the big deal about those? You see, they’re ecumenical churches. Almost right from the start of the Catholic–Protestant split in Germany, since 1544 (Martin Luther was still alive), the Dom in Wetzlar has been used by both denominations. That’s right – unlike in so many other churches, the conversion of the townspeople to the Protestant form of Christianity did not mean that the Catholic believers were evicted. The rift between the denominations that has gone so very deep in so many places is, in this church, only evident by the fact that there are two altars – and up until 70 years ago, there were two organs, one in each end of the church, one for the Catholic congregation and one for the Lutherans. They simply take turns having their service.

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Early 14th century fresco

The Dom in Wetzlar is ancient. The first church on that site was built in the late ninth century, but construction on the cathedral as it stands today was first begun in 1230. There is still clear evidence of the medieval building – wall frescoes from the early 14th century, a Pietà from around 1370, a late-Gothic statue of Mary with angels that are mounted on something rather like a chandelier (with no candles). It’s an impressive building, a centre of spirituality that has been a place of worship for Christians of either flavour for more than a millennium.

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The Pietà, ca. 1370/80

But why am I telling you about this today? Because it’s Remembrance Day. And one of the things that struck me quite forcibly when we visited the Wetzlarer Dom is what senseless destruction is wrought by war.

On March 8, 1945, Allied bombers flew over Wetzlar, and a hail of missiles struck the cathedral. The choir, the famous rood screen, the high altar, both organs, and all the stained glass windows were reduced to rubble.

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March 1945

The Dom is not just a building – it is a house of worship, a gathering place of the people, a symbol of unity despite differences. Seventy years ago, it was destroyed in the course of the horrific violence that is war.

The Wetzlar Cathedral was rebuilt. There are once again two altars; but the organ is now shared by both congregations – and the rood screen, which once separated the spaces of Catholics and Protestants, was never reinstalled. The pews in the choir, that very part of the church that was a sea of rubble after the bombs fell, are reversible, so that the congregation can face the altar of their choosing – Catholic in the apse, Protestant in the crossing.

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The Dom is once again a symbol of unity, of ecumenical faith. But it is also a reminder of the devastation brought about by war. It’s been seventy years, but the scars will always remain. They are an indelible part of the millennium-long history of this amazing place.

Lest we forget.