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Church of the Holy Spirit, Heidelberg (Where Gumbo Was #125)


The Heiliggeistkirche, to give it its German name, is the most imposing church in Heidelberg; it stands out above the Altstadt (Old City) section of the city so distinctively that I dared not include an exterior view among the clues. I make amends here with the view above, from the Castle, and the one below, showing the merchant stalls that line its base as they did in medieval times.




Despite that, and a conscious attempt to pick clues that did not suggest a building as old as this one is (dating to the 14th century) two sharp-eyed Gumbo members, Tim Allen and HistoryDigger, were able to identify it. Actually, worship on the site is even older; the current church was started in 1398 on the site of a late Romanesque church, which was built on the site of an even earlier church.



Ruprecht III and his wife Elizabeth, founders of the church. The sign in the picture below describes them and then the mystery: In the destruction of 1693, 54 other royal tombs were destroyed; only this one survived.



But for me, the fascination of the church has to do with the 20th century, in two ways. One is a historical curiosity I learned of when I lived in Heidelberg as a teenager in 1959-61, and the other that only came to my attention last month, during my first visit in nearly 30 years. More of that later: the story of Hermann Maas, for many years Lutheran pastor of the church.




The first historic oddity comes from the era of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, when Protestants and Catholics struggled to impose their beliefs as the official religion, and numerous wars, large and small were fought over the issue. Much of the destruction of Heidelberg's castle resulted from those wars, and in the aftermath, the congregation of the Heiliggeistkirche remained split.



The Prince Elector of the time, to avoid further conflict, had the church divided in two in 1706. A wall was built so both congregations could use it. When a later Elector tried to turn it over to the Catholics in 1720, there was so much fuss that the plan was abandoned, and the Elector moved his court to nearby Mannheim, leaving Heidelberg with the sour remark that he "hoped that grass would now grow in her streets."


The wall lasted until 1936, when the church became all-Lutheran and the Catholic congregation moved another church.


Back to the church's beginnings. With one thing and another, it took over 150 years to build the church; it opened in stages in 1411, 1441, 1508 and the tower in 1544...but not the one you see now. That's a baroque touch added in 1709 after French King Louis XIV's troops burned the original during a war over who should be the next Elector. 


Another victim of the wars was the church's library, kept in the church's gallery, and containing about 5000 books and 3500 manuscripts. During the Thirty Years War, the Catholic Elector of Bavaria seized it and presented it to the Vatican; it's still there and is known as the Bibliotheca Palatina. A few hundred pieces were returned to Heidelberg in 1816. Talk about overdue books!



So now, a fast forward to the 20th century. Traveling in Germany this summer has been an occasion to think about World War II, which ended 70 years ago this year, and the people and events involved. There have been many exhibits and events, including ceremonies honoring German resisters to the Nazis on the anniversary of the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler.



Visiting the Berlin Memorial to the German Resistance gave us a deeper insight into how many people had resisted, well into the Hitler era, in both large and small ways, and the terrible price so many of them paid. So, our ears were tuned for more by the time we got to Heidelberg and the church, where we encountered an exhibit on the life of Hermann Maas, of whom we had never previously heard. The occasion was the hundredth anniversary of his becoming a priest in the Holy Spirit parish.



His 28 years as pastor were not quiet ones. He considered himself a political liberal and welcomed the Weimar Republic; he was attacked for attending and offering a eulogy for Friedrich Ebert, its Heidelberg-born president who was an atheist. He has a lifelong leader in ecumenical movements and organizations, and made close ties with Heidelberg's Jewish community.



100th anniversary of Hermann Maas' appointment as pastor the the Heiliggeist parish is celebrated with an exhibit detailing his work and struggles.


When Hitler took power, Maas helped organize defense committees for non-Aryans, and a Pastors' Emergency Committee. He also used his connections in and outside Germany to get exit permits for many Jews, and after Heidelberg's rabbi, a friend of his, left the country in 1936, Maas led services in the synagogue, officiated at weddings and funerals—and helped many escape or hide.



He was well-known enough internationally, and well-supported enough among his congregation, that he was able to continue his work up until 1943, when he was caught with documents and banned by the church at police insistence. He was sentenced to forced labor in France. When the camp was liberated, he returned to Heidelberg to continue his work.



After the way, he continued his ecumenical work, and was the first German given an official invitation to visit Israel. He retired in 1965 at age 87, and died in 1970. For more details on Hermann Maas's life and work, click HERE




The church's stained glass is also unusual. While there are numbers of traditional windows, the 20th century has brought a number of windows addressing concerns of the day, including nuclear war and refugees. Here are some:


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In a way, I tell myself, this is not a travel story. Yes, the church is certainly one of the main sights of Heidelberg, but the rest? And then I remind myself: we travel not only to see, but to learn and experience, and to put things into contexts. Were it not for my urge to travel, I would not have encountered the story of Hermann Maas; I would not have seen what he did in a broader context. And so, yes, it is a travel story.



The church, seen from the funicular railroad, above the castle


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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Actually, I do know of another, and it’s been featured on TravelGumbo! But that was a different sort of division. St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, in London, has two parallel naves; one was used by the lay parish congregation, and the other by the nuns of the adjoining convent.


The division there was by a ceiling-high curtain running the length of the church. The original blog was for Where in the World #23, almost a year and a half ago! Here's the LINK

Last edited by Paul Heymont
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