Atheists to save historic German wooden church

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Stiege (Germany) (AFP)

Ask Hans Powalla if he is a believer and the immediate answer is a firm “no”.

Yet he and other villagers in and around the German town of Stiege embarked on the Herculean task of saving a picturesque church by moving it from the middle of a forest to the center of town.

Former electrician Powalla, 74, said they were motivated by the “unique architecture of the building” and the “meaning it gives to the area” in the Harz Mountains.

The object in question is a stave church or wooden church, with dragon ornaments on the roof, built in the Nordic style in 1905.

It is one of only three churches from this period still standing in Germany and listed as a monument of national importance.

Unlike most churches which have prominent locations in city centers, this place of worship was built as a private sanctuary for recovering patients in a sanatorium located in the woods.

But the sanatorium was closed and in 2009 the church fell out of use.

Its isolated location makes it a target for vandals.

A fire broke out in the old lung clinic a few meters from the church in 2013, damaging its structure.

“From the village we saw the black plumes of smoke and thought ‘oh no, there goes the church,’” said Regina Nowolski, 69, a member of the Stiege Stave Church Association, co-founded by Powalla.

But it turned out that the church was not damaged.

“And there came the idea that something has to be done now or the church will one day collapse,” said Regina Bierwisch, spokesperson for the association.

“The only solution to save the church was to remove it. ”

– Like Lego –

If the idea was clear, it was much easier said than done.

The challenges were many: getting permission to move the structure, finding a new home, and figuring out how to get there.

At one point, the lifting of the entire building with a Bundeswehr military helicopter was hot.

Linked to all these questions, there is the question of one million euros of financing for the project.

Undeterred, members of the association took the matter to the mayor, wrote to federal authorities about conservation, and launched public appeals to raise funds.

“At first I thought it was funny. But I quickly noticed that they are not giving up, they are there to carry it out, ”Ronald Fiebelkorn, mayor of the Oberharz am Brocken region, told AFP.

Carried away by the wave of enthusiasm, Fiebelkorn took it to state and federal authorities whose initial reaction was “you are crazy”.

But soon the officials also gave in.

With the support and funding secured, the 1.1 million euros ($ 1.3 million) project to move the church is now in its final round.

Land has been secured in the town of Stiege, offered by the regional authorities to the association at the symbolic price of one euro.

The association also bought the private church from the current owners, a real estate company in Berlin, for just one euro.

The inauguration of the new site began in November and once the concrete foundation was laid, from March, the church will be dismantled from top to bottom, plank by plank.

“Much like a Lego house,” Bierwisch said, noting that the timber needs to be rebuilt quickly on his new plot about five kilometers (about three miles) away, with completion slated for September.

There is already a community church in Stiege itself, and Bierwisch made it clear that the intention was “not to compete” for believers.

On the contrary, in its new home, the association hopes that the wooden church will become an open space for community events and serve as a new attraction for visitors to the area.

Noting that Germany’s largest stave church is located about 60 kilometers in the town of Hahnenklee, also in the Harz mountain region, Bierwisch said: “It can become a tourist route, with churches like strong points.

“The conservation of what people could do 100 years ago must be shown and seen, respected in this beautiful tourist region. ”

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