Roadside salvation: Moments of respite in Germany's autobahn churches

  • Living
  • Friday, 09 Jun 2023

A cyclist passing the St Paul autobahn church in Wittlich, western Germany. The chapel is one of 44 churches along the country's highways. Photos: Harald Tittel/dpa

The drivers who stop off at one of the chapels located by the autobahn do not tend to stay long. Some head straight for a pew by the altar and take a seat before leaving again shortly after.

All are in need of a brief break from the unrelenting pace of the road and whatever else is happening in their lives.

The small churches and chapels built along Germany's fast-paced autobahn, as the country's motorways are known, provide a moment of respite to travellers nationwide, as well as others passing through from neighbouring countries like the Netherlands or France.

Many of the drivers seeking solace choose to remain anonymous but a few share their thoughts in the notebooks left by the entrances. They might share their prayers, fears or petitions, which are mostly written in German but sometimes in Polish, Dutch and French.

"Help my husband, make him not have a tumour," one prayed.

"Please let her blood tests come out all right," said another.

"God, make the war between Russia and Ukraine end soon!" was a further plea.

One hoped "to return from vacation safe and sound" while another gave praise "that the church is open".

Inside the ecumenical motorway church of St Paul in Germany's western Eifel region where many drivers stop for a moment of welcome respite. Inside the ecumenical motorway church of St Paul in Germany's western Eifel region where many drivers stop for a moment of welcome respite.

The doors of these diminutive churches are open almost all day long, like the ecumenical motorway church of St Paul in Wittlich in the Eifel region in western Germany, open for 10 hours each day, extending to 12 in spring and summer.

That is one of the rules of the road, when it comes to Germany's autobahn churches, says Wolfram Viertelhaus.

He helped steer this former monastery church to become an autobahn chapel, in a journey that began 13 years ago.

"That made us the 37th autobahn church in Germany. Today there are 44, so I always say we are one of the few growing movements within the church."

Another autobahn church is located not far away. The Protestant Martinskirche in Waldlaubersheim became part of the network in 1991.

Located close to a vineyard, it is a village church with a history dating back to the 12th century. It took time, though, for people to realise that its location so close to the autobahn 61, which runs from the Cologne/Bonn area down to Heidelberg and Mannheim, was not without promise.

Each of the churches and chapels dotted along Germany's motorways that traverse the country have their own individual history.

The central city of Weimar is home to a listed village church that is also centuries old.

Germany's longest-serving autobahn church is located between Munich and Stuttgart on the autobahn 8. Its name translates as "Mary, Protection of Travellers".

Germany's autobahn with its long stretches where no speed limit applies attracts many a driver from across the world.Germany's autobahn with its long stretches where no speed limit applies attracts many a driver from across the world.

Meanwhile in Engen, in southwestern Germany near the Swiss border, there's the modern Emmauskapelle Hegau. The pyramid-shaped church at the Baden-Baden service station is a further architectural highlight.

Northern Germany, on the other hand, boasts a circular chapel, at the Dammer Berge rest stop on the autobahn 1.

Of all the nation's autobahn churches and chapels, 19 are Protestant, eight are Catholic and 17 are ecumenical, says Matthias Stracke-Bartholmai, who oversees the network of motorway churches at the Akademie des Versicherers, a group of insurers who focus on faith.

More than one million people visit the autobahn churches each year. All are located close to a motorway access road or slip road – within 1km, to be precise. The pandemic may have changed life greatly, but at least at the autobahn churches, visitor numbers remained constant.

The chapels differ greatly from one to the next and, depending on their location, draw different kinds of visitors.

Take the Church of St Paul in Wittlich, which tends to draw hikers in the area.

"We want to take a break and switch off for a moment," says one, lighting a candle. "This is an important place here for many people," Viertelhaus, who used to chair the chapel's friends' association, adds. He too is a frequent visitor to this particular site.

"Some who come here tell their life story, or are looking for a grief counselling session," he says. But often, worshippers are locals who pop in from close by.

After all, the autobahn church is also a regular place of worship that offers a Sunday mass.

It is also one of Germany's 350 cycle path churches that offer bikers a place to breathe and reflect.

"The church is multifunctional. And people need it," Viertelhaus says, estimating a couple of thousand visitors come by each year.Often, it is men driving alone, from lorry drivers to business managers, who are drawn to these roadside places of worship, studies have shown, according to Stracke-Bartholmai.

Many are religious and take a moment to pray at the churches offered by the road. Often, they commit their hopes for a "safe journey" or "good homecoming" to the chapels' visitors books.

Others also go to the churches for a moment of anonymous religious practice, the expert says.

There are no plans yet to expand the network with new churches, according to Stracke-Bartholmai, though there are areas where this would make sense. After all, the offering is relatively sparse in northern Germany or in parts of Bavaria, as well as on the route to Austria, where no chapels are located along the road.

The fact that the churches on the motorways are permanent points of contact is important, says Stracke-Bartholmai, welcoming the fact that the autobahn church in Wittlich, until recently on the brink of collapse, is now secure.

Dieter Burgard, a local resident, has just taken over as chairman of the association.

"For me, it was important that the church is still open," he says, determined to keep the services open without interruption. – dpa

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