Catholics in Winterthur: a history interrupted

The year 1862 was formative for the more recent history of Catholics in Winterthur: it was the first time in 150 years that Catholicism once again became a part of public life in the city. As a small rural town in the Zurich region, Winterthur had been a Protestant locale since the Reformation. The last Catholic Mass in Winterthur was celebrated in 1524. Foreign aliens - which included Catholics and Jews - were not permitted to settle permanently in the town. It was only in the modern era, in 1807, that a Catholic community was formed once more in the city of Zurich.
Catholics in Winterthur would walk for nearly two hours each Sunday to reach Gachnang (Thurgau), as this was the only place where they were permitted to celebrate Mass. Several attempts to obtain official permission for regular Catholic services in the city failed.

Space for Catholic services
It was only in 1862 that the City Council agreed to make a room available on the upper Marktgasse street, where the first Catholic Mass was celebrated that same year. At the same time, a location was set aside in the Neuwiesenquartier for the construction of the first Catholic church in Winterthur. Once a Catholic community had been established in the city, the focus was on planning the construction of the church. The renowned architect Gottfried Semper was approached. In 1864, he put forward a proposal to the newly-formed Parish Council for a central structure in an Italian Renaissance style. Semper's proposal, however, was viewed by the Catholic congregation of Winterthur, which comprised large numbers of workers, domestic servants and others on a low income, as far too expensive. For this reason, Winterthur municipal architect Karl Wilhelm Bareiss was tasked, alongside a number of other architects, with finding alternative solutions. The contract finally went to Bareiss, who had suggested a Neo-Gothic parish church. In 1868, the first Catholic church in Winterthur, St. Peter and Paul, was opened in the Neuwiesenquartier.

Steady development of Catholic parishes
The interior of the Church of St. Peter and Paul, however, remained as bare as a factory floor. It was only after some time that interior fitting could be financed, and an organ and bye-altars were acquired. The then-dean ran an active fundraising campaign in traditionally Catholic countries in order to achieve the impressively rich interior of St. Peter and Paul that can still be seen today: the high altar and Mary and Joseph altar were masterpieces in the Neo-Gothic style.
Soon, however, the space available each Sunday in the only Catholic church became very limited,
and in 1913, permission was granted for the construction of a further Catholic church in Töss. The church of St. Josef was constructed based on a blueprint by architect Adolf Gaudy, a native of Rorschach. In the 1930s, the churches of St. Marien in Oberwinterthur and Herz Jesu in Mattenbach were opened.
By the first half of the 20th century and after many years of being a denominational minority, the Catholics of Winterthur had grown into a stately community, in which members were able to participate in associations and interest groups organised by the parish. A daily Catholic newspaper, the Christian Social Party and an impressive Corpus Christi procession through Winterthur testified to the new role played by the Catholic population.

Regeneration and denominational reconciliation
With the changes across the post-war period and the increasing individualisation and materialisation of everyday life, life for Catholics in Winterthur also changed. Membership of the associations began to stagnate, the final Corpus Christi procession took place in the 1960s and the Catholic newspaper was discontinued in 1971.
With the movement towards regeneration and openness following the Second Vatican Council, there came increased reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants. In 1963, both churches received the same official recognition under public law, which was accompanied by the introduction of new legal structures in a style similar to those of the political municipalities.
The massive population increase during the economic boom gave rise to the construction of further churches in the new residential areas of Winterthur: St. Laurentius in Wülflingen was the first modern Catholic church in the city. Built in 1959 by the Basel architect Hermann Baur, the elliptical floor plan pre-empted the restructuring of the liturgy initiated by the Second Vatican Council. The churches of St. Ulrich in Rosenberg and St. Urban in Seen also picked up on this modern style of architecture in the 1970s. With their flexible space concept, they paved the way for both secular and sacral use to this day.

International diversity
The Catholic community of Winterthur today is characterised by diversity: the Roman Catholic community comprises 26,000 people who are divided into one of seven parishes depending on where they live. Italian-speaking Catholics gather in the Missione Cattolica di Lingua Italiana.
Alongside the German-language Masses, regular services are held in Winterthur for people of Croatian, Spanish, Hungarian, Filipino, Polish, Slovenian, Czech, Vietnamese, Indian or Iraqi origin. This international profile is one of the aspects that distinguishes the Catholic church in Winterthur today.

Current challenges
It is not only believers of other nationalities who enrich the Catholic life of today. The challenges of a rapidly growing city, transforming from an industrial location to an educational centre, gave the Catholic community added opportunities to find innovative and thorough solutions: in the newly-formed district of Neuhegi, intended to evolve into a second city centre in Winterthur, the Catholic community opened a state-of-the-art retreat venue. This venue, known locally as the Anhaltspunkt, provides the urban and international residents of Neuhegi with theological and spiritual, cultural and community events. It forms part of a pilot project from the contemporary 'City Church', which could be implemented in other parts of the city if required. The concept of an Anhaltspunkt emanates partly from an analysis of the various Sinus Milieus, a system of classifying people according to their living environment, in the city of Winterthur.
A further challenge is the rapid digitisation in many spheres of life. The Catholic Church, too, has to contend with this change in communication style - the proclamation of the Gospel and communication within the parish should be carried out using contemporary and realistic channels. It is not only the website that will be used as a central tool in digital communication; Facebook and Twitter are also being tried out.

Source: "Von der Diaspora zur Ökumene. 150 Jahre Römisch-katholische Kirchgemeinde Winterthur" [From Diaspora to Ecumenism: 150 Years of the Roman Catholic church in Winterthur], Peter Niederhäuser; with contributions from Waltraut Bellwald and Samuel Studer.
The book was published on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Roman Catholic community in Winterthur and of the parish of St. Peter and Paul, and can be obtained from bookshops (ISBN 978-3-0340-1127-3) or from the Roman Catholic community administration in Winterthur, tel. +41 (0)52 224 03 80, info@kath-winterthur.ch