Why go to church when you can go to the pub? Illustration by Marco Heer.
Why go to church when you can go to the pub? Illustration by Marco Heer.

The long road to church

Religion and the church used to be prominent in people’s lives. Church attendance was nigh on obligatory. For rural folk, the ‘Predigtgang’ (the journey to church) often involved a long walk, as was the case for the inhabitants of Buchholterberg.

Reto Bleuer

Reto Bleuer

Reto Bleuer is a volunteer at the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern.

The area around Buchholterberg, the hilly area to the north east of Thun at the border between the Bernese Oberland and Emmental, used to be part of Diessbach parish (Oberdiessbach from 1870). It was a large area and the walk from the eastern edge of the parish to Diessbach church took up to three hours. The paths were in poor condition and all but unnavigable by cart. At the end of the arduous journey, the weary walkers, much to the chagrin of the pastor, often adjourned to the pub for sustenance. On occasion, they even stayed there and missed the service. The lack of space in the church exacerbated the problem, as on special occasions (Easter, Christmas for example) there wasn’t room for everyone meaning some people had a wasted journey. It was therefore understandable that the idea of Buchholterberg having its own church became a recurring theme, as shown by various petitions sent to the councillors in Bern. From 1712, the pastor of Diessbach had an assistant who took the Sunday school in Bruchenbühl schoolhouse on Buchholterberg. Some years later, the idea of building a cemetery near the schoolhouse started to be mooted. During the winter, it was very hard to bring the deceased through the snow to Diessbach cemetery. Baptisms were also something of an ordeal in winter. Sometimes, the babies didn’t even survive the long hike to the church in Diessbach.
Buchholterberg and Diessbach church on the map ‘Schöpfkarte’, 1672.
Buchholterberg and Diessbach church on the map ‘Schöpfkarte’, 1672. University Library of Bern
Over time, the classrooms in the schoolhouse became too small for the growing number of children – around 1800 there were about 200 children at the school. It became almost impossible to teach, which made it harder to find a curate. Pastor Bachmann from Worb, who was schools commissioner, warned of a decline in morals and piety due to the inadequate pastoral work and teaching. He did not mince his words in a report he wrote to his overseers in 1805:

“The areas […] around Buchholterberg are the wildest and most barbaric in the whole region, so I think that if there is a place where we should focus on developing an existing desire to improve morality, it must be there.”

Pastor Bachmann, schools commissioner from Worb
The pastor’s warnings were heeded in Bern and in 1810 a cost estimate was commissioned for the construction of a church and the authorities looked for a suitable site. However, the actual construction remained a distant prospect, as the patrician family from Wattenwyl had dominion over Diessbach and held the right of patronage, which gave them a say in all matters of the church. Bern took steps to purchase this right from the family and, after 26 years of negotiation, succeeded in doing so. On 15 May 1835, the Cantonal Parliament in Bern finally approved the construction of the church. A suitable site had been located four years earlier in a hamlet called Heimenschwand. For budgetary reasons, it was decided to proceed with a project for a simple box construction with seating for 720 people at a price of 13,799 Swiss francs. Stones and sand from the region were used for the construction, while the window, door frames and base were cut from two large boulders, which had moved from the Grimsel area to Buchholterberg during the last ice age. The locals also played a part in the construction. However, as funds were in short supply – Buchholterberg was one of the canton’s poorest areas at the time – their contribution took the form of labour.
Heimenschwand church from the south side, with window frames and base of Grimsel granite.
Heimenschwand church from the south side, with window frames and base of Grimsel granite. Photo: Reto Bleuer
But the story didn’t end there – the first cracks began to appear almost as soon as the church tower had been completed. The church was officially opened just a few months late, on 16 April 1837, but it was only afterwards that the people decided it was safe to put up and ring the two bells in the tower. That happened in spring 1838, once structural reinforcements had been made to the tower. However, further structural defects were identified leading to more works under guarantee. The church was only accepted by the purchaser in 1841 and the tradesmen were finally paid.
Heimenschwand church and its view of the Bernese Alps, circa 1920.
Heimenschwand church and its view of the Bernese Alps, circa 1920. Photo: Fritz Gugger, Heimenschwand
Around the end of the 19th century, the canton of Bern, as was customary at the time, wanted to transfer ownership of the church in Heimenschwand to the parish. However, cracks again appeared in the church tower, up to 10 centimetres wide in parts. The parish was therefore reluctant to take on the unsafe building. Further renovations and structural improvements were made until the church was finally transferred to the parish (the last church in the canton to be transferred) on 15 July 1960, over 120 years after it was built.

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