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Text Luise Hoffmann
One of the sights most visitors to Windhoek are bound to see is the Christuskirche perched on a ridge overlooking the city at the conjunction of Robert Mugabe Avenue and Fidel Castro Street. Until about sixty years ago, before any of the high-rise buildings in the business centre of Windhoek were built, it was visible from almost anywhere in town
G erman rule of South West Africa, as Namibia was then called, began in 1884. In January 1896 the German Lutheran congregation of Windhoek was established. The church hall erected on Lüderitz Street soon became too small and in 1900 the government architect Gottlieb Redecker was commissioned to draft suitable plans for a church, which were at first rejected. As a result of the Herero War; a severe outbreak of rinderpest, a fatal cattle disease; and years of drought, the plans were delayed until 1907 when Redecker was asked to amend and resubmit his design for a church to be built as a monument to peace and goodwill on the present site overlooking the capital.
Redecker decided on a Neo-Romanesque style with the tower topped by a Gothic spire. The staggered arched gables show the influence of the art nouveau style prevalent in Germany at the time, and are also reminiscent of the Dutch gables so characteristic of Cape Dutch architecture. Seen in silhouette, the church resembles a hand raised in a greeting of peace, and is a highly successful fusion of all three the above-mentioned architectural styles.
The Christuskirche was built in the basic shape of the Latin cross and is oriented towards the east. The organ loft is situated on the western wall, while the gallery occupies the northern wall. The church was constructed with quartzite sandstone quarried in the vicinity of today’s Avis suburb and transported to the building site by a small railway created specifically for this purpose. Twenty-eight metres long and fourteen metres wide, the church seats a congregation of 400 worshippers. The iron roof truss was covered with corrugated iron, which at the time was generally used for roofing. The main entrance rests on six pillars of Carrara marble imported from Italy. Inside, the southern wall of the church bears a large bronze plaque with the names of German soldiers, marines and civilians killed during the Nama and Herero uprisings of 1903–1907.
Governor von Lindequist laid the foundation stone on 11 August 1907. During the three years of construction, the cost of erecting the church doubled to 360 000 German marks, due mainly to unforeseen developments such as increased labour wages and rising transport costs.
Like any building, the church has had its problems. During the transfer from Walvis Bay, a spark from the steam locomotive set fire to the wooden crates in which the stained-glass windows for the choir were packed. Fortunately the windows could be saved. In the eighties the entire concrete floor began to rise as a result of the underlying limestone. The concrete as well as the limestone had to be removed and replaced by a terrazzo floor.
DONATIONS from many different quarters
The congregation of Windhoek collected an amount of 60 000 German marks towards the building. Kaiser Wilhelm II donated the three stained-glass windows for the apse. A focal point to the left of the altar is a copy of Rubens’ famous Resurrection of Lazarus, donated by the wife of Governor Seitz shortly before the outbreak of World War I. The original painting was destroyed during a bomb attack on Berlin in 1945, which adds to the value of this copy.
The Kriegerverein donated the altar, constructed from marble from farm Gocheganas, while the organ was provided by an anonymous benefactor. The church council contributed the clock for the tower and the altar bible was donated by Empress Auguste Viktoria. In a remarkable gesture of goodwill among people of different nationalities, a group of Boer farmers from the Schaap River area south-east of Windhoek offered donations of oxen, cows, sheep and goats in return for being allowed to conduct their own services in the Christuskirche at times when it was not being used by the German Lutheran congregation.
Initially there was no money for a pulpit, but some resourceful members constructed one from the wooden crate in which the organ had been transported. This makeshift pulpit remained in use for many years until sufficient funds were available to replace it. Similarly, the primitive benches of the church hall were used until new pews could be afforded. For the inaugural service on Sunday 16 October 1910, about 600 people crammed themselves into the church, which under normal circumstances can seat 400, and the entire town celebrated in festive mood.
On one confirmation Sunday while the bells were ringing, some of the celebrating churchgoers waiting in front of the church received the fright of their lives when all of a sudden the tongue of the largest bell came flying through the opening in the western wall of the belfry and landed right among them. Miraculously nobody was hurt. The western and northern openings were subsequently secured by iron bars.
The corroding paint on the corrugated iron roof, washed off by rain, caused unsightly streaks down the walls. A member of the Christuskirche on his return from a holiday in South Africa brought along a chemical to clean the walls, and the roof was subsequently covered with more durable tiles.
In the course of time the apse was panelled to improve the acoustics, the pulpit and the baptismal font were replaced, the altar was reconstructed from granite and the chandelier was replaced by a new and larger one. A new organ was obtained from Suidelike Orrelbouers in South Africa.
One confirmation Sunday while the bells were ringing, the tongue of the largest bell came flying through the opening in the western wall of the belfry to land among churchgoers waiting in front of the church. Miraculously nobody was hurt
In the late nineties, a visiting expert noticed by chance that the signature of the master stained-glass artisan on the windows appeared in mirror writing. Closer inspection revealed that the stained-glass windows had been inserted inside out. Owing to the clean Namibian air, the painted glass had survived, exposed to the elements, for more than 90 years. In 1999 the balcony was converted into a workshop, and each individual little piece of glass was painstakingly removed from its leaden frame and reinserted correctly by a retired science teacher under the guidance of an expert stained-glass artisan, a very challenging enterprise that took two years to accomplish.
In contrast to many churches in Germany that experience a continual shrinkage in membership, the Christuskirche in Windhoek is very much alive, with the number of members remaining almost constant at about 2 300.
It is fitting to pay tribute to the many individuals in all walks of life who over the past hundred years have filled and still fill this church with life, maintaining not only the building but also the Christian spirit in which it was built despite two world wars, droughts and political as well as financial ups and downs.
The Christuskirche was conceived as a monument to peace. Every day at noon the bells named ‘Glory to God in the highest’, ‘Peace be on earth’ and ‘Goodwill towards all men’ peal out their message over the city. May it be heard and taken to heart by many.
Interested persons who would like to view the church from the inside can obtain the key from the parish office at 12 Fidel Castro Street from Mondays to Fridays between 08:00–13:00. Guided tours can be requested. Sermons are conducted in German on Sundays at 10:00.
This article was first published in the Flamingo December 2010 issue.