L’église Saint-Nicolas d’ Hérémence. Foto/Photo: TES.

Fifty years St. Nicolas Church in Hérémence

31 October 1971 was a special day in Hérémence, a village in the Hérémence Valley (canton of Valais). On this day, the new St. Nicolas Church was consecrated.

Its predecessor from 1770 had been severely hit by the earthquake of 1946. The first church in the village dates from the eleventh century. A new church was built in the 14th and 15th centuries. Objects from these periods can also be seen in the new church.

The construction of a new church was no exception in this period. Between 1955 and 1975, more than 250 new Catholic churches were built in Switzerland.

Overdue maintenance, increased prosperity, the modernisation plans of the Catholic Church (Second Vatican Council 1962-1965), the influence of a new generation of architects, including Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and his Notre-Dame de Ronchamp (1954), the modern-minded Bishop François-Nestor Adam (1903-1990) of Sion, and the abundant presence of workers and building materials (concrete) from the 1965 La Grande Dixence dam (one of the largest dams in the world) are the context of this new church.

The municipality stated that the building should have a religious and secular function (youth and sports hall, school, library, and shops). The bishop wanted to give (old) religious symbolism and objects a central place.

Walter Maria Föderer (1928-2006) was the architect collaborating with two colleagues, Paul Morisod and Jean Kiburz. Föderer’s work has also been described as ‘Sculptural architecture’.

He expresses this style in his book “Kirchenbau von heute für morgen, 1964 (Today’s Church Building for Tomorrow). He aimed to design a neutral building that could be used as much as a church and secular building. He strongly believed that the best way to achieve this is to design a total work of art, Gesamtkunstwerk.

He emphasises that a church building should be the community’s religious and social centre, and the starting point is the combination of modern sculpture and architecture. It resembles the vision and the Goethaeanum (1928) of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in Dornach (canton Solothurn).

Work began in 1968. The building combines sculpture and architecture with combinations of wood and concrete, light and religious and secular functionality.

The cross above the sacristy dates from the 11th century, the Pietà, St. Theodules (patron saint of Valais) and St. Nicholas (patron saint of the church) and the four evangelists are statutes from the 14th and 15th centuries. Many paintings and frescoes come from the church of 1770.

The building meets all the requirements of a Catholic church (including a chapel, altar, sacristy, baptismal font, and seating) in a modern setting. The complex also has the social functions mentioned above.

The Saint Nicolas church is the third monumental work in this valley. The Pyramides of Euseigne and the La Grande-Dixence dam are the two other wonders of nature and mankind.

Source: Anne-Fanny Cotting, Carole Schaub, The Church of Saint-Nicolas d’ Hérémence, Society for the History of Swiss Art (www.gsk.ch), also available in German and French.