Some think it is pretty and some do not. Pretty much everyone agrees it is monumental, though. Not only one of many but a symbol of hope. A symbol of better tomorrows sitting on the very top of the White Mountains (Vita Bergen) for all those living around in poverty in their small, crowded, wooden houses. That is what the Sofia Church (Sofia kyrka) represented throughout its existence.
Its story began in the 1890s when the responsible started considering splitting the parishes in Stockholm’s Södermalm. It did not take long for first issues to arise as the vicars of then existing parishes did not support the idea. Obviously, by splitting the territories the existing ones would become smaller and their influence would diminish. Eventually, though, the development of the new church was allowed and its design was meant to be chosen in a competition. The architectural competition attracted 26 different proposals. Interestingly enough the winner was Gustav Hermansson who had designed another one of Stockholm’s major churches only a few years earlier but we will come back to this story later.
In order to accommodate the winning design proposal chosen in 1899, the parish sold its land by the Hammarby Lake (Hammarbysjön) and Bondesonen Större to the city. The obtained funds were enough to buy the land on top of the White Mountain where the church was meant to be built. Fortunately for the parishioners a large part of the development expenses was covered from these funds, too, relieving the people from having to donate large sums of money from their already nearly empty pockets.
King Oscar II ceremoniously laid the foundation of the church in 1903 by putting a copper box including a bible, hymn book, coin and a few newspapers into the church’s base. This act inspired one of the construction workers who later put a two-cent coin (“tvåöring”) with his name into one of the walls with the hope of someone finding the coin centuries later and seeing that he, Edvin Olofsson, helped build this monumental church.
This question brings us back to the architect Gustav Hermansson and King Oscar II The church that Hermansson drew in 1894 became the Oscar’s Church in Östermalm which was named after the king. The new church in Södermalm was named after King Oscar’s wife Queen Sofia. Therefore both the king and the queen who reigned between 1872 and 1907 received monumental churches in Sweden’s capital named after them. Moreover, Sofia Church was completed in the year of their golden wedding anniversary. However, neither one of them was able to attend the inauguration which took place on 18 march 1906 because of their age and related health issues.
After the completion, the highest sitting church in Stockholm, which sits at 124 meters above sea level, was not met with much joy. Some critics considered its interior to be “cluttered and overloaded” while Tor Hedberg from Svenska Dagbladet described it as a “creation of dried, mindless and plebeian taste.”
One person that I imagine was particularly pleased with the completion of the church was Ernst Klefbeck. “The Poor Priest” as they called him is described in history books as a legend because of all he has done for the people in the Sofia parish of which he became the first vicar when it was finally established later in 1917. Klefbeck has used to hold the spiritual ceremonies in a small hut on Stora Mejtens Gränd near the church while it has been being built. The same man is also responsible for founding the organisation originally named The Priest’s Boys (Pastorns Gossar) established already in 1899. Interestingly, this organisation still exists today, almost 120 years later under the name SoIK Hellas and functions as a sports club covering many different sports.
Sweden was changing rapidly in the 20th century as it has become one of the richest and most advanced countries in the world. That, of course, affected the poor neighbourhoods as well. However, the change did not happen overnight. It took only about forty years for the church to get into quite a bad condition, especially on the inside. Many were calling for the necessary renovation but things got accelerated in November 1946 when a piece of the ceiling fell off and the church had to be closed.
The renovation works on the church finally began about two years later. To address the concerns of the critics expressed when the church had been completed the interior was remodelled in a much more conservative fashion during the reparations. The variegated walls were covered by peaceful, modest colours, new pulpit and altar table were installed. As it is often the case, today many regret that the original lively interior of the church was not preserved rather than changed during the renovations in the somewhat conservative era. It certainly may have cost this monumental building a part of its uniqueness and original spirit.
Before the restorations were completed in early 1951 frescoes by the popular Stockholm artist, Hilding Linnqvist, referring to the terrors of the World War II were fitted in the church. But at this time it was not only the Sofia Church itself that was being rescued from the misery of old times that were slowly fading into the past.
It was then that the slums built on the White Mountains surrounding the church started disappearing and were being replaced by the park covering the area around the Sofia Church until these days. Many of the houses that used to form the slums were torn apart and many others were meant to end the same way but fortunately, you can still see quite a few of them sitting there today. They are no longer slums, though. Not even close. What you see today is a calm, charming even picturesque area formed by vintage wooden houses, a beautiful park and a majestic church on top of the mountain.
The important thing to bear in mind is that things were not always the same. There were several key individuals, groups of people who wanted something better than what they had for themselves and for others. But most of all the willingness of all of them to go far and beyond to achieve what some may have considered impossible. That is what it has taken to create better tomorrows for the community and that is exactly what it takes today to become better as well.
In the next post, I will bring you the whole story of the White Mountain where you will find what it was like to live there during different periods and who the people living there were. I will also tell you about important individuals who helped shape the transformation of the neighbourhood and show you some historical places you can still find there today.
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Rydberg, Olle, 1984. Se på Söder.
Holmberg, Gunnar, 1981. Södermalm en vägvisare.