After the stories about the history of Norrmalmstorg and the robbery that took place in the square in 1973, we are going to stay in Stockholm’s Norrmalm. Being in the centre of Sweden’s capital, there are a plenty of places with amazing stories in this district. The St. John’s Church (Sankt Johannes Kyrka) is definitely among them. Not only it is one of the city’s most prominent and dominant churches but it also took centuries since the idea of building a stone church in this location first came to light until it was finally completed.
First, in 1651 a wooden church was built at Brunkebergsåsen (not to be confused with the street in Sollentuna) between two major streets – Sveavägen and Birger Jarlsgatan. It was a small, simple, cross-shaped church that was meant to be only temporary as there were ongoing discussions about building a stone church in the area already at the time. The church was painted yellow and during the first two decades of its existence, it was not used to serve masses. It was instead used mostly as a mortuary chapel.
While I say the church appeared already in 1651 it was not actually completed until 1731. Masses started to be served at the church in 1671 when it was commonly referred to as Johan Ericsson’s Chapel because it was Alderman Johan Ericsson Fuhrubom who to a large extent financed the construction of the church. He himself, however, used to call it the St. John’s Church.
The belfry, which stands on the other side of the St. John’s Cemetery opposite to the church to this day, was built in 1692. It was used to gather folks to the church for masses but the bell also used to ring during mortuary ceremonies.
As I said earlier, plans for the construction of a stone church in the location were being discussed already in the 17th century. According to available sources, these plans first appeared during the 1670s but it took around a hundred years for the parish to obtain a permission to build the church from King Gustav III which was issued in the 1770s.
Jean Eric Rehn was the architect chosen for the job. He was ordered to rework his proposed design several times before it was accepted by the king in 1783. Later the same year, on 14 September, the foundation stone was laid in a great hurry because Gustav III was about to go for a long foreign journey and he wanted to do the honours himself. A big ceremony accompanied the event – two nearby churches were ringing their bells and a total of 64 shots were fired from cannons.
The king left Sweden shortly after the ceremony and the construction began. It did not take long for him to change his mind, though. Already the following year on 24 January, a letter from Gustav III arrived in Stockholm. The king had admired modern architecture during his stay in Italy and in the letter he ordered to stop all works on the church because its style was too old-fashioned.
After these events, the French architect Léon Dufourny got the chance to draw a new church. However, his plan was considered too radical and moreover it was criticised for not having any connection to Swedish traditions. All plans were abandoned after Dufourny’s failed attempt and the construction of the church was delayed by another hundred years.
The population of the area around the old St. John’s Church, which later became the John’s Parish (Johannes församling), was quickly expanding during the second half of the 19th century. The need for a new church during the period was, therefore, greater than ever and finally, on 29 November 1880, the authorities decided to try and build a new church once again. An architectural competition was announced the following year with the goal of selecting a design proposal for the new church.
The winner of the competition was to be awarded 1000SEK and the prize for the second place was 500SEK. The new church was required to accommodate 1500 – 2000 people and the total costs of its construction were supposed to be below 200 000SEK.
Architect Carl Möller, who is responsible for a handful of public buildings in Stockholm, was the author of the winning proposal. His proposal was chosen despite the costs having been estimated at 390 000SEK. The design was inspired by Cologne Cathedral, it features a festive interior with bright colours and big windows on the southern side and a typical Swedish façade made of red bricks.
One of the curiosities of this church is the fact that it has the cross on the northern side in contrast with the tradition which suggests that the cross should be oriented toward the east. This is simply due to the character of the hill on which the church stands – it is long and narrow and oriented from north to south and therefore there is simply more space for the church if it is oriented this way.
In 1884, a decision was made to tear down the old wooden church as well as the belfry from the late 17th century and dispose of all items that were not planned to be used in the new church. This decision sounds very surprising in the modern age when we generally preserve historically valuable artefacts. Fortunately, the belfry was saved by the vicar of the parish as he pointed out that it could be used as a storage facility for garden benches and tools.
The church was eventually completed between 1884 and 1890. At the time of the inauguration, in September 1890, the total costs reached 800,000SEK – four times the original budget. While some critics found the church too dominant and pretentious, it was mostly beloved from the very beginning and many labelled it the most beautiful church they have seen. It is said that at the time when the population was not so dense, it was possible to see the church all the way from Södermalm.
The prestige of the St. John’s Church was visible at the inauguration ceremony, too. King Oscar II, Crown Prince Gustav and Prince Eugen were all present. And if the church was interesting enough for The Royal Family, would you dare to miss it?
Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of the royals or not, I believe you will like the St. John’s Church and many other places you can find around it that are available for you in Trevl for Android. More posts are coming later this week but in the meantime, you can check out our Instagram account with new images every day.
Bonnier, Ann C., Hägg, Göran, Sjöström, Ingrid, 2008. Svenska kyrkor En historisk reseguide.
Wästberg, Per, 1994. Kring Johannes.
Ahlnäs, Marianne, 2013. norrmalm.myor.se/studier/johannes-kyrka.html