- St. John’s Church was completed in 1890
- The first wooden church stood in the location since 1651
- The construction first started in 18th century but was quickly halted
- Today, it still belongs to the most impressive churches in Stockholm
St. John’s Church (Sankt Johannes kyrka) is one of those places that you might easily miss when strolling the major streets of Stockholm. It would be a great shame if you did not get to know this monumental building. Once you get to see it, I hope you will understand why.
Not only is it one of the city’s most prominent and dominant churches, it also took centuries since the idea of building a stone church in this location first came to light until it was finally completed, which makes its story so much more interesting.
In 1651, a wooden church was built at Stockholm’s Brunkebergsåsen between a pair of major avenues formed by Sveavägen and Birger Jarlsgatan. It was a small, simple, cross-shaped church that was meant to be only temporary as discussions about building a stone church in the area were already ongoing.
The church was painted yellow and during the first two decades of its existence, it was not used to serve masses. Instead, it was used mostly as a mortuary chapel.
While I say the church appeared already in 1651, it was not fully completed until 1731. Masses started to be served there in 1671 when the church was commonly referred to as Johan Ericsson’s Chapel after the donor Alderman Johan Ericsson Fuhrubom who, to a large extent, financed the construction. 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 to this day, was built in 1692. It was utilised primarily 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 permit to build the church. This was issued by King Gustav III in the 1770s.
Jean Eric Rehn was the architect chosen for the job. He had been requested 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 journey abroad and 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 to celebrate the occasion, which, as you will soon understand, might not have been appropriate.
The king left Sweden shortly after the ceremony and the construction took off. It did not take him long to change his mind, though. Already the following year on 24 January, a letter from Gustav III arrived in Stockholm. The king had been admiring modern architecture during his stay in Italy and in the letter, he ordered all works on the church to stop because its style was too old-fashioned.
After these events, the French architect Léon Dufourny got a chance to design 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 put on hold for another hundred years.
The population of the neighbourhoods around the old St. John’s Church, which later became the John’s Parish (Johannes församling), had been expanding quickly during the second half of the 19th century. The need for a new church 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 contest was announced the following year with the goal of selecting a design proposal for the new church.
The winner of the contest 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 less than 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, almost double the given budget.
The design was inspired by the Cologne Cathedral. It featured a festive interior with bright colours, big windows on the southern side, and a typical Swedish façade made of red bricks.
One of the curiosities connected to this church is the fact that the cross is on the northern side, which is in contrast with the tradition suggesting that the cross should be oriented toward the east. This is simply due to the character of the land on which the church stands – it is long, 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.
Obviously, that is not how things have always worked. Fortunately, the belfry was saved by the vicar of the Parish who pointed out that the structure could be used as a storage facility for garden benches and tools. Not the noblest of uses for a historic site but certainly better than demolition.
The St. John’s 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 to be 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 all the Royals, would you dare to miss it?
Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of the royals or not, I believe, you will love the St. John’s Church and many of the places that you can find in its proximity.
Let me know what you think about the church and its story in the comments below and do not forget to take our fun quiz to see how well you know places in Stockholm.
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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