St. Peter’s Church is Zürich’s oldest, dating back to the 8th century. Beyond being a witness, it has been cause to some of the city’s most illustrious history.
For example the unusual arrangement that the clock tower belongs to the city of Zürich, while the bells inside the tower and the baroque nave are owned by the city’s Evangelical Reformed Church. This arrangement dates back to the 13th century and came about in a democratic way. It includes a successfully lived agreement throughout the centuries as per the division of building maintenance.
So when you see the graceful, long blue-and-white flags of the city of Zürich or the red-and-white flags of the Confederation hanging from the top of the church tower, remember that they commemorate secular, not religious, events such as Labour day or city celebrations of Sechseläuten and Chnabeschiesse. The church bells from the same clocktower, however, ring according to religious order. And if you love the sound of church bells, you’ll love St. Peter! In 1880, the church received five magnificent new bells, the heaviest weighing 6,000 kilograms. As other inner-city churches followed, their sound was first tuned to St. Peter and then to each other. Thus, when you hear Zürich’s churches ring their daily evensong today, you are treated to a melodious bell concert.
Another far-sighted thought of the city fathers of the time: in 1340, shortly after acquiring the church tower, the city built a simple living quarter atop the 64 meter high tower. Uninterrupted for more than 570 years until the year 1911 when the practice was abandoned, a watchman (Hochwächter) lived in this miniature abode, albeit with the best view in town! Every 15 minutes he would do the rounds, looking out over the city in all four directions – the lake, the rivers, the mountains, the city spreading below with its citizens going about their lives – sounding alarm with his horn in the event of fire or flood. No source of cooking or heat was permitted under the 42,000 wood shingles covered steeple. A manually operated rope pulley heaved up the watchman’s daily meals and carried down shoes, since many generations of the same father-and-son shoemaker family held the remunerated position. The system worked. Unlike many European cities, Zürich never suffered a major fire (and maybe had better shoe work in the bargain)?
More famous history
Zürich reformer Ulrich Zwingli’s friend Leo Jud was St. Peter’s first pastor. Another famous pastor from 1769 onward was Johann Caspar Lavater. A dazzling and charismatic personality, Lavater was committed to the enlightenment. Well-respected as a writer, physiognomist and philosopher throughout Europe and an orator with great conviction and depth, he was called on by greats such as Goethe and Duke August of Weimar. His untimely death was caused during the city’s French invasion in 1799. Shot by an infuriated grenadier in front of the church while trying to appease the aggressors, Lavater passed away from the complications a year later, after much suffering borne with great strength.
The church underwent many transformations and enlargements since its humble beginnings in Roman times and was owned by the two abbess-daughters of German King Ludwig. Abbey ownership came to an end when Zürich’s first mayor, Rudolf Brun, paid off the abbey’s debts in 1345 and made St. Peter’s a citizens’ church. Brun wasn’t entirely altruistic in his aim. The watchtower was a considerable asset in his reign of the city and invaluable as a lookout for any military attacks from neighbouring Winterthur. Unlike the neighbouring Gross- und Fraumünster churches, however, it flourished forthwith without any financial set-backs. Both Brun, (who was later poised with his chef) and Lavater are buried at St. Peter’s.
The location alone of historic St. Peter’s church is worth a visit. Proudly perched atop a knoll, overlooking the old town and the river Limmat then as now, the church is steps away from the hustle and bustle of pulsating city life. Narrow lanes, flanked by patrician houses, lead up to a cobble stone square. A majestic chestnut tree reigns in the center, surrounded by an old-fashioned, octagonal bench. It invites the visitor to enjoy a restful moment in this sunny, quiet and peaceful spot. Old city maps show the church with a beautiful garden where the square is today. I wonder what this chestnut tree has witnessed throughout the ages.
St. Peter church continues to be a living citizen’s church and is a popular choice for weddings and baptisms. With excellent acoustics and apart from regular services, the church offers a variety of public concerts, inter-faith workshops and the famous advent celebrations. The guided tour of church and tower with its interesting small history museum half-way up, the belfry, the fire watchman’s quarters at the top and the magnificent views over city and lake in all directions is well worth a visit! Tours are organized in such a way that the visitor can witness the workings of the bells. And yes, ear plugs are provided!