St. John's Church in Different Centuries

by Rolf Adler

The history of a church should rightly begin with the date of its formation. Unfortunately, today we no longer know either the details surrounding the formation of our congregation or the reason behind its establishment.  Knowledge of both the founding of the first Christian congregation and the first church building disappeared during the darkness of medieval Lüchow. What is true about the town of Lüchow's history is also true about the history of the early Christian community: source material is lacking.  What may have existed as primary source material or original charters disappeared during the Thirty Year War (1618-1648), or it was  lost forever in the great fire of 1811.

There do exist a few more recent written references which provide some rudimentary information about the existence of a Christian congregation in Lüchow.  We have the records of Provost Johannes Volmer from the year 1675 stating that the church once was under the authority of the Archbishop of Verden and the vicar general, the abbot of the monastery of St. Michael's in Lüneburg.  The document cited by Provost Volmer dated to 1306 - a Foundation Charter of the Lupi brothers' bequest an  annual donation of eleven bushels of rye from the Drawehn mill to be used for the "sacred lamp."

Based on a report of Provost Bernhard Werner Falkenhagen from the year 1742, we can date the existence of St. John's church back to the year 1298.  During that year "Dominus Johannes praepositus" (Provost) functioned as a witness for Heinrich, the last count of Lüchow, as he donated two barrels of rye from the Köhlen mill for the Corpus Christi altar.

During renovation work in 1962, a thick fieldstone foundation was discovered which is believed to have been the outer foundation of an earlier church or chapel.  However, this assumption is only a rough guess which is open to emendation concerning what may have taken  place on the site of the present St. John's Church in Lüchow when the first church or chapel was built.

The church exterior reveals a number of traces of the construction history of St. John's Church.  Next to the Gothic window frames on what is probably the oldest (east) side of the building can be found alcoves of  Romanesque design whose original function and significance are unclear.  Window openings on the south and north sides have been foreshortened  (1866).  The entrance portal also dates from 1866; it is of simple, but typical, Neo-gothic design.  The oldest known depiction of St. John's church is a Merian engraving of 1655.  This engraving shows the church without a tower, a striking and unusual feature probably related to it being surrounded by the arms of the Jeetzel River (Jeetzelarmen)  -  a "church island;" thus, due to technical building limitations no tower could be constructed.

The massive gable roof of the church is adorned in the center with a roof turret.  Wilfried Koch writes that pitched roofs which extend over the entire nave of a hall church are typical of the German Late Gothic style (1350-1520) and are found mainly in southern Germany. The Merian engraving also illustrates how St. John's Church was built outside the walls (ecclesia extra muros).  We are very thankful that the church was not completely destroyed by the devastating fire of 1811.  It is noteworthy that the Merian engraving does not show the lovely stepped gable which adorns the west side of the church.  This with the recessed arches is a fine example of North German Brick Gothic architecture.  It bears the date 1692, but it is believed that the gable is actually older.

"The year 1691 refers to an extensive renovation and repair of the church which came very close to construction of a new building.  A document dating from 1691 states: "In the year of grace 1691 after the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the church here named in honor of  St. John the Baptist was stripped of its masonry and completely rebuilt as necessary both inside and out.  A wooden vault was constructed on the inside which had previously been flat.  (The document was discovered in 1967 in a compartment above the chancel.)  The small spherical  finial (Knopf), formerly atop the turret of the church, is now set over the east gable....  The religious affiliation is Evangelical - adhering to the unaltered Augsburg Confession, which is to be maintained by the grace of almighty God and our descendents . . .  On May 1, 1691 work to remove the roof and deconstruction of the church was begun, and services were temporarily moved to the ducal palace. On St Michael's  Day everything was back in place in the church, and preaching resumed again . . .  Lüchow, November 11, 1691."

This document thus confirms that the present barrel vaulting over the nave dates from 1691 and that the previous roof turret had been removed.  Since that time it has decorated the old city tower on Kalandstrasse which serves as the bell tower for the parish.  This now houses three steel-cast bells inscribed thus: ("In memory of the departed "- 1926,  "Upon our homeland lies misery and suffering; Lord, let me ring out better times - 1947, "Today, if you hear my voice, harden not your heart "- 1948).  Bronze bells previously had been destroyed in the wars.

Between 1691 and 1866 only minimal maintenance work was performed on the church.  During 1831/32  the roof was replaced, and brickwork was repaired on the east side.  In 1865, the roof trusses were enclosed and the roof was covered in the course of this work.

In 1866, the church embarked on a major renovation and remodeling under the direction of the church building consultant (Konsistorialbaumeister) Conrad Wilhelm Hase whose neo-Gothic alterations define the character of the church to the present.  Hase fundamentally altered both the interior and exterior appearance of  St. John's Church according to the taste of the times.  Alfred Kelletat writes of the radical nature of this renovation: "... which eliminated the altar of 1595, the pulpit of 1582, and the organ of 1554 ...".
A Gothic triumphal cross grouping, consisting of a crucifix, a life-size statue of John and an equally large statue of Mary were on loan to the Museum of Lüneburg where in 1945 the crucifix was destroyed in a bombing raid. The Mary and John figures can be found today on display among the permanent exhibits of the museum.

Due to the replacement of the original features excepting for the baptismal font of 1417, the church interior has undergone complete alteration.  The barrel vaulting was completely replaced,  new flooring was laid, pews were replaced, and wooden window frames were replaced with smaller cast-iron ones.

The church building was left in a terribly altered condition.  The "Newspaper for Wendland" (Zeitung für das Wendland) stated on 30 March 1866 that "it would have been far better to build a completely new church building than to so distort the proportions of the old . . ."

Hase and the Church Council made the claim that the church building was now "friendly, attractive, well-decorated, and better equipped than ever . . ." to provide for future generations. The total cost of renovation at that time amounted to 14,150 Thaler which came out of the church treasury.

Let us look back and  imagine the appearance of the church interior following completion of the renovation: The principal pieces were the present altar and pulpit together with a wooden eagle-designed lectern and the bronze baptismal font.  The lectern stood in the middle of the chancel behind a wrought-iron gate.  The light within the church interior was muted.  The walls were of a brownish color, and they featured numerous painted decorations.  Wooden balconies supported by columns were built along the upper walls of the nave.  Wooden balconies also were constructed above the north and south side aisles.  Overall, the church left the visitor with a gloomy impression - which later inspired the partial removal of the balconies.  A blue background with golden stars adorned the upper end of the chancel.

In later years the church interior was frequently altered and renovated.  In 1926, the south  balcony was converted into a meeting room, and in 1930, the church interior was painted in a brighter tone.  In 1957, the end of the nave had to be thoroughly rebuilt after pile driving at the nearby bridge over the Jeetzel River caused serious damage to the brick work.  A simultaneous study of the roofing timbers led to the discovery that the wood had been damaged by worms and had become quite unstable.  The west gable was also rebuilt in the course of these repairs, and the wooden balcony was removed over the south aisle to let more light into the church.

After the smoldering Easter fire of 1967, the church interior had to undergo total renovation, and the wooden balconies on the north wall and nave were removed. The church was painted with a plain light-colored paint, and the barrel vaulting was stained dark.  So the Church appears to the visitor today in 1991.

Looking at the history of the church as a whole, one gets the impression that there was a  constant depletion of the furnishings.  At one time the church contained twelve side altars, the above referenced Crucifixion Group, a baptismal angel and many inscriptions.  Today, we must accept the fact that they are lost forever.

Lüchow around 1655 (after an engraving by Merian)
Lüchow around 1655 (after an engraving by Merian)
The Castle after 1811 (great fire), copyright: Amtsturmmuseum Lüchow
The Castle after 1811 (great fire), copyright: Amtsturmmuseum Lüchow
St John's Church in 1948
St John's Church in 1948
The chancel in 1965 (Kreisposaunenfest)
The chancel in 1965 (Kreisposaunenfest)