The Scandinavian embassies in Paris

Two Lutheran communities thrived in Paris until the Revolution thanks to the Swedish and Danish embassies. The pastors continued their ministry during the Revolution and even during the Terror.

A surge of Lutheran craftsmen

  • A chest of drawers by Martin Ohneberg © Collection privée

After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, courtiers and lords settled back in Paris. They needed skilled craftsmen. Alsatians and Germans, most of whom were Lutheran, flocked to the capital.

Some were cabinet makers such as Oeben, Riesener and Bennemann, who became king’s cabinet makers ; there were also tailors, shoemakers, hat makers, wig-makers, stocking makers, lace-makers, ribbon-makers, glove makers for refined ladies and marquises, fabric printers such as Oberkampf.

There were also jewellers such as Boehmer and Bassenge, the Queen’s jewellers, and saddlers or carriage builders. It was Ludwig who built, for Fersen, the berline coach in which Louis XVI escaped to Varennes. Musicians introduced baroque music, wind instruments, and the pianoforte into France. Queen Marie-Antoinette ordered a harp from Nadermann.

To get around the guilds, these craftsmen started as independent workers in various suburbs of the capital, for example the cabinet makers in Saint-Antoine , the carriage makers in Saint-Germain. On Sundays, they would get together in the Swedish chapel, whose congregation increased dramatically. A thousand people attended the centenary service.

The Swedish embassy

  • A Lutheran pastor, map of Paris in the background © Collection privée

The close friendship that linked Sweden and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries allowed, as of 1635, the Swedish ambassadors in Paris to welcome, protect and ensure religious freedom for their fellow worshippers. Worship took place in the chapel of the Swedish embassy. The chapel was not a separate building but a lounge in the mansion that the ambassador rented. The community could boast outstanding pastors, appointed by the king of Sweden from 1711 and being subsidised by him.

The ministry of Pastor Baer (1742-1784) heralded a golden age for the Lutheran craftsmen. He was a bilingual Alsatian, a knowledgeable and humanistic theologian who was received at the French King’s court, but first and foremost, a real pastor who resolved the various problems of integration for this community.

From then on, these Protestant German craftsmen could legally marry French girls as long as they requested a “Royal permit to marry abroad” at the chapel : from 1780, this permit was always granted.

At the Swedish chapel, the pastor preached in German but also in French once a month. The community gradually assimilated this as shown in the writing and signatures in the registers which switched from Gothic to Roman, from German to French .

The craftsmen could be treated at the “Infirmary for all Lutherans” and they could be decently buried in the yard of the cemetery for Protestant foreigners at Saint-Martin’s Gate.

The Danish embassy

  • Matthias Schreiber (1724-1784), a Danish pastor © Collection privée

In 1746, Danish ambassador Bernstorff decided to open up his chapel : he asked over the German pastor Mathias Schreiber who ministered there until he died in 1784.

A community made up of ordinary German speakers soon formed under the leadership of this pastor : they were unskilled or did ordinary jobs such as coppersmiths, nail makers, tanners. This community was closely-knit and had a welcoming, family atmosphere. German remained the language of communication until the chapel was closed in 1810.

The communities of the Danish and Swedish embassies did not communicate with each other on account of their different languages and social status but their respective pastors got on well and helped each other.

Caught in the revolutionary upheaval

  • Carl Gambs (1759-1822), pastor of the Swedish church in Paris

The Danish embassy was not greatly disturbed. Conversely, after the royal family escaped to Varennes in 1791, with the help of Fersen, a Swede, the Swedish embassy was considered as a “nest of conspirators”. The ambassador left his job, followed by the whole embassy staff. The only one who stayed was Pastor Gambs who was insulted, searched, threatened and attacked by the “Red Hoods” of the neighbourhood. He managed to save the registers of the Chapel which the Commune demanded he give them. The community scattered : some went into hiding, some went back to their home country, some others committed themselves to the revolution like George Mutel who was at the head of a gang of looters in Faubourg Saint-Antoine, Johan Koller who was a member of the “Bloody Brigades” in Vendée or Tobias Schmidt who invented and popularised the guillotine.

However, the Swedish and Danish chapels remained open for the brave worshippers who ventured inside. In spite of all the danger, the two pastors, Gambs in the Swedish chapel and Göricke in the Danish chapel, the only Christian pastors to do so, continued with their full ministerial duties throughout the Revolution. The number of services celebrated in both chapels was never as high as during the Terror. Indeed, anybody that showed up could be married or christened, even though they were Catholic.

A French Lutheran church in Paris and the Scandinavian communities

  • Billettes church, Paris

Thanks to the courage of their pastors, the two communities weathered the storm of the Revolution and spread again under the Consulate. Napoleon ordered the French Protestants to leave these foreign chapels and they were gathered together in a Paris French Lutheran church inaugurated in 1809 in the Church of Billettes in the Marais area. It still stands today.

The chapel of the Swedish embassy was closed down in 1806 along with the embassy itself. It was reopened in 1857 with a chaplain attached to the embassy. Services were celebrated at the embassy until the Swedish church in Méderic Street in Paris was built.

The embassy chaplain also became the pastor of this all Swedish Lutheran church. He lived in the adjoining building complex but enjoyed diplomatic status and the honours that went along with it. His situation remained unchanged until the separation of Church and State in Sweden in 2000.

From then on, the church in Méderic Street has directly depended on the Archbishop of Stockholm as do all the Lutheran parishes in Sweden. They only preach and speak in Swedish. The church is totally independent of the embassy.

There had not been a chapel at the Danish embassy since 1810 but the Danish Lutheran community got together again between 1874 and 1915 along with the Norwegian community. Re-established in 1923, it has had a church in Lord Byron Street since 1955.

The registers

  • Register of burials in the Swedish Chapel © Centre culturel suédois

The registers of the Swedish and Danish embassy chapels, which were used as the civil registers of births, marriages and deaths, hold precious information about the Lutherans of Paris. Unlike the Catholic, Jewish or Reformed registers, they were not stored in the Paris City Hall which burnt down in 1871 during the Commune. They were scattered or forgotten after the chapels had been closed down by Napoleon. After 1968, a lot of them were found. Deciphering them took over 20 years.

Bibliography

  • Books
    • DRIANCOURT-GIROD Janine, Ainsi priaient les luthériens – La vie religieuse, la pratique et la foi des luthériens de Paris au XVIIIe siècle, Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1992
    • DRIANCOURT-GIROD Janine, L’insolite histoire des luthériens de Paris, Albin Michel, Paris, 1992

Associated notes

Associated tours