Notre-Dame, Strasbourg (Exterior)

Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Strasbourg Cathedral
Location: Strasbourg, France
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 May 2015, 11:00am

The building

The groundstone for the current structure was laid in 1015 but the cathedral was not completed until 1439. Consequently, it combines both Romanesque and Gothic features. From 1647 until 1874, the north tower made it the tallest building in the world. In the 1520s it became Lutheran; some 40 altars were removed. Strasbourg became a part of the kingdom of France in 1681, and the cathedral became Catholic again. In 1793, shortly after the French Revolution, the cathedral was assigned to the worship of the Goddess of Reason; it was restored yet again to Catholic worship in 1801. Statuary and stained glass windows had been destroyed and had to be restored. Given the various changes of purpose the cathedral has undergone, there is a certain eclecticism to the structure as it currently exists. There is a crypt, stunning stained-glass windows, two side altars, and a 15th century pulpit decorated with numerous statuettes. The exterior sculptures are intricate and full of allegory. The most famous bit is surely the astronomical clock, originating in 1838-1842. The clock includes a veritable crowd of animated characters – angels, others representing the different ages of human life, the apostles, and Christ. At noon (actually 12.30) the Angel of Death strikes the hour while in another panel Christ blesses the apostles as they pass in front of him and a life-size cock crows three times, reminding viewers of Peter's denial.

Notre-Dame, Strasbourg (Window)

Photo: Velvet and used under license

The church

Notre-Dame in Strasbourg hosts over four million tourists a year, more than any other French cathedral save Notre-Dame in Paris. The cathedral sponsors the usual Christian formation activities, a senior citizen's group, charitable organizations, and several choral groups. They have a concert series, and, in 2015, there were a number of activities celebrating the cathedral's millennium. The celebrate four Sunday masses, an anticipated Saturday afternoon mass (in German), and vespers at various times throughout the year (both in French and in Latin). There are two daily masses.

The neighborhood

Notre-Dame towers over the old town, with its shops, hotels, some private residences, and many restaurants. It is not far from the Ill River, and within easy walking distance of the University of Strasbourg and several parks.

The cast

The Revd Canon Michel Wackenheim, archpriest of the cathedral, preached. Damien Simon, one of several organists at Notre-Dame, played the organ. The Quatuor d'hommes, a male quartet (one of whom was Canon Wackenheim – he is a noted composer of French liturgical songs) sang. No information was given about other participants in the service.

What was the name of the service?

Messe en français.

How full was the building?

Easily three-quarters full in a church that looks to seat 2000 or so. This was a holiday weekend in France and Germany. Strasbourg and its beloved cathedral were both swarming with tourists.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

Chairs, no pews. Not particularly comfortable, but fortunately we stood for much of the service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The 9.30 mass had ended around 10.45, and lots of tourists were waiting for a chance to enter the cathedral. Their website tersely states: "Pas de visites pendant la durée des offices" (No visitors during services). Lots of photos were being taken, and there was a quiet buzz of chatter.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Au nom du Père, et du Fils, et du Saint-Esprit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No hymnals or missals in the cathedral. We were given a tri-fold leaflet with a couple of hymns (texts only) and the responses to the psalm and the intercessions. The epistle was printed in French on the front page, but during the service it was read in German – the one nod given to Strasbourg's "other" language.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. Organs, like much at this cathedral, have come and gone over the years. There is a pipe case suspended over the north side of the central nave, and another on the north side of the choir. There is also an organ in the crypt. The present instrument was rebuilt in 1979-81 by Alfred Kern & Fils of Strasbourg (now Daniel Kern Manufacture d'Orgues), noted for their new installations as well as restorations.

Did anything distract you?

The three soldiers in the cathedral square prior to the service, in battle fatigues and carrying automatic weapons. I suppose they were on alert due to the holiday weekend.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

High, but not stuffy. Incense was used at the reading of the gospel, and from the offertory through the institution narrative (the thurifer and acolytes kneeling before the altar), and the cathedral's tower bells rang throughout the institution narrative. I thought it interesting that the gospel procession began to form during the responsorial psalm and proceeded from the center of the nave to the sanctuary. The Quatuor d'hommes sang the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei to a simple four-part setting, as well as the response to the first reading, and a Sancta Maria (in Latin) during communion. Those of us who were visiting were pretty much limited to singing the Amens and Alleluias, but the Strasbourg component of the congregation sang well.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – Canon Michel Wackenheim is a very engaging speaker. He employed animated hand gestures, though they were not overdone.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

I fear my college French was not up to the task.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Seeing such a large congregation for Pentecost Sunday.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Tourists, tourists, and more tourists. I've not quite seen the like at other cathedrals, either in Europe or the United States.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I remained in my seat to listen to the splendidly played postlude. I walked around afterwards, but already tourists were pouring into the building, many lined up to see the astronomical clock, which was preparing to go through its routine at 12.30pm.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none; we stopped in at a local restaurant for tartes flambs, a local delicacy.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 – Normally I would stay away from such a large church. However, this was a beautiful worship service, and I certainly get the sense that they are actively engaged with the community in many ways. I noticed that they have a joint prayer service with Temple Neuf, a Protestant church near to the cathedral, each Thursday evening. The Saturday night previous to the service, Materfamilias and I attended a splendid concert of new music – three world premieres, and Messiaen's Et Exspecto Tesurrectionem Mortuorum. I suspect we could be happy here as regulars – especially if I could improve my French.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The horde of tourists waiting to see the astronomical clock.

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