History of St. Afra's

St. Afra Stift seen from GraunstrasseAt first glance, our neighborhood doesn’t look like an area one would associate with a tradition-orientated Catholic church. This used to be a working class district notable for its 19th and early 20th century social housing. Nowadays it has a high immigrant quota with women wearing headscarves. For decades, the divided Berlin’s “no man’s land” began on the opposite side of the street. Behind that came the Berlin Wall and the East Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg.

Of course all that has changed now. The wall is gone, the streets have been reconstructed, the district is thriving. The public transport connections have improved, too, with a bus stop before the door and the main station of Gesundbrunnen nearby. Within minutes one can reach Alexanderplatz or Friedrichstraße. Though St Afra is not in the immediate city centre it is centrally located.

First-time visitors to the Graunstraße would be forgiven for walking right past number 31. There is little to be seen of a church: the building is just one part of an unbroken streetscape. The only clue is the slightly raised gable/pediment with a space -- currently empty -- for a statue of Our Lady.

“St Afra Presbytery” is the name on the out-of-date sign behind which, one would suspect, are just apartments. But at the main entrance, visitors are greeted with the sign: “Institute St. Philipp Neri Berlin -- Holy Mass in the Roman Rite”. In Berlin, free standing Catholic churches are a rarity, a privilege extended mostly by the Protestant Hohenzollern family in the so-called “founding years” of the late 19th century only to Lutheran congregations.

The church seen from the courtyardCatholic churches were forced into modesty, of which St. Afra is a good example. Like a workshop or warehouse, the church lies in the building’s courtyard which, subsequently, resembles a monastery cloister. At the end of this “cloister” lies, to the left, a broad staircase that leads to the church. Visitors who ascend the stairs and open the door have finally arrived.

The courtyard location and unusaul shape have a historical basis: in 1897/98 the Grey Sisters of St Elizabeth built a women’s refuge named after St Afra, a reformed prostitute and martyr. The building complex -- comprising convent and women’s home -- was not intended for the public eye. Later the complex served as a presbytery and an old people’s home and, after the Grey Sisters finally gave up the complex in 1996, it was reconfigured into 32 one- and two-room apartments.

During its time as a women’s refuge, the kitchens, refectory and day-rooms were located beneath the church. Living space for the sisters and the women in need above the church is currently unrenovated and uninhabitable but could, with corresponding personnel and financial growth in the institute -- be renovated to serve as apartments for institute members and guests.

Intensively used are the rooms underneath the church where there is a kitchen, a small refectory and an even smaller meeting room. This is where the institute’s life is centred and guests are welcome and frequent.

Furthermore there are three larger main rooms under the main body of the church. On the lefthand side one enters the institute office and library while, on the right, the Schola warms up while the rosary is being prayed upstairs. This room is where the oratory is held on Friday evenings, a get-together of institute members after evening mass, as well as the Easter breakfast.

The cryptFinally there is the largest room, under the central nave of the church, the crypt. This is home to the Merciful Jesus image blessed by the pope and place of honour for the partial-relic of St Simeon Bemeux. The institute has not yet made much of this treasure, discovered by Propst Goesche several years ago at a Dutch flea market. We hope to be able to decorate this crypt further and install a number of altars to allow visiting priests to celebrate daily mass.

The St. Afra ensemble of buildings is a listed building and cannot be “disposed of” to an investor. Nevertheless the future of the institute was uncertain for a long time until the institute’s takeover gave it a purpose that, at least in part, fulfils its original purpose: to be a place for mass and Catholic life. A Catholic oasis in Berlin.

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