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The History of the Church of Scotland Congregation in Geneva

In the mid-sixteenth century, at the time of the Reformation, John Knox studied with Calvin and led worship for the English-speaking refugees.  After a gap of over 300 years, the Church of Scotland reappeared in Geneva and has held regular worship since 1867.

In the mid 16th century, at the time of the Reformation, John Knox studied with Calvin and led worship for the English-speaking refugees in Geneva before returning to Scotland, taking with him Calvin’s ideas.

We can think of him as a founder of the Church of Scotland, both nationally in Scotland and in Geneva.  After Knox’s time, there is a very long gap of over 300 years before the Church of Scotland reappears in Geneva.  Among records, in our possession, is a leather notebook containing handwritten lists of preachers and notes concerning our Church from 1867 until the end of 1956.

With the coming of railway travel, Switzerland became a tourist destination and in 1863 Thomas Cook led his first of many guided tours of Switzerland from London.  It was probably this rapid influx of visitors which led to the Church of Scotland sending out preachers to take services during the summer months in the Chapel of the Maccabées.  Records show that, from 1867, there was a steady stream of Ministers arriving from all over Scotland, from parishes and universities, to take services for periods ranging from a few weeks to a couple of months.

From then on services have been held in Geneva for at least part of every year with the exceptions of 1888 to 1891 when the Chapel of Maccabées was undergoing extensive renovations and also during the two World Wars from 1915 to 1919 and sporadically from 1939 to 1945.

In 1922 the Rev J.H.H. McNeill was appointed on a more permanent basis, where he remained for 3 years, to be followed from 1926 to 1935 by Rev T.M. Watt.  It was him who first compiled the notebook, obtaining records from the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh and from Rev Charles Martin of the Geneva church.

Rev Charles Martin served as a pastor at Jussy and then the Fusterie.  His family, originally Huguenot refugees, owned the land of the Cenacle in Malagnou where he had the present house built.  His name is commemorated in the Promenade Charles Martin in Malagnou.  Frank Martin, the great Swiss composer, was Charles Martin’s tenth and last child.  When Charles Martin died at the age of 91 in 1934, he was described as “a great friend of the congregation and one of its founders as a permanent congregation”.  In his retirement, he had preached regularly for the congregation, right up into his late eighties.

After the Frist World War a more international outlook appeared.  The YMCA, YWCA and the World Student Christian Federation had already been established in Geneva before the end of the 19th century, all forerunners of the ecumenical movement.

Members of staff from these organisations played a role in our congregation, with men from all over the world taking services and giving talks on international events.  Immediately after the First World War the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, was founded with its headquarters in Geneva.

At that time special services were held in St Pierre to mark each annual assembly of the League of Nations; often with very prominent preachers such as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The growing international importance of Geneva is reflected in some of the special services held.  On 21 July 1929, there was a “Service in the Cathedral for the Scottish School Journey Association for about 460 Glasgow and Edinburgh Secondary School Girls and Boys”.

 There was a series of League of Nations summer schools for schoolchildren for which services were provided.  In 1930 a service for 200 participants in the Christian Endeavour Convention from the USA was held in the Auditoire.  At that time a Swiss-German congregation used the Auditoire.

In 1929 the Church of Scotland reunited with the United Free Church of Scotland, following a split that had taken place in 1843.  The Free Church of Scotland had founded the Scots Kirk in Lausanne in 1876 but it is only after the union of 1929 that mention of the Lausanne church appears in our records.  Indeed in the same month as the union took place the Lausanne Minister came to preach in Geneva.  There are also references to the Lausanne Minister taking occasional services in Geneva during the 2nd World War.

In April 1935 a decision was taken by a Church of Scotland committee to close the Scots’ Kirk in Geneva for financial reasons and Dr Watt returned to Scotland.  The decision to disband was not binding, however, and within three months of his departure a successor had arrived in Geneva.

From 1937 to 1939 there was no longer a permanent presence in Geneva and services had reverted to the summer months only.  After the outbreak of the 2nd World War the Chapel of the Maccabées was no longer used; initially because, with the war, there was no heating for the chapel.  Instead of the congregation, or what was left of it, initially met monthly and then increasingly sporadically in the American Church in the Rue de Monthoux.

In 1940 it was decided to donate the congregational funds to relief efforts because of the great need in wartime and even the hymnbooks were sent to British prisoners of war.

“Owing largely to war conditions, in particular the departure of officials of the League of Nations and the ILO, the number of members and adherents of the Scottish congregation dropped from 40 in 1940 to 16 in 1944”.

 Rev Robert Mackie, a Church of Scotland minister served as General Secretary to the World Student Christian Federation in Geneva from 1938 and played a major part in the life of the Church of Scotland in Geneva until 1955.

When services resumed after the war on a monthly basis, the Chapel of the Maccabées was no longer available at a suitable time and services were held in the much smaller Chapelle des Pélerins (now called the St Léger chapel) in the Old Town.

Although a chaplain was appointed in 1945 services were held only monthly and by 1947, when the resident chaplain left, a local committee had been formed to oversee the provision of worship twice monthly mainly using local resources.

Prominent among the preachers was the Rev Robert Mackie and during the summer months, ministers continued to come from Scotland to lead worship.  Rev William Barclay, at that time a lecturer at Glasgow University, and well known to this day for this Bible commentaries, led worship during July 1956.

On 23 September of that same year, a service was held in St Pierre to mark the 400th centenary of John Knox and the induction of Rev Niall D Watson as a minister of the congregation.

From that time on there has been a continuous year-round ministry provided by the Church of Scotland ministers in Geneva.  In 1957 a Kirk Session was constituted and by 1959 the congregation was installed in the then newly renovated Auditoire de Calvin.

From its beginning, providing summertime worship for tourists to Switzerland the congregation gradually evolved over the decades into a permanent, international worshipping community with its own minister.

Church of Scotland in Geneva

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