Posted by: Mike Willoughby | December 14, 2010

Impressive Stonework

Last week, I was visiting Geneva on business and I had one afternoon free to do some sight-seeing.  Geneva is a beautiful city nestled in the Swiss mountains with peaceful Lake Geneva sitting on the Rhône River.  There are many sights I could have chosen to see, but I made a bee-line for the historic St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva’s old town area.  St Pierre’s is the place where John Calvin made his home as he pastored the 16th century Geneva congregation through the reformation movement that changed the course of the church.

St. Pierre’s had its beginnings in the 4th century as a relatively humble church building but since Geneva was the headquarters for the bishop in that area of Europe, the church quickly grew in prominence.  The church facilities were expanded several times over the centuries including a massive 12th-13th century project that produced the current magnificent structure.  The cathedral continued to receive updates over the years including the addition of an 18th century neo-classical façade on the front that I believe is a bit jarring compared to the graceful mix of Gothic and Romanesque lines of the older building.  The exterior photo is included below – you can be the judge.  Regardless, it is a very unique structure and bursting with history.

One of the most fascinating things about St. Pierre’s is that the original church foundations have been partially excavated underneath the current structure all the way down to the original top soil some 20 feet on average below the current floor of the cathedral.  You can tour the excavation under the current cathedral and see the artifacts found among the previously buried ruins.  My friends and I started out by touring the underground dig and when they kicked us out a closing time, we went up and toured the cathedral.

The current cathedral is impressive in its size and construction.  Like most old reformed churches I have visited which tend to be very austere, St. Pierre‘s retained very little of the ornamentation of its Catholic origins.  The reformers did retain the stained glass which provides a nice flourish alongside the simple beauty of the interior with its elegant and towering vaulted ceilings.  How wonderful it would be to transport my congregation to the cathedral for a Sunday morning worship service just to hear the beautiful a capella singing fill the entire space.  Calvin retired the organ from the services in St. Pierre’s as part of the reforms and it would be amazing to recreate a 16th century worship service in honor of his position on Christian music.  We could even sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in an effort to get the period setting correct.  I don’t think Martin Luther would mind!  James could climb the stairs to the two-story pulpit wrapped around one of the main columns in order to deliver the sermon.  There’s not room to move around up there, so he would have to stand still!

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much worshipping going on in St. Pierre’s anymore.  According the curator on duty (curators belong in museums), the building hosts individual worshippers daily but formal services are scheduled only on special occasions.  I understand the sensitivity of having crowds tromping through this historic site on a weekly basis, but still it’s a shame the vaulted ceiling doesn’t host the sound of singing, praying and preaching at least once per week.  I don’t think Calvin would approve.

I think it’s a striking difference from the accounts I read of the daily revival meetings that were held in the cathedral during the powerful beginnings of the reformation movement.  Congregants were starved for the Word of Truth having lived on a diet of tradition, arbitrary rules and regulations and the marginalization of grace and faith through a practical teaching of salvation by works alone.  At last they were hearing from the Living Word in their native tongue!  I also think it’s a striking difference from the narratives I read on the various placards positioned in the archeological dig below the cathedral.  In the 4th century, the church was the center of life in the town of Geneva.  A fourth century Christian entered this life nurtured by the church, they were taught spiritual and practical lessons as children by the church, they received a believer’s baptism by immersion in a full-size baptismal fount, they lived their adult lives intimately connected to the church and to the bishop that help them navigate the trials of life.  When they died, they were frequently buried on the church grounds.  An astonishing number of human skeletons were unearthed in the excavation along with evidence of everyday life happening right there on church property.  In the 4th century, again in the 16th and likely during many other periods of history, this facility of stone housed a vibrant living church.

Of course, therein lies the lesson of my experience!  As impressive and beautiful as the cathedral is, it is not the church.  The Apostle Peter for whom the building is named had this to say about structural stones in I Peter 2:4-5:

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Peter reminds us through his beautiful poetic language that we are the spiritual house of God consisting of individual living stones placed together on the foundation of our Savior the rejected stone.  We are assembled by God Himself as He adds us to the church.  Unlike the cold stone cathedral/museum, this living Christian building has the God-given role and responsibility of being a holy priesthood – every single one of us!  Peter has this to say about the priesthood of believers as he wraps up these thoughts in I Peter 2:9-12:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Next Sunday when I enter our beautiful building, I know I will notice the stained glass, the vaulted ceiling and the elegant wood rafters.  I appreciate the way the structure facilitates powerful and effective worship for the gathered congregants.  But it is not the church.  Someday, perhaps it will be a museum with a curator.  I hope not.  Today it houses a vibrant loving church family that is dedicated to worshipping and serving God as they also serve each other and the world.  I am privileged to be a living stone in that spiritual building.  I think John Calvin would approve.  Even more important to me, I think Peter would approve which means that God approves.

Until next week,

Meet me at the intersection!

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Thinking of legacy… Ready, set, shop? I Thank God for you


  1. A very Interesting account regarding historical church building in Geneva.
    Thanks you

  2. ” In the 4th century, the church was the center of life in the town of Geneva. A fourth century Christian entered this life nurtured by the church.” Love this! what if someday someone said “In the 21st century, people again made the church the center of their life and put obiedience to God as most important in this world. Thanks for being there as I strive to accomplish this in my own life.

    • Amen, Jason. Let’s work to make this happen in the 21st century!

  3. Great post Mike, one of my favorite things about traveling in Europe is seeking out the old architecture that exists there – but I’m sure the excavated part was something else. When I lived overseas I was able to visit a small church which was actually located on an island in Southern Sweden. The church was built in the 14th century and only the locals knew about it… it was a 1 room church with scriptures written in old Swedish on the walls and amazing original artistic carvings. It is truly something I will never forget.

    • Sounds like a fantastic experience! My wife’s great-grandparents immigrated from Sweden and in 1998, we had a chance to take her grandmother back to Gevalia, Sweden to experience that part of her heritage. While there, she met some cousins for the first time and they still correspond today. They also toured a very old church in Gevalia. Thanks for the comment, Matt!

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