Swiss turning military building into a church

Growing congregation renovating historic arsenal

Nov 29, 2016 by and

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A vibrant Mennonite congregation in Tavannes, Switzerland, is addressing its need for a larger worship space by transforming a building no longer needed by the Swiss military.

Église évangélique mennonite Tavannes (Tavannes Evangelical Mennonite Church, or EEMT) purchased the “arsenal” on June 9, paying $536,000 for the large facility that used to store supplies. The building dates to 1895 and was originally put up for sale by the military in 2006.

Tavannes Evangelical Mennonite Church is purchasing a building from the Swiss military to be renovated into a new home for the congregation. — Daniel Geiser

Tavannes Evangelical Mennonite Church is purchasing a building from the Swiss military to be renovated into a new home for the congregation. — Daniel Geiser

EEMT was started in 1989 when 40 adults and their children from bilingual Mennonite congregations in the Moron and Tramelan areas sought to create a French-language Mennonite presence in Tavannes. In only four years, it expanded its building to accommodate 200 more people, but that space also became insufficient.

Children’s Sunday activities take place at a local school. Large events happen at a hall owned by the municipality. The congregation considered expanding its building again but had to abandon the concept due to close proximity to land zoned for farming.

The arsenal became an option in 2006 as part of a military downsizing effort. Lengthy negotiations, government bureaucracy and church decision processes took years, while the church kept growing.

Middle Eastern refugees settled in the area and began attending. Worship services are translated into Arabic, a practice that began in 2013.

‘A powerful instrument’

The arsenal is attractive for many reasons. The current building is on the edge of town, while the arsenal is in the center of Tavannes on a main road with more room for parking.

A building commission from the congregation has worked with an architect since 2013 to transform the arsenal into a place of worship. EEMT’s plans were submitted more than a year ago for state and local government approval, and the church is hoping to begin a two-year renovation this month.

Sunday mornings can draw about 100 children, and the arsenal’s middle level has space for four large children’s classrooms. The top floor has space to accommodate 400 people for worship, and a multipurpose room that will be able to handle 150 people for other events.

The first stage of renovation will replace the roof and windows, add floor insulation and walls and complete other interior improvements, including electrical and heating work, at a cost of nearly $4 million. As funds are raised, a second stage will renovate the exterior and much of the ground level.

“We’re excited to use this building as a powerful, loving instrument of the hand of God,” said Pastor Christian Sollberger by email. He said the church hopes to transform the arsenal “into a center of life, social help, work for foreigners and so on.”

The ground floor already houses a nongovernmental organization that gathers medical equipment to be sent to West Africa. That organization will continue there, while another area is planned for social work efforts several EEMT members are already undertaking with local disadvantaged people.

EEMT is soliciting donations from its members, friends of the church and donors who want to support the project. Co-pastor Ernest Geiser is president of the congregational building commission and can be contacted at e.rm.geiser@bluewin.ch.


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