Protestant cemeteries before 1945

Martin Luther’s reformist ideas reached Silesia in the second decade of the 16th century, and the Wrocław bourgeoisie quickly adopted his teachings. When and where were the first evangelical cemeteries in Wrocław created? Which of them was the largest and which functioned the longest? How did the course of Evangelical funeral ceremonies differ from Catholic funerals?

The reformist ideas of Martin Luther (1483–1546) reached Silesia in the second decade of the 16th century. At that time, already known in Wrocław were his writings: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate and On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, written as polemics with the bull of Pope Leo X issued in 1520. The publication of these deliberations resulted in the imposition of a papal curse on the theologian from Württemberg in 1521. The first sermon in Silesia in the spirit of the Lutheran reform of the Church was delivered in 1517 at the castle in Neukirch (Żerniki) by Martin Luther’s student, August Hoffmann.

The Wrocław burghers quickly accepted Luther’s teachings. Printed materials with his theses were officially distributed in Piwnica Świdnicka, and the Wrocław city council, open to new trends, invited Johann Hess (1490–1547), a supporter of the reformer’s views, to take up the position of pastor of the church of St. Saint Mary Magdalene. He took over the Wrocław parish entrusted to him in 1523. On 4 April 1524, on the initiative of Hess, a public discussion of theologians on the principles of Protestantism took place in the church of St. Dorothea. The energetic pastor of the church of St. Mary Magdalene, Antonius Niger and Valentin Friedland Trotzendorf, who took part in the polemic on the side of the reformers, convinced the Wrocław clergy to their ideas. In 1525, the Wrocław city council took patronage over the church of St. Elizabeth. The municipal authorities placed Doctor Ambrosius Moibanus (1494–1554) in charge of the second Protestant parish thus established. At that time, the branch churches of St. Christopher and St. Jerome, as well as the hospital chapel of the Holy Trinity fell under the church of St. Mary Magdalene. In addition to its main temple, the parish of St. Elizabeth also had the church St. Barbara. That same year, 1525, a Protestant parish was created by the church of St. Bernardino of Siena, and in 1527 the parish of the Eleven Thousand Virgins was established.

In 1530, at the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire in Augsburg, the principles of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession were established. In 1542, Emperor Ferdinand I Habsburg (1526–1564) issued a decree in which he reminded the residents of Wrocław of the need to submit to the monarch and did not allow for secularisation of church properties. The religious disputes going on in the Reich at that time finally ended with the signing of the Augsburg Settlement in 1555. Although the Catholic Emperor, Ferdinand I, who ruled Silesia, questioned the validity of applying the provisions of the Augsburg Settlement, the Protestants of Wrocław enjoyed religious freedom from then on, having the support of the Protestant rulers of individual principalities of the Reich.

In the second half of the 16th century, the first divisions in Protestantism appeared. The schism was caused by a group of followers of the doctrine of John Calvin (1509–1564), leading to a crisis in the community of supporters of Church reform (Evangelical-Reformed Community; Calvinist).

The next Habsburg emperor, Maximilian II (1564–1576), maintained the status quo on religious matters. His successor, Rudolf II (1574–1611), however, presented a different policy towards Silesia. He sought to make the region Catholic again, which over time led to a conflict between the monarch and the Silesian estates. In 1604, Rudolf II decided that – in accordance with the interpretation of the principle of “cuius regio eius religio” – Silesia was directly subject to the authority of the Catholic King of Bohemia (this title belonged to the emperor), therefore it was unjustified to extend the provisions of the Augsburg Settlement to this area. His brother, Archduke Matthias (Emperor Matthias II in 1612–1619), supported in his actions by Czech and Silesian Protestants, opposed the emperor’s policy. Silesian evangelicals owed their victory to the split in the ruling house and consistent resistance – in August 1609, Rudolf II issued a Letter of Majesty granting Lutherans religious tolerance. This document precisely defined the relations between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church. New legal solutions significantly contributed to the development of the Protestant Church in Silesia and shaping this region as predominantly Protestant. Protestant church structures were formed, related charitable institutions, schools, and new cemeteries were established. As a result of the provisions of the Letter of Majesty, Protestant church organs and offices were established. From 1615, the above-mentioned aspects of the life of Wrocław’s Protestants were managed by a church office called the Wrocław Protestant Consistory, established that year and subordinated to the city council.

In 1618, an uprising against the imperial authorities broke out in Prague. It initiated military struggles in Europe that would last for the next thirty years – the Thirty Years’ War. During the uprising, in July 1619, a confederation of Protestants who chose Frederick, the Palatine of the Rhine, as their ruler was formed in Bohemia. However, the Czech Protestant camp soon suffered a military defeat in the Battle of the White Mountain (September 1620), and the new monarch had to renounce his title. The consequence of the battle was not only a military failure, but above all a political defeat of the Protestant camp. Although Emperor Ferdinand II Habsburg (1619–1637) guaranteed religious freedom in the agreement ending the Czech uprising in 1621 (the Dresden Compact), he significantly limited the Protestants’ political rights.

The region of Silesia was a theatre of war almost until the Peace of Westphalia, concluded in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. It was also an area where a consistent re-Catholicisation campaign was carried out from 1626. After 1648, in the principalities of the Reich the ruler’s confession was still binding on his subjects. However, in Silesia, which remained under the rule of the Catholic Habsburgs, only the Protestants from Wrocław retained their privileges. In the mid-17th century, during the period of an intensified Counter-Reformation, on the orders of Emperor Ferdinand III Habsburg, the so-called reduction commissions were created, the aim of which was to restore Catholicism in the areas dominated by Protestantism. In Silesia, such a commission began its work in May 1653. From then on, Protestants living in the Silesian province were exposed to various restrictions, the most severe of which was the transfer of churches to Catholics. The fate of the followers of Protestantism changed only in 1707 with the provisions of the Treaty of Altranstädt signed by Emperor Joseph I (1678–1711). As a result of the agreement concluded then, Protestants were promised the return of their churches and properties.

When Silesia came under Prussian rule in 1741, it opened a new stage in the history of Silesian Protestantism. The philosophers of the Age of Reason recognised religious freedom as a natural right. King Frederick II of Prussia (1740–1786) applied these principles in politics by not interfering with the internal affairs of Churches.  During the reign of Frederick William III (1797–1840), a reform of the Protestant Church was carried out. The Prussian monarch led to the union of Lutherans and Calvinists in 1817, ensuring equal rights for both religions. Opponents of this union created a faction in 1822 called the Old Lutherans. In 1844, in opposition to the Catholic Church, the German Catholic Church was established, which was absorbed in 1859 by free religious associations operating in Germany.

The funeral ceremonies of the Lutheran Augs­burg Confession have changed over the centuries. In the initial period of the Reformation, it did not differ much from the Catholic rite, although some clergy rejected the need to celebrate a funeral service. The first attempt to introduce new elements into the customary funeral rite in Wrocław was the church and school order, issued in 1528 by the city council, which all Protestant parishes were subject to. How­ever, it was only in the first half of the 17th century that the basic rules for conducting Protestant funeral ceremonies in the capital of Silesia were established. They were governed by de­tailed regulations issued in 1634 and 1653 regarding the conduct during baptisms, weddings and funerals. From this period, the so-called funeral orders (Begräbnissordnung) were also issu­ed, containing precise instructions regarding the following phases of the ceremony: carrying away the body, Liturgy of the Word at the church and putting the body in the grave. Detailed regulations also concerned funeral arrangements. According to the funeral order from 1772, the funeral home in which there was a sarcophagus or a permanent coffin on a catafalque covered with black fabric, had to be appropriately decorated. In front of the door to the room where the family kept vigil over the body exposed to pub­lic view, there was a pastor and his assistants singing songs or motets. Then a procession was formed. Depending on the wish of the deceased person’s relatives, the composition of the procession and the number and type of necessary attributes, the number of music compositions, as well as the number of horses drawing the hearse and its crew were determined. The front of the mourning procession was headed by a bell ringer, behind him a priest walked with a cross or crucifix. The vehicle was surrounded by choral singers, followed by clergy, school students, family and friends of the deceased. Burning candles were carried. They listened to the sermon in the parish church and then went to the cemetery.

In 1841, the Wrocław consistory issued a unified price list for burial services for all Protestant parishes under the patronage of the town hall. The price list distinguished seven classes of funerals. The type of funeral was chosen by the deceased themselves in a will or (more often) by their family. It is known that the first four categories were available at the Great Cemetery (Grosser Friedhof). In the highest class, which only the wealthiest citizens could afford, the coffin was transported on a hearse drawn by four horses decorated in black and driven by four drivers dressed in black. The staff also consisted of fourteen carriers dressed in special costumes. The bells rang for two hours in the parish church, and for one hour during the funeral. However, it was possible to individually determine this time. Depending on the wishes of the relatives, the funeral mass was held in the parish church, branch church or possibly in the cemetery chapel. In each type of church, the altar was specially decorated, a crucifix was displayed and candle holders were brought. During the service, the choir accompanied by the organ performed a funeral cantata. Motets and chorales were also frequently commissioned. The number of music compositions and the number of singers depended on the funeral organisers. They also decided on the place of delivering the sermon (Leichenpredigt), the farewell speech (Trauerrede) and the customary liturgy. Some wanted to listen to the Liturgy of the Word in front of the altar, others chose to speak at the grave. The first two classes of ceremonies differed only in details. In the other two classes, the hearse was more modest, the team was smaller, the staff was smaller, and the bells were rung for a shorter time. The burials of distinguished people have always been a great event for the city residents. The procession consisted of representatives of state and city authorities and members of various organisations led or patronised by the deceased. The ceremony was usually provided with carefully performed music compositions, and local choirs were engaged to sing Protestant chorales.

After 1945, the centre of the Lutheran Augsburg community in Wrocław became the manor church of Divine Providence. However, there are no longer any Protestant cemeteries in Wrocław. The cemetery areas associated with this religion were mostly designated for liquidation in the 1960s and 1970s and re-developed.



Written by: dr Marek Burak, Halina Okólska
Edited by: Kamilla Jasińska
Translated by: Fabryka Tłumaczeń