At the time of the Reformation, Protestants took over the churches of Geneva, and Catholic worship ceased in the city. It was only in the 19th century that minority religions were allowed to worship again, which led to the building of Notre Dame on the site of Geneva’s old fortifications. The church was dedicated in 1857. The building is 19th century neo-Gothic, built of sandstone and inspired in part by Beauvais Cathedral. its imposing exterior is somewhat dwarfed by the nearby train station. The interior is stunning, particularly the stained glass which was created by a number of artists in the 19th and 20th centuries.
As a city centre cathedral, Notre Dame welcomes a diverse community, including those of us who are just passing through. The website reveals a schedule of daily Masses and confessions, with the rosary at 6pm and English Mass at 7pm on Sundays.
The cathedral is on the Place Cornavin in the Paquis neighbourhood of Geneva, to the north of the Rhône river. The area is lively and cosmopolitan, and is very very well connected for trains and trams. The cathedral is right next to the city’s main train station, which is very handy for public transport.
The priest led and preached. Two altar servers assisted. A cantor led the singing. Members of the congregation gave readings and led the intercessions.
What was the name of the service?Messe de Dimanche de 10h, ‘Sunday Mass at 10am’.
How full was the building?
About three-quarters full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one greeted me at the door, except for a woman who I let past with her pushchair. In standard Catholic fashion, the peace lasted about 10 seconds and involved brief eye contact with my immediate neighbours.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was uncushioned wood, which was bearable. What wasn’t was the uncushioned wooden kneeler. I’m 22 and in good health, and my knees still hurt an hour later. I have no idea how the older folks around me were managing.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Busy but fairly quiet. This was the third of seven Sunday Masses celebrated in the cathedral, and people were leaving the previous one as we were entering.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Au nom du Père, et du Fils, et du Saint-Ésprit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were two small booklets containing the hymns and the Gregorian chant, but there was no Mass card with the liturgy, so I had to read it off my phone.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Like everywhere in Geneva (except possibly the freezer chests in the supermarket), the church was boiling hot. I used my hymn sheet as a fan.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Bog-standard, no-frills modern Roman Catholic Mass. The priest faced the people and (for mic reasons, I imagine) gave most of the service from the lectern, not the altar. The only diversion from the norm was the use of Gregorian chant for the Kyrie, Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 — The priest had a nice voice, well suited for a smaller church and congregation, but he had difficulty competing with 300-odd people fanning themselves.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He focused on the Old Testament reading (Genesis 18:20-32) and the Gospel (Luke 11:1-13), and discussed prayer. We are blessed to be able to approach God in confidence as a loving father. We can be bold in our prayer. The ‘Our Father’ gives us an excellent model of prayer; if the world looked more like the one described in the ‘Our Father’, we would be in peace.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The cantor was wonderful. She led us admirably through some very tricky Gregorian chant, and performed a stunning descant for the final hymn (‘Ave, ave, ave Maria’) which was very moving and uplifting.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was, as mentioned above, absurdly hot. On entering, I made the mistake of putting my hand in the holy water stoop. It hadn’t been topped up recently, and was little more than a little pool of grotty water.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Since another Mass was about to start, we were hurrying out rather quickly. The priest stood by the front of the altar to greet people.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was served. I am writing this in a brasserie across the road, enjoying a bowl of cream of tomato soup and a glass of beer that tastes disconcertingly of apple juice.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — Were I a Roman Catholic and not a member of the lace mafia of the Episcopal Church, I would happily make the 20 minute bus ride every Sunday for Mass in this beautiful building.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – seeing families worshipping together, even in the summer heat, and despite the stuffiness and the lack of showmanship, it was a perfectly pleasant Sunday Mass.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The gorgeous descant from the cantor. Simply wonderful.