The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Lutheran churches in Italy

Tommy Richter's complete travel journal

The red rickety bus that drops me off looks ready to shatter if someone gave it a good kick. Its engine rattles and bumbles. The seats have a worn velvet finish, and the name of a tour bus company is halfheartedly painted over on the front. It’s probably owned by the guy who drives it. My fifth stop, Caldana—a hamlet just outside of Varese in northern Lombardia, Italy—is not much more than two churches and a light buttering of houses.

“Angaaaa angaaaaahh!” A donkey squeals at my back. It bucks its head as if to say, “This is not tourist country.” My friends had laughed: “You’re doing what? By yourself? What if there’s transportation strike? You’ll get stuck in the middle of nowhere and have to rent a donkey or something ... ‘Tommy and his donkey do Italy!’ ” Well, I found myself a donkey. But what I’m really looking for are Lutheran churches. The donkey looks at me like I’m crazy.

I was of the mind that while I was studying in Italy for a semester, I would see as much of the country as I possibly could. So while most of my colleagues made plans to go elsewhere in Europe for fall break, I scratched my head and wondered how I could easily come up with an all Italy itinerary. The idea came while I was in pursuit of a Lutheran congregation that I might attend in Florence. Italy is a Roman Catholic country, so I was actually surprised to find Protestant churches at all. But the ELCA Web site assured me there were about 20 Lutheran churches throughout the country. Why not try to find them all?

The church in Caldana is completely gutted. There are no doors to speak of; the sound of hammering bubbles up from somewhere in the basement. Sawdust surrounds the altar, along with bags of concrete mix, no pews and a dolly leaning out of a pile of bricks. It’s a shell where a church should be, as invisible as Caldana on my map of Italy. A smattering of German on a flyer by the gate is the only hint I have that it might be Lutheran. I make my check mark by the address and shrug my shoulders. A fertilizer smell follows me as I walk back down the road. Donkey’s stare never falters.

Florence, where my adventure begins, is a bustle-or-be-bustled city. Church bells ring whenever. Tourists swarm the streets and sidewalks that are paved with fossilized waffles. The river Arno is green or brown depending on its mood. The Lutheran church is nestled between riverside apartments on the Altro Arno. A small brick building that is barely distinguishable as a church. A marble placard that reads Chiesa Luterana, and the heavy wooden doors are about the only indicators. I attend a service that moves too fast for my meager grasp of the Italian language. The sermon bounces off of the white plaster walls and hits my ears like one long string of A’s and I’s. But the spirit of adventure stirs within me, and a week later I grab my backpack and head out in search of Lutheran windmills.

I travel by train. Not quite a donkey, but just as stubborn. Most of the Lutheran churches on my list are in the north, probably because of their proximity to Germany. So, with the two weeks I have for fall break, I’ve planned a mad dash around the northern crown of the country. I’m going in a broad arch from Tuscany through Liguria, Lombardia, Trentino, Vento and ending in Friuli. The cities I’m visiting range from the quixotic and revered Venezia, to the busy confusion of Bolzano near the border. If I have time, I’ll then spike down to Lazio, Campania and Sicilia in the south.

Lucca is my first stop out from Florence. Its red brick walls have a bad hairdo of grass, trees and the bobbing heads of tourists. Shaped like an amoeba flagellated with arrowheads, Lucca is a quaint little town. The address for the church, which I’ve found through my extensive research, is...? When I ask, “Donde va chiesa Luterana?” the locals look at me with the same eyes as the donkey in Caldana. The lady behind the info kiosk —brown hair, plump face and thick-rimmed glasses—hasn’t heard of a Lutheran church. She scrunches her mouth into a corner under her nose and decides to check the Internet. She dials a phone number and asks questions in Italian, in English and then in German. I shift my eyes between her, the phone and the map of Lucca on the counter. Finally, she reaches a conclusion: “There’s a church in Florence.” I knew that already. She tries another phone number.

The church in Lucca is a congregation without a building. It consists of five people who meet once every two months. By chance, I arrive the very Sunday they meet. An elderly couple from the church in Florence—identical double chins, curly hair and earth-tone clothes—run the service. They use a small Protestant chapel with plain brown doors and a yellow concrete façade. The ragtag group of beards, overcoats and cornflower dresses listens to organ preludes on a small, black boom box. They sing their hymns in German. After the service they invite me out for tea and croissants. The pastors inform me there really are only 16 Lutheran churches in Italy.

The second actual church I find is in Genova. A sea town, it has a jigsaw puzzle coast with vivid turquoise waters and turquoise trees. Up a pathway with brown stone walls and hanging vines, the church is white stone with a black roof, safely locked behind an iron gate. I try my best to take pictures through the peeling paint on the bars. There is no one around to let me in. A corroded scooter leans up against a wall nearby. The only colors it has left are rust and black. It’s missing a back tire and most anything that was not welded to the metal frame. It does not stare at me, but I can almost hear it chuckle at my crumpled list of addressees. I get a speck e brie sandwich from a café on the shore named La Grotta. I chew it down with my disappointment and listen to the waves say woooshpaalahh as they break on the rocks.

I pass by the church in San Remo five times before I notice it’s there. The problem is, San Remo’s church is obscured by scaffolding. It’s in marginally better shape than the one in Caldana. A large brown sign that reads INTERVENTO DI RESTAURO E RECUPERO DELLA CHIESA LUTERANA DI SAN REMO pokes out of a tattered railing close to the street. If I crane my neck, I can make out battered orange walls around the corner. A hollow window shows nothing but more scaffolding inside. The surrounding sea of palm trees and flower beds make the city look more like an island resort than the cultural center for Italian music it is famed to be. I purposely get lost in the convoluted streets of La Pigna, the ancient city center of San Remo built into the cliffs. I’m the only person at the top. Empty park swings, a merry-go-round that spins in the wind, a white railing that looks out over the harbor. Before I leave, I make the same snarling face as one of the creatures carved into a fountain.

In Milano I’m attacked by a bracelet. While I’m gawking at a hedgehog of a Duomo, I feel firm hands wrench my wrist away from my side. A string goes taught against my flesh and before I can figure out what was going on, I’m being asked to pay for my new wristband. “But I didn’t ... oh ... um, OK ... here’s 40 cents?” The street vendor’s cheeks rumple under his grin. He shakes my hand that he never really let go. “It’s nice. Just for you. For good luck!” One euro later, I decide to keep my hands in my pockets. The Lutheran church stands in the middle of a quiet garden with knee high hedges, pink flowers and tall, stubbly trees. Ruddy brick with gray stone trim. It has “good luck” red vines wrapped around its two wrist-like spires. We exchange knowing glances.

Gardone Riviera looks like the sort of place rich people go to spend thousands of dollars on dust catchers, or to catch a game of tennis with the new-money chap down the street. The air is made of fine china. Cake-icing houses, no street signs—just arrows pointing in the direction a road might be, as if it were a tourist attraction. The info desk is closed for polishing, so I can’t get a map. I aimlessly follow signs with little black pictures of churches on them. At the top of a hill, I find a very Roman Catholic-looking church. It has too many statues of saints, gilded mosaics and pleated edges for it to be Lutheran. I ask a street vendor which way to go, and she points down the road to a series of arrows saying that Via Vittorale is somewhere ahead. Rivieara’s Lutheran church has a chocolate ice-cream cake roof, and white cobblestone walls. The elderly lady inside—orange-and-white striped sweater, gray pants, gray hair—is flustered at my queries:

“Why you here?”
“I just want to see the church.”
“You want money? ... No serve today.”
“No, no, no, Io turismo, vado a chiesi Luterana.”
“You go see nice Catholic church up the hill.”

I tackle Verona, Trento and Bolzano all in one day. My address for the church in Verona, Capella S. Bendetto, doesn’t exist. It’s not on any maps, and the Info Lady—blonde hair, pointed nose, green eyes—gives me a donkey stare. She does another series of phone calls and Internet searches: No such beast. I give Verona’s red-brick Castleveccio a good stare before I leave. Trento is another address with a question mark. It’s the season for chestnuts in Italy, and many street corners in Trento sport vendors roasting away. As I navigate the crowds, I happen to walk by just as one of these chestnuts overheats and explodes. The projectile shell hits me smack in the forehead. There are really only 14 Lutheran churches in Italy.

Bolzano is Italy’s little Germany. The street conversations are a disorienting tangle of languages. German, Italian dialect, standard Italian and occasional English blend together into a cacophony of noise. Every street sign includes a full-length novel so you can know where you are in your native tongue. I get a map from an info kiosk, and search for Via Col Di Luna, the street address I have on my list. Here there must be Lutherans. I squat at the gate of the church and prop my camera on my Nalgene [water bottle] so I can get a picture with me in it. In the middle of the church’s brown brick and concrete walls shines a blue-tinted rose window. A steepled bell tower sports a clock like a medallion. Above the door is carved a marble Jesus with his arms spread open in welcome. Staring up at it, I can almost forget about the donkey.

Albano Terme may be the only place in Italy where they understand the term “sidewalk.” Anywhere else, you are lucky to find a spit you can cram two-way traffic on (if you stand sideways). Terme, on the other hand, has nice, four-person-wide walkways wherever you go. There is a water fountain in practically every square. The whole place has a gurgling, grassy feel to it. It reminds me of an oversized zen garden with houses and a few tourists. The church is very modern: a red-brick cylinder and a square, concrete bell tower. Simple, decent, no metal gates; open and free.

After Terme, “romantic Venice” pulls me back under the donkey’s eyes. Its deep green-blue canals are laced with streets that wind and stop, wind and stop. Gondolas are packed with Asian tourists and Asian tourist cameras. Pigeons and more pigeons. The whole city feels somehow emptied, and covered up: fake cardboard like a ride at Disney. The address I have for the church, Cannaregio, indicates the entire northern island, a zone that covers about a third of the city. Another Info Lady—brown hair, crumpled forehead, brown eyes—helps me to narrow my destination down to Via S. Apostoli. The church is a red, square building with white marble trim. A statue of an angel above the door has its head turned away from me. Darkness comes early to Venice, and by 7:30 I have to squint at the map in front of me. I try to take a ferry to the hostel, but I don’t have a ticket. I look around for a Tabacchi or a Bigletteria, but the darkness wins. I’m running out of time. I hop on a train for Trieste and cross my fingers.

It’s Sunday again, and I hope to meet the congregation in Trieste. It’s a long walk along the shoreline from the hostel to the town center. I brush past low palm fronds, and squat little fountains that dot the path. The waves here say gluck slosh gluck—a different dialect than waters in Genova. At the train station I immediately spot a sign for Chiesa Luterana di Agusto. I walk for five blocks of nothing, turn around and read another sign and walk another five blocks of nothing. For two hours I circle the town. The tall, white walls, fancy Roman Catholic churches and buzzing traffic all blur together. The info places are closed for the weekend, so I can’t find a map. The Gothic arches, white stone and spiny steeples of the church loom over me when I turn a corner I had been walking by all morning. Its brown, ornamental doors are locked. The yellow sheet of paper on the bulletin board says the service ended 45 minutes ago. The train—gray as a donkey—laughs at me all the way back to Florence.

My fall break ends, and I have to put the southern half of my quest on hold for when I can take weekend trips in between classes. Only four of the 14 Lutheran churches remain. For several weeks I feel a sense of incompleteness and unrest. Finally, it comes time for our class trip to Rome, and I convince two of my friends to spend some of our free time hunting down another Lutheran church.

Rome embodies a unique juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern. One can walk up and touch the walls of the Pantheon, then turn around to see a McDonald’s. The most prominent feeling in the air is that of legacy and the slow tick of time. Surprisingly, although Rome contains the heart of Catholicism—the Vatican—it’s also home to the largest Italian Lutheran church. On Via Sicilia, a good walk east of the Spanish steps, the Lutheran church’s large, flat, white stones shine in the sun. Square towers mark off its corners with red-shingled steeples. Just above the door is a large cement cross with the Luther rose in the middle. The impressive size of the building really leads me to wonder about the size of the congregation and the decor inside. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time in Rome to come back when the church is open.

My second-to-last weekend in Italy, I still have three churches left. I’ll finish my quest in the manner that it began. I go alone, and I have to make another mad dash. This time it is a straight shot through Campania and all the way south to Sicily and back in three days. I take the earliest train out of Florence for Naples.

The different thing about Naples is that it is by far the most modern, Westernized city in Italy. There is no pretty-face-tourist-space here. Naples is a city to be a city. It’s big, it has sky scrapers, and it’s dirty. It feels more like New York or Philadelphia than something Italian. The church is crammed onto a city street amid tabbacis and pizerrias. It’s white stone walls are blackened with soot and grime. The door is behind a pad-locked gate that looks like it belongs on the front of a jewelry store. Inside, the dark-stained wood of the pews, bleached plaster walls and serene stained-glass windows belie the turmoil that reigns outside.

Torre Annunziata, only about a 45-minute train ride away, is a completely different world, with black brick sidewalks, peachy-orange walled buildings and a blue outline of Vesuvius on the horizon. I could easily imagine it being the equivalent of a hick town in America. The church looks like a whitewashed soapbox with a cross stuck in the top. I meet a timid looking man under a restaurant-like sign that says “Chiesa Evangelica Luterana Italia, Communita di Torre Annunziata.” He lets me into the church, which is just as much of a soapbox inside as it is on the outside. He gives me a postcard with a picture of the congregation: a mass of faded blue shirts with different haircuts and different noses.

One church left. By far it’s the hardest to reach. The only trains that go directly in and out of Sicily are over-nights with sleeper cars. A bed is a lot more expensive than a seat. But I’m near the end of my journey, so cost isn’t an issue. I arrive in Catania at 8, and I buy a return ticket to Florence that leaves at 5 that evening; landing me in Florence at around 6:45 Monday morning, just in time for me to walk to class.

I have exactly nine hours to find the last Lutheran church. Catania is a big, spacious seaport. It has wide expanses of concrete between one building and the next and feels like a parking lot with a few buildings off in the distance. The address I have is on Via Etna. I get there and find nothing but a Levi’s Jeans store. Now Lutherans are pretty lax, but not that lax. So I go to another Info Lady for help—short black hair, blue dress suit, brown eyes—she has never heard of a Lutheran church ... always a good sign. But she makes a few phone calls, and then tells me that I have the right street address, but the wrong town. The church is actually in a small town called Tremestieri, about 16 miles to the north.

The problem is, today happens to be a festival day in Italy. This means there are only two buses that run between here and Tremestieri. The first leaves here around 3, and the earliest return bus would land me back in Catania around 5:45. I would miss my train back to Florence.

But I HAVE to get to that church TODAY! I didn’t come all this way for nothing. So I pay a taxi driver a wallet, scream to take me there and back with just enough time to spare. I jump out of the taxi at the address, and run up to the only church I see. There are people going in the doors, the bells are ringing, a service is starting. But there are no signs that this is a Lutheran church. I have to find out. I go a little ways inside the door, and ask the first person I see ....

The donkey laughs. There are only 13 Lutheran churches in Italy.

Richter, of course, would like to hear from you if you’ve found any he missed: Email Tommy.




Posted at 8:40 pm (U.S. Eastern) 9/18/2007


What an adventure and adventurer you are.  Thank you for your very descriptive account.  I found my heart racing to "get er done".  Please do keep on writing and traveling as your studies permit.  You have a real calling for this type of thing in my humble opinion. 

God's grace be with you always.

Wayne in western NC



Posted at 7:35 pm (U.S. Eastern) 2/11/2009

I found your journey and quest interesting.  I am an Italian American who has become over the years very disheartened by the Catholic church.  As a new convert to Lutheranism, I wanted to see if there were Lutheran Churches there.  Although I did not get exactly what I would have liked to from your story, it did make me smile.  I admire your determination.  

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