Svalbard Church: A Community Centre in Longyearbyen

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Longyearbyen is home to the world’s northernmost church in regular use. But it’s far more than a place of worship in the harsh environment of Svalbard.

On a recent visit to Svalbard, I ticked off a few places I hadn't had the chance to see on my first visit. Svalbard Church was on the top of that list.

Svalbard Church in Longyearbyen.

While there are some fascinating churches in Norway, I'm not someone who typically visits churches on my travels. But I knew there were a few unique aspects to this church. While part of the Church of Norway, it provides services and events for the wider community.

It's also perched relatively high above the town, so the view from the church lets you get a feel for the size and layout of Longyearbyen. That being said, I visited in the polar night but it still provided an interesting perspective on the town.

Watch a quick tour

First things first, if you prefer video then check out this quick summary of my visit. In a hurry? No worries. It's just one minute long!

If that video piqued your interest, read on for more details on this fascinating place.

Introducing Svalbard Church in Longyearbyen

Svalbard Church is a parish church of the Church of Norway. There is a library and cultural centre in the heart of Longyearbyen, but the church also serves as another community centre of sorts. It's open 24 hours a day, and hosts social events as well as regular church services.

The current church was built in 1958, but there has been a church in Longyearbyen since 1921. The congregational hall that seats just over 100 people is 126 square metres while the community lounge is 112 square metres.

It is the world's northernmost church with the one exception of a tiny log cabin that functions as a Russian Orthodox Church on Franz Josef Land, farther north.

History of Svalbard Church

Longyearbyen was founded by and named after American John Munro Longyear. His company began coal mining operations in 1906. Ten years later, Store Norske took over the mining operations.

Interior of Svalbard Church.
Interior of Svalbard Church.

Longyearbyen was very much a company town, with Store Norske providing all accommodation and services for the growing population.

The Church of Norway appointed Thorleif Østenstad as Svalbard's first vicar and teacher in 1920. A school was established jointly by the church and mining company Store Norske with just eight pupils initially. The settlement's first church was built and consecrated in 1921.

Norway's King Haakon VII and Queen Maud made several gifts to the church when it was built, including the altar silver and baptismal bowl. From then on, the church's reading room was used as a school.

During World War II, Svalbard was evacuated. The pastor of Svalbard Church at that time took items including the gifts from the King and Queen, and the church books to England.

Svalbard church in the winter.
Svalbard church in the winter.

It was a wise move, as in 1943 the wooden church was burned down in German attacks on Longyearbyen. It took another 13 years for the foundation stone for a replacement church to be laid.

Opened in August 1958, the new church still stands today. The original silver altar candlesticks and baptismal bowl from the original church that were saved during the war were used in the new church.

Activities at Svalbard Church

There are both religious services and community events held at the church, which is staffed by one minister and two other employees.

Svalbard church is the only church on the entire archipelago aside from a Russian Orthodox chapel in Barentsburg. Because of this, the minister makes regular visits to other communities such as Ny-Ålesund.

Altar inside Svalbard Church.
Altar inside Svalbard Church.

According to the church website, the church belongs to the Lutheran tradition “yet assigned to serve everybody in the archipelago, regardless of their nationality and religious community.”

Services in Longyearbyen are usually held on Tuesday evenings and some Sundays, according to the church website.

Aside from services, the church hosts get-togethers for new parents, activities for local schoolchildren, and even concerts as part of festivals. These are advertised on the website and in the local news magazine, Svalbardposten.

Visiting the church

Are you visiting Longyearbyen and planning to visit the church? Good news. The church itself is open 24-hours a day. When you enter you'll need to remove outdoor shoes and leave them in the cloakroom before heading into the church itself.

Stuffed polar bear in the community area of the Svalbard church.
Polar bear in the community area of the Svalbard church.

When I visited during a midweek daytime, a local school group (kindergarten maybe?) were visiting in the community lounge. Despite this, one of the church staff members came over to me to ask if I had any questions about the church.

Getting to the church is easy enough although it is a bit of a trek in the darkness of the winter especially if there is snow or ice on the ground.

The main road to the church goes between the harbour road at the North Pole Expedition Museum all the way to Huset and Nyben. Two routes cross the Longyearbyen river to join this road, one from the downtown area and one from near to Funken Lodge. A war memorial is located close to the church.

Have you been to Svalbard Church? Let us know your experiences in the comments.

About David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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