The history of St. Mary's Church

Since the 1300s, St. Mary’s red brick walls have reached for the sky, and mirrored the lives of those who call Helsingborg “home.”

Already during the 1100s, a predecessor church was built where St. Mary’s stands today.  At that time, most of Helsingborg lay up the steep hill along the coast around Helsingborg.  A new church was built when the old building became too small to accommodate the growing city.  The sandstones of the old church building were reused for the foundation of the new structure.  It’s also possible to see older gravestones that were incorporated in the new foundation.  The church building in its current form was finished around 1450.  

A long construction process

The building process for this new church was quite long.  It was probably started during the 1300’s, and it wasn’t completed until the tower was finished during the 1500’s.  Toward the end of the Middle Ages, a sacristy was built on the northern end of the church, and a narthex on the southern end.  Both were torn down in 1843.  In a local history book titled Kring Kärnan, it is reported that the two structures were torn down because they were deemed to be “vanprydande” – that is, “disfiguring.”  However, it was soon discovered that they filled an important function for the stability of the church building, and, so, in 1850, the problem was addressed through a system of iron anchors in the supportive pillars and outer walls of the church.  The sacristy that exists today was built in 1953, in the same location as the previous sacristy.  

The church walls

Inside the church, there are remnants of early frescoes from the 1400’s, about which very little is known.  In the middle of the 1500’s, another type of fresco was painted, depicting coats of arms.  However, these are not present in the church today.  During the 1800s, the inner walls of the church were whitewashed, but this process was reversed already by the end of that century, restoring the brick and sandstone interior.

From Catholic to Lutheran

St. Mary’s Church was first built as a Catholic church in what was, at the time, part of Denmark.  During the 1500’s, the congregation converted to Lutheranism and during the 1600’s, Helsingborg (and with it, the church) became Swedish.  When the congregation became Lutheran, a pulpit was installed.  With the Reformation came the introduction of church pews with reserved places for specific parishioners.  Previously, the entire congregation would stand, though exceptions were made for the elderly and the sick, who instead sat in the niches still present in the walls of the church.

Dietrich Buxtehude

It is unclear where organist Dietrich Buxtehude was born.  Some sources report that he was born in Helsingborg, others that he was born in Oldesloe, in the Duchy of Holstein.  He spent some of his childhood in Helsingborg and was organist at St. Mary’s Church for a time, as was his father Johann Buxtehude.  Much later, he became organist at Marienkirche in Lübeck, where he taught Johann Sebastian Bach, among others.

The organ on which Dietrich Buxtehude played was sold during the 1800’s, and stands today in Torrlösa Church, in Torrlösa, Sweden.  Click here for more information about this organ (in Swedish)

Many renovations during the 1800s

During the 1800’s, restoration work was done on the church building on five separate occasions.  The roof was replaced, the interiors were painted white, a new church pew system was installed, among other projects.  Additionally, the floor surface – which was quite uneven due to the shifting of various gravestones over time – was adjusted and flattened.  A new organ loft was built and the old loft, including Dietrich Buxtehude’s old organ, was sold to Torrlösa Church in Torrlösa, Sweden.

St. Mary’s Church today

Toward the end of the 1800s, the whitewashing was removed from the interior walls of the church, and the original brick was restored.  Significant changes were made in the church during the 1900s.  Large stained-glass windows were installed, a new crucifix was hung and the organ was replaced twice.  The current instrument installed on the organ loft is a Marcussen organ from the end of the 1950’s.  A smaller organ was placed in the chancel in 2000, a tribute to organist Dietrich Buxtehude. 

St. Mary's Church - at a glance

The build of the St. Mary’s Church building was financed partially by a testamentary gift, and partially by church fees called tionde.

The church is built in the Gothic style and its bricks were probably produced at the Dominican monastery on the steep hill along the coast. The bricks used to build Kärnan, the medieval fortress that stands in central Helsingborg, were also produced there.

The small square holes in the church walls are remnants from the scaffolding that was used when the church was first constructed.

The first pipe organ was installed in the church around 1580.

Josefine Sjöqvist -  text

Anna Ballan - translation


Annika Lindfors, guide and communications coordinator at St. Mary’s Church 

Sankta Maria kyrka i Helsingborg by Torkel Eriksson

Kring Kärnan, Helsingborg Museum Association