Segregated Seating an Old Tradition?


I recently attended Mass in a very old (400 years old) church in Oberbayern Germany. It was a truly interesting and actually uplifting experience. The Mass itself was an odd mixture of OF and EF sung in beautiful old high German with pipe organ and chorus with an older lady lead singer and respondent with a beautiful operatic voice… What I found really special was that at the moment of consecration the church bells were rung and loud hand canons were fired from the other side of the valley. THAT will leave a very real impression that the consecration is special on anyone. I don’t know if they do this EVERY Sunday as it was a local holiday, but it is a memory I will not soon forget.

It was sad to see an oddly “modern” looking new alter in front of the original alter so that the priest could face the congregation. Really looked out of place and when I asked a congregant he said they HAD to do that to “comply” with the Bishop’s post Vat. II orders after 1962. It was also odd to see that all of the alter servers were little girls, even though most of the women in the congregation were wearing hats or veils and the old women formal traditional tracht or costumes. A VERY odd mix of tradition and “modernization”.

All of that said, what I found interesting is that the men all sat on the right side of the central aisle and the women the left, regardless of age. Now I come from a German/US background but I have NEVER experienced nor heard of segregated seating in a Catholic Church before. Protestant Yes, but not Catholic. Is this an old European custom, or perhaps only limited to the Bavarian Alps region I was visiting?

Perhaps one of our European posters can give some background.

William Unland

What a wonderful experience that must have been. The next time I go to Germany, I want to take my wife to that area, and we will have to attend a Catholic service. You have really got my appetite whetted.

My wife and I attended a Coptic service in Raleigh, NC and they used segregated seating. It was a first for my wife and she was taken aback by it, and also by covering the head. In her talk with some of the women, she discovered that this Coptic church was more traditional than others.

Many of the Protestant churches built in the US in the 19th century had separate doors for men and women to enter and exit. Seating in the 18th century Protestant churches was in family boxes, so there would have been mixing.

My father remembered segregated seating when he was child in the early 1900’s in Hungary. 30 years later it was only memory.

Curious here. Did the young boys join their fathers or remain with their mothers?

I don’t know about Catholic churches having separate seating in Hungary, but when I was there in 1992, we visited my mother-in-laws relations in a little village, the church was a reformation church and the men sat on one side and the women on the other in lofts.

My husband’s family had their own pews (I don’t know why) on the lower level and everyone of the family, women and men sat together. It was very strange. I think my husband’s grandmother held a special place in that village and that is why the family had their own pews.

Yours in the Hearts of Jesus and Mary



Toddlers were with their mothers, but if the boys were school age, with father. This seating was NOT demanded, my wife sat with me on the “boys” side, and there was one man on the “girls”, but everyone except us visitors seemed to know the protocol.

Also I forgot to note that in ALL the German churches I attended, including the DOM in Regensberg, a LARGE cathedral, they all rang their bells at consecration. Seems to be a German norm. Very appropriate if you ask me. They rang the bells for 10 minutes before services, at consecration, and after services for 10 minutes.

Also I did note that many pews in the older churches did indeed have family name plates, so that custom is still alive. The “good” seats up front were all “reserved” as it were. In a cathedral it is a LONG way from the back of the communion line to the alter;)

I also noted that the readings were all conducted by a deacon, who also acted to distribute communion, but NEVER did I see more than the one deacon and the priest, even in the cathedral, not the scores of folks seen in some US churches as well as here in Japan. I would also note that the deacons, all older men, dressed all in black suits with black shirt and tie, and were VERY “appropriate”, unlike what I see here in Japan with folks in shorts giving the readings, and all women distributing communion.

Bill Unland

Just north of Schulenburg, Texas are some churches referred to as the Painted Churches. They were built by 19th century immigrants from central Europe. I noted that all the pews on one side have clips on the back of the seats to hold men’s hats, but not on the other side. Also, there is a saint’s statue at each pillar on the aisle. Men saints on the side with the clips; women saints on the other.

By the way, they are beautiful. Visit them if you are ever in the area.

Thank you to the OP for bringing a smile! I immediately thought of my school days at St. Mary’s back when boys and girls were in separate classes. At Sunday Mass we were required to sit as a group, boys on the right in front of St. Joseph and the girls on the left in front of the Virgin Mary. The nuns would keep us in line, no gazing across the aisle, no snickering, no talking, no gum, etc. Every time I think of it the song Rawhide comes to mind, must be the image of the nuns “riding herd” I guess.

Joe Kelly, thanks for the info on the painted churches of Texas. I looked at the website and they are amazing. They bring to mind the Wieskirche in Germany, south of Munich. My daughter had the opportunity to sing there in 2000. From the outside it looks very plain, but the inside was breathtaking.

To prevent this post from being a hijacking, here is an interesting quote from one of the painted churches pages regarding segregated seating:
Christians have used two levels for seating the congregation for centuries. In fact, one of the oldest churches in Rome has what was once called a “matrimonium” still intact. The custom was to seat mothers and children up in this balcony-like seating, while the men sat below. Saint Paul’s worked just the opposite. Men sat up in the balcony and women and children sat below.

Here is the url for the painted churches of Texas:

Here is one for the Wieskirche in

I understand the tradition of ringing the Church bells came from the middle ages when mostly just the monks of the local abbey went to Mass because the pheasants were working in the fields. Perhaps it for weekday Masses. The Church still wanted the people to be solemn during the consecration - even in the fields, so they rang the church bells. This practice turned into the ringing of bells in the sanctuary during the Eucharist prayer.

Or so I think I remember.

Although segregated seating may be an “old” tradition, unsegregated is even older. In one of his homilies (I can’t remember which) St. John Chrysostom mentions how he wishes there was segregation of sexes in church, especially during services. He even went so far as to say there needed to be a wall between the sexes. Now the context of this was that he was bemoaning the behavior of young people during the Liturgy/Mass. He claimed that young men and women would be flirting with each other, setting up dates, and even meeting to “hook up” at Liturgy. Apparently the behavior of the young people during that time wasn’t any better than today, and was perhaps even worse. :shrug:

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