Malling-Hansen and Keldby Church
Text and photos by Jørgen Malling Christensen.
On the island of Møn, four kilometers to the east of the small town Stege, we find Keldby Church, beautifully situated by the waters of Stege Nor, an inlet of seawater from the bay of Stege. This is where Rasmus Malling-Hansen married his first wife, Cathrine Georgia Heiberg, born in 1841. The ceremony took place on September 8, 1865, and the bride’s father, Søren Johan Heiberg, 1810-71, officiated in his capacity as recently instated minister of Keldby church.
Prior to the wedding, Søren Heiberg had had an illustrious career as teacher at the Institute for the deaf-mute in Copenhagen from as early as 1836, when the institute was situated in Stormgade. In 1839, when the institute was moved to much better premises in Castelsvej, Heiberg was appointed Head Teacher, Minister and Principal of the institute, a position he held until the end of May 1865, when he voluntarily retired and was called to be minister at Keldby – at the time spelled Kjeldby – Church. This gracious move enabled his son-in-law Rasmus Malling-Hansen - at the time 30 years old and at the prime of his youth and energy – to be appointed interim principal of the institute as from the 1st of June 1865. The appointment was formalised by the Ministry of Education, Church and Culture with effect from September 4, 1865, making Malling-Hansen Head Teacher, Minister and Principal of the Royal Institute for the Deaf-Mute in Copenhagen – a position he held until his untimely death on September 27, 1890.
Heiberg’s first wife was Engelke Marie, maiden name Rørdam, born 1814, died already in 1855; in 1857 he married Engelke´s elder sister Emma, born 1812. Søren Heiberg served as minister at Keldby until his death on January 15, 1871.
Because of its significance for Rasmus Malling-Hansen and his family, Keldby Church becomes iconic for the International Rasmus Malling-Hansen Society; however there are additional good reasons to visit the church and the site.
The present building is from around the year 1200. The altarpiece is from 1480 and – according to the National Museum of Denmark – one of the 10 most remarkable and beautiful altarpieces in the country. The babtismal font is – remarkably – as old as the church itself.
Keldby Church is particularly important because it is one of the richest in terms of murals (in Danish: “Kalkmalerier”); walls and ceilings are completely covered with interesting and beautiful murals, stemming from five different periods: from 1275, 1325, 1400, 1480 and 1625, respectively.
Actually, during Heiberg´s tenure as minister, the murals were not visible! At the time of the Reformation in 1536 the murals were covered with white paint; only in 1883 were they re-established, then properly restored in 1889 and further cleaned and restored in 1933. Before that, they were partially covered by soot due to the heating apparatuses used inside the church: two large stoves.
All Danish churches retain a beautiful and useful tradition in the shape of having a list of the names and dates of the ministers of the church on the wall; hence we are able to illustrate this text by showing a photo documenting that Søren Johan Heiberg did indeed serve as minister of Keldby Church from 1865 until 1871.
Heiberg´s tombstone has not been kept, unfortunately; at my visit (June 2016) I consulted the local sexton and gravedigger, and he had no knowledge of any tombstone bearing the name of Søren Johan Heiberg. However, there is every reason to believe that he was buried at the church cemetery, since it is the tradition of every Danish church to bury its ministers at the place where they have served.