If you one day found yourself being a slave at Bergenhus Fort and Castle, you had turned into a criminal of great proportions, such as a notorius thief or a killer. The Slave prison was not a place where the rehabilitation of criminals was a highly regarded philosophy. But if anything at all was to soften the hardened criminal’s heart, it would have to be the words of the Lord. In 1840 two rooms in the crypt of Håkon’s Hall were turned into a church for the slaves.
During the early 19th century the slaves had little access to clerical services. The slaves belonged to the congregation of the Church of the Cross, and allegedly groups of slaves came to Sunday services at this church. The pastors at the Church of the Cross were said to demonstrate little motivation for consoling the slaves. The pastors were supposed to prepare the slaves convicted to the death penalty for death, but this was a much dreaded task. In 1825 Bishop Jacob Neumann wrote a letter to Johan Ernst Welhaven, pastor at St Jørgen’s Hospital and the Manufactory house, thanking him for his help on a difficult matter: After two pastors at the Church of the Cross had declined, Welhaven took on the task of preparing a slave for death.
The bishop wanted the slaves to hear sermons which applied to their spiritual needs.
Bishop Neumann wanted the slaves to hear sermons which applied to their spiritual needs. He was also gravely concerned with the slaves and other prisoners’ need for education and their need to get confirmation. The commander at Bergenhus fort, General Hans Glad Boch, wrote to the Department of Justice in 1839, asking for the prisoners to be granted a much needed pastor at the Slave prison. Having received a confirmative reply to his request, the General had two rooms in the Håkon’s Hall’s crypt converted into a church. These rooms were said to have been used as a chapel in the past, and had rounded ceilings and perfect Gothic arches. The rooms even had a vestibule. During summer the church was used as a school for inmates who were not yet confirmed.
In 1840 it seems that people were quite happy about the new church. In 1860 however, Paul Magnus Norum, director of the penitentiary in Oslo, made these observations regarding the Slave Church in Bergen: “The church room, which is a kind of a rounded room with low ceilings, is located in the basement of a warehouse in proximity to the actual prison. The church, which is damp and moist, has a repulsive appearance and is absolutely unfit for its purpose.”
The Slave Church was in use until the demolition of the prison in 1887. The prisoners were then transferred either to the House of Correction in Bergen or to the Fort prison in Trondheim. Little remains today from what used to be the Slave Church. Where hardened criminals once were let to hear the Lord’s words, people today drink coffee on those rare occasions when Håkon’s Hall is being used for entertainment.