Germany's motorway churches offer travellers time to reflect and pray

Munich, Germany - Over 70,000 trucks and cars speed past the Maria am Wege motorway church every day on their way down the A 96 autobahn towards southern Bavaria. However, the sound of traffic can barely be heard in the snow-covered square at the front of the building's entrance, while total silence reigns in the church itself.

"I simply want to spend some time here in contemplation," says 47-year-old visitor Willi Heinisch, who pulled over "to find a bit of peace" on his way from Munich to Kempten, which is situated in the Allgaue region.

The Catholic autobahn church between Landsberg am Lech and Munich is one of 35 such churches and chapels in Germany and the number is growing.

At the moment there are plans for at least another three and, according to the Kassel-based organization responsible for the motorway churches, 17 are Protestant, 12 follow a ecumenical policy and six are Catholic.

Despite the labels, they are all considered "inter-denominational" and are open to all, says organization CEO Guenter Lehner.

The stone altar in the middle of the round church beside the A 96 is situated at the building's lowest point with the tent-like roof structure stretching out above.

The sun streams through the large windows of the church, which also serves the nearby community of Windach. As a result, religious services are held on Sundays and religious holidays as well as the days before, something that is not always the case with motorway churches.

Following the annual conference of autobahn church priests, these particular places of worship must have a direct link to the motorway, provide parking places, toilet facilities and remain open for a minimum number of hours a week.

Many stay open around the clock but Maria am Wege only opens its doors from 8 in the morning to 6 in the evening.

"In normal holiday periods, we get around 70 people a day," says the resident priest Robert Neuner.

According to Lehner, Germany autobahn churches receive around one million visitors a year. "We have regular guests who come out of habit," he says, but adds that business travellers and holidaymakers also drop in.

The Geberts are one pair of regular visitors, and the married couple like to call in to the Maria am Wege church when travelling from their home town in Upper Schwabia to Munich.

"If we have time, we always stop. The church is very comfortable and easy to reach from the motorway," says husband Ulrich, 56.

Wife Ingrid, 51, meanwhile, says she always asks if they can stop at the church for a short prayer. "I then always ask for a safe journey or say thank you for arriving safely," she says.

Father Neuner says the wide variety of people who call to his church do so because they want to "escape from the hectic" life of the street and the world.

"We have young and old people. We also have those who wouldn't know where a church is in their own area," he explains.

However, a study of autobahn churches carried out by the Catholic Technical College in Freiburg in southern Germany paints a different picture. According to its findings, the majority of church visitors are married Catholic men around the age of 50.

As a rule, they spend 10 or 15 minutes and use the time to light candles or to write something in the visitors' book.

Heinisch is one such person.

"Thank you that I am standing here before the altar and not beside a crashed car on the side of the road," he wrote.