Father Alfred Rieper kissed the altar and turned to the congregation, blessing the people with the words he always said on Sundays towards the end of Mass: “Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus.”
The priest then read the Last Gospel. “In principio erat Verbum” — these were words familiar to all the faithful in the Italian village. But on Sunday 9 July 1950, those words from the Gospel of St John rang out with hollow irony.
“Omnia per ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso factum est nihil, quod factum est.” As the priest said these words, the waters were already trickling across the floor of the church.
Divine Will was not on the side of the people in this remote valley in the Alps. But, they reasoned, God was surely not to blame for the new dam. Their parish priest was more forthcoming: “Entire villages are being drowned by Swiss capital,” said Father Rieper.
With wet feet, the population of Graun-im-Vinschgau prepared to leave their village church for the very last time. The rising lake was by now lapping at the door of the building so, to avoid getting too wet, everyone left through the sacristy. All the prayers of the people could not save their church. Nor could Father Rieper’s petition imploring Pope Pius XII to intervene on behalf of the condemned village.
The fate of the Germanspeaking village of Graun (shown on Italian maps as Curon Venosta) is curiously linked to events seventy years ago in Splügen, a community of about 350 souls around a hundred kilometres away to the south-west. Splügen is on Swiss territory, just seven kilometres north of the frontier with Italy. Through the early 1940s, the people of Splügen campaigned against plans to flood the Rheinwald Valley in order to generate hydroelectric power for Swiss cities.