Kisantu, East Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has the largest Catholic population in Africa and the tenth largest Catholic population in the world. It is one of the most important, and most stable, institutions in an otherwise very chaotic region. It is the primary conduit of health and education services to a people largely ignored by their government, and Church leaders are often the champions of public causes. The Catholic Cathedral of the Jesuit Mission of Kisantu, or Kisantu Cathedral for short, is one of the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, and among the most beautiful. Constructed by missionaries during the Belgian colonial period, it is not only one of the Congo’s pre-eminent churches, but also one of the most popular tourist sites in the entire country.
Unlike many other places that came under European rule during the Colonial era, Christianity was not introduced into the Congo at large until well into the 19th century. The lack of a significant presence of missionaries and clergyman was in part responsible for the particularly brutal conditions that existed in the African Congo Free State before its formal annexation by the Belgian government.
In 1908, the Congo became a full-fledged colony of Belgium, and soon the Catholic Church arrived in force. The Church became the defacto cultural arm of the colonial government. Missions were established throughout the country, and these in turn set up schools and hospitals. By the mid-20th century, well over half of the country had been converted to Catholicism.
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church in the Congo became very closely associated with the colonial government. When the country achieved its independence in 1960, many locals turned against the Church and a brief period of persecutions began. After a while things calmed down, and the Church went from being a target of the people’s ire to their social champion. In the 1970s, Catholic leaders started to become the largest critics of the ruling regime.
This led to a government crackdown on the Catholic Church. Catholics were removed from their posts; religious instruction was banned; pictures of the Pope destroyed; and even Christmas was cancelled. However, without Church personnel, many government institutions began to fall apart. By 1976 these edicts were reversed, and Catholicism was effectively legalized again. The Church is now once again the most powerful organization in the Congo, and perhaps nowhere else in the world does it play such an important role in the lives of local people as their champion in the face of oppression.
The Cathedral of Kisantu is the largest church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one of the most beautiful Catholic churches in Africa. Located close to the botanical gardens, it also enjoys a beautiful lawn and palm tree setting worthy of a beach resort hotel. Built from locally quarried stone and locally produced tan brick, the exterior is an alluring combination of neo-Gothic and 20th century colonial architecture with just a hint of something exotically African.
The interior is a unique architectural experience among the great cathedrals of the world. Composed of small bricks and decorated in tile, the long, columned nave is reminiscent of the Moorish architecture of Spain and North Africa. The archways look like traditional Byzantine-era constructions, and the extremely colorful brick- and tile- geometric patterns would seem at home in the grandest of mosques.
The Cathedral of Kisantu is located in the green open space outside of the town of Kisantu, approximately thirty miles south of the capital at Kinshasa. There was no visitor information available as of the time of this writing. Web: www.rc.net/africa (official website of the Catholic Church in Africa)
Unfortunately, because the Catholic Church has not been around in the Congo for long, there are relatively few churches of historic interest. However, fot those who just can’t get enough, there is the Cathedral of Kinshasa in the capital, and the impressive green-roofed Cathedral of Brazzaville just across the border.