I am standing in front of the largest wooden structure in the Caribbean, Latin America, the Western Hemisphere or the world, depending on whom you talk to. Verifiable facts are that the St Peter and Paul Cathedral is 161 feet long, 54 feet wide, 48 feet tall, and is the biggest wooden building in Suriname.
After 25 years of closure due to renovations the cathedral opened its doors again in October 2010. Visitors and worshippers are welcome throughout the day, there is a mass on Sunday, and volunteers are available twice a week for a one-hour guided tour.
Why a Grey and Yellow Cathedral?
I meet my guide Hugo inside the cathedral, at the counter where souvenirs are sold and which serves as an information desk. We walk outside and look up at the 19th century, Gothic-Roman structure with its two square towers with neo-gothic spires, a large rose window above the portal, and semicircular windows along the sides.
The cathedral’s exterior raises an intriguing question: Why was it painted yellow and grey, whereas all wooden mansions, which characterize Paramaribo’s inner city, are white? Hugo gave possible explanations. “Do these colors represent soapstone (yellow) and stone (grey), materials that were often used in Europe to construct churches? Is it related to the fact that yellow is the color of the pope (leaving the explanation of the grey color in the dark), or is there another reason?”
A stone or brick church was impossible to build; these construction materials were unavailable in equatorial Suriname. However, there was wood in abundance (and free of charge) thanks to the nearby Amazon rainforest. For the construction they used greenheart and basralocus wood, while the interior was paneled with unpainted cedar wood.
The Cathedral’s History
The Catholic Church had a bit of a rough start in Suriname, which until 1975 was a Protestant Dutch colony. In the 1680s governor Sommelsdijck, an advocate of freedom of religion, allowed three Catholic priests to preach in Suriname, an act that was immediately opposed by the Dutch West India Company (WIC). While the dispute was running on, the tropical climate killed the priests. Sommelsdijck sent their bodies to the Netherlands, which refused to accept the remains and returned them to Suriname, where, at last, they were buried.
Fast forward. One century later, the Catholic Church was accepted in the colony, but in 1821 their first place of worship, a residential building, was burnt down in a major fire that destroyed part of Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital. In 1824 things started to shape up. They bought an old Jewish theatre, the Verrezene Phoenix (the Risen Phoenix), and converted this into a church dedicated to St. Peter and Paul. However, they closed down the building fifty years later due to its poor condition.
The present church dates from the 1880s and was given the status of Cathedral in 1958.
The Cathedral’s Interior
As the inside of the cathedral is made entirely of unpainted cedar wood, you can’t escape the typical fragrance of cigar boxes, for which cedar wood is commonly used as well. We are standing inside a major, elaborate cigar box!
Hugo points out numerous carvings of capitals and arches. “Slavery was abolished only 19 years before the cathedral’s construction (1863). To ensure that the local population – who only after abolition were allowed to convert to Christianity – felt at home, the Maroons (freed or runaway slaves) were contracted for all the woodcarvings that embellish the interior,” he explains.
He knocks on the solid-looking pillars that support the roof. They sound hollow. “Why? The basralocus was the only local tree strong and tall enough to support the 16-meter-high structure, but it is very thin, so for cosmetic reasons the pillars were enclosed in cedar wood planks to create an impression of heavy columns,” Hugo answers his own question.
My guided tour consists of a full hour of listening to engaged storytelling interspersed with facts and figures. We discuss topics such as to why the upper left windows each have a unique design and are the ones on the right side all identical. What do the Maroon carvings represent? How was it possible for the cathedral to almost collapse even though lightweight shingles, imported from the Netherlands, were used?
As I thank Hugo for his time he points out one more attraction for which I may want to return on a Sunday morning: to attend one of the special masses organized by Maroon or indigenous communities. I do.
The cathedral is downtown Paramaribo (Henck Arron Street) and at walking distance from hotels, restaurants, the inner city shopping district and the Waterkant (Suriname River Bank).
- Enjoy these stories about Suriname as well, or find Suriname stories on our Landcruising Adventure website.
- Bradt Travel Guides has a guidebook on Suriname (buy here).