One of the biggest tourist attractions across the globe is the monuments that humans have constructed to praise, worship and honour their religious beliefs. History has shown us that when people populated a new land, one of the first things to be built was a place of worship; for kings, queens, pharoahs, caliphs and emperors, the obligatory way to display the divine right to rule was to build the most elaborate and ornate church, mosque or shrine.

In Saint Lucia we have nothing so grand as the Sagrada Familia in Spain, Notre Dame in France or St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican but what we do have are churches that have been built with care and love by generations of Saint Lucians. Centrally featured in each village and town, these churches symbolise the dominance of Catholicism in the lives of the people.

When the French took control of the island in 1763 they introduced Catholicism and, in short order, churches were erected in eleven districts: Gros Islet, Soufrière, Choiseul, Laborie, Vieux Fort, Micoud, Praslin, Dennery, Castries, Anse La Raye and Dauphin. Interestingly, the church in Dauphin was the only church to be built from stone and mortar. The others were by fourches en terre – wooden posts sunk into the ground with thatched roofs made from coconut or sugar cane leaves. As anyone can imagine, these structures did not stand the test of time or the elements.

On October 11th, 1780, disaster struck the island in the form of the worst hurricane ever seen here. It decimated the flimsy construction including the wooden churches. According to Baron de Laborie, the appointed governor in 1782, “The hurricane of 1780 destroyed all the Churches except that of Dauphin, and it is still the only one in existence in the colony.” The powers that be decided to rebuild only five of the churches and, as one could imagine, the people of Saint Lucia were in uproar! One parishioner was recorded as saying, “Some (churches) will be so far away that they will lose two or three days of their slaves’ work, when children are born and are to by taken to Church for Baptism . . .”

In true Saint Lucian (and Catholic) style, people pooled their resources to rebuild in stone all ten of the obliterated churches. Laborie was the first and by 1789 the edifices at Praslin, Soufrière, Choiseul, and Vieux Fort were complete. The others, however, were abandoned or not started because, as anyone who loves history will know, the beginning of the French Revolution was just around the corner.

France outlawed the Catholic religion and many priests in Saint Lucia fled the island, escaping the angry mobs who saw them as Royalists. As for those churches the islanders had fought to build – they were destroyed, again.

Stability returned to the island when the British regained control of Saint Lucia for the final time in 1803. Construction of a church in Castries began in 1827. This original structure was built east to west whereas the present-day Cathedral (Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception) was erected between 1891 and 1894 and, deviating from the norm, orients north. The Castries Cathedral is now the home of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Castries. The church is a popular stop for visitors, with beautiful stained glass featuring images of a dark-skinned Madonna, and exquisite painted murals by the world-renowned artist Sir Dunstan St. Omer

Subsequent to emancipation in 1838, Catholicism once again was on firm standing with Saint Lucians, and construction of other churches began. As with all structures, the buildings suffered over the years due to general weathering, hurricanes and earthquakes. The churches seen today were primarily constructed or renovated in the early to mid 1900s. The one in Anse La Raye was rebuilt in 1902 with the new church structured around the old one so that mass could be continued, uninterrupted by works. The church in Vieux Fort is the oldest on the island with the central part dating back to 1790.

These large structures form the heart of, and are integral to, each community. The churches are elegant, tranquil and detail the history of the individual villages. For example, the church at Dennery displays a chalice and paten given to the village by its namesake, the Count d’Ennery. It also possesses three marble altars of exceptional beauty. Each church building has its own character, its own battle scars and its own treasures. Each represents the strong vein of religion that still courses through the island today. The Church and churches have endured.