Of Large Church Buildings, Good Intentions and All of That

By Aniekpeno  Mkpanang

We cruised a leisurely two hours from Abidjan into the Ivorien city of Yamoussoukro with my eyes hovering on the skyline for good reason. All I needed to see immediately in this city was a brick and metal dome sticking out of the horizon. Already I had seen countless photographs of the fabled dome and its image was now fully imprinted on the glossy paper of my subconscious palette.

I squinted above the avenues of Yamoussoukro, ignored the deliberate landscaping and instead searched the cityscape for the anticipated dome designed to cap the stone, concrete and marble structure of a Basilica.

39 years ago, way back in 1985, I was two years into my first job as a Secondary School Teacher when the idea of building a Basilica in his home town occurred to Monsieur Felix Houphet-Boigny who was then in his 25th year as President of the West African Nation of Ivory Coast, known more today by its official French appellation of Cote d’Ivoire.

President Houphet-Boigny’s intention was to not just build the Largest Church in the World in his own backyard in his hometown of Yamoussoukro (which he was also redesigning to become the new Administrative Capital of his Nation); but he set out to do it with effervescent gusto.

To superintend the ground-breaking of the ambitious project, President Houphet-Boigny had invited the then Head of the Holy Roman Church, His Holiness Pope John Paul II who had to fly 4,263 kilometres from the Vatican City to Yamoussoukro to lay the cornerstone of the envisaged Basilica.

The planned building was modelled after and designed to be bigger than what was the Largest Church in the World at that time; the Basilica of St. Peter itself in the seat of the Papacy in the Vatican City, (the World’s smallest country and) Headquarters of the Catholic Faith.

Like they say in regular banter; to cut the long story short; four years later in 1989; the Apostolic edifice was completed on schedule and who else, but the Pontiff himself again flew back to Yamoussoukro on September 10, 1990 to consecrate it.

Basilica of our Lady of Peace

One would therefore conjecture my unbridled excitement when I was selected to serve as a Volunteer at the 2023 African Nations Cup Tournament billed for Cote d’Ivoire. I painstakingly made sure that during my stay in that country, I would eke out some personal time to visit the Basilica in Yamoussoukro and see the Largest Church in the World certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

The concept, building and eventual commissioning of the gargantuan Basilica of our Lady of Peace had unleashed a floodgate of global attention, admiration, commendation and of course, as would be expected, a deluge of criticism, vilification and condemnation. Despite the pilgrimage and tourism-anchored arguments of some protagonists, the anti-proponents held that Houphet-Boigny used much money building a Church with funds that could have been better spent.

Before my trip to Cote d’Ivoire, I had done extensive research on the Yamoussoukro Basilica. I had spoken about it countless times in the 1980s on my erstwhile radio programme ‘Something to Remember’.

Then in 2016, while in Milan for the finals of the UEFA Champions League, I took the liberty to hop over to Rome, visit the Vatican and see the Basilica of St. Peter. All of that experience added up to heighten my curiosity at the sheer prospect and privilege of being in the position to frontally compare both iconic edifices.

Coming to Yamoussoukro was for me therefore, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ‘see things for myself’ because I also surmised somewhere along the line, that many of the arm-chair critics of the Basilica of Yamoussoukro might never have been to Ivory Coast and have only previously seen photos of the Basilica. I came therefore, not just to fathom the much-pontificated wastage in building a Church, but to appraise the latter-day glory of the same Church as a much-referenced global landmark, which in all veracity, is what lured me here in the first place.

In no time, our driver made down to Rue de St. France, the elite address of the Basilica and at last, I came face to face with the Dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace; the World’s Largest Chuch, looming on the horizon in all of its solemn majesty. As I stepped out of the car and walked the last few meters towards the structure, the Basilica appeared to be staring down with a stony indifference at my intrepid flirtations within its hallowed ambience.

Despite the fact that the building was criticized because of the comparison between the lavish structure and its touted impoverished surroundings, President Houphet-Boigny believed then that someday, when the die is cast, the much disparaged Basilica in his village would eventually become a front-line global tourism destination and an eternal pilgrimage site for not just West African Catholics, but people of other faith who will never stop visiting Yamoussoukro from all over the world.

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