It’s been described by many as Samoa’s “architectural gem” and sits proudly in Apia’s centre with a beacon-like dome overlooking the harbour. And the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is not only a very significant building but is also an important tourist attraction.
It was built to replace the first Catholic Cathedral on that site, which was constructed in 1857 and demolished in early 2011. The new cathedral was dedicated in May last year for the Archdiocese of the Samoa-Apia Catholic Church, Mulivai.
The locals proudly claim it as the “biggest and best” Catholic cathedral in Oceania.
At an approximate cost of NZD 7 million (although this figure differs in various reports), the cathedral build was led by Samoan Catholic priest, Father Ricky Bernard, supported by a team of local tradesmen. He has built several Catholic churches in Samoan villages and worked on the design with overseas professionals, taking many of the concepts from churches and medieval buildings he had visited in Europe.
While the building has many features based on early European churches and cathedrals – especially with its grand Roman-style pillars – it has a very distinctive Samoan flavour. The use of deep blue trims on the exterior echo the influence of the sun and sea, while many of the stained windows and artworks depict typical island village life.
The beautiful wooden ceilings (made by local craftsmen under the guidance of Father Ricky) have been created to reflect the designs of the traditional Samoan mats. But, a feature which really stands out is a painting of the Virgin Mary dressed in Samoan traditional dress with the Apostles beside her also in traditional island-style garb.
Even on the steamiest of Samoan days, the cathedral is cool with a marble floor, high ceilings and several large arched doors alongside the nave opening out on to huge verandahs.
Every village has at least one church and sometimes up to four with about 10 different denominations represented across the islands. About 19% are Catholics and I noticed some locals making the sign of the cross while walking on the busy pavement outside the cathedral.
While some masses are in English, you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the beauty of Apia’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. It’s a special sanctuary for a ‘spiritual escape’ where you can always rely on a big Samoan smile of welcome.