Built in 1860, the little church Notre-Dame de l’Assomption is the only convict-built Catholic church on the Isle of Pines, New Caledonia. This alone justifies a stop at this location when visiting the sights of this tiny island of just 2,000 people.
The church is located in the centre of Vao village, which, again, is the only one of its kind on the Isle of Pines, the closest you will find to a town, yet still with that distinguished village feel. Vao is the administrative centre of the island – it is here that you will find the chief’s house, a police station, a bank and other civic buildings.
The church of Vao is sitting on a spot that is a little bit elevated, overlooking a roundabout that circles an iron cross. The cross, shimmering magnificently in the hot summer sun, is 50 years younger than the church, erected in 1903. There’s hardly any traffic in Vao, so when you visit, start your journey at this spot and admire the intricate work of the cast-iron cross that seems to radiate from its centre.
From here, walk up to the red and white church. Consider that Christianity plays an important role in South Pacific cultures, determining the tact of everyday life, holding upright a conservative attitude of modesty, and regulating all the big events in everyone’s life such as birth, death and marriage. It’s the glue that holds together the local Kunie society.
Notre Dame de l’Assomption was built by the Marist missionaries who first set foot on the island in 1848. They selected a spot that would later welcome all tribes of the island to hear the true word of God – Vao’s reason of existence is the construction of the church, not the other way around. The little town consists today of eight districts, reflecting the eight tribes that make up the island’s population.
Inside you will be amazed at the size of the church, rows and rows of wooden benches, all carefully polished and in great condition. Take note of the beautiful stained glass windows, but most importantly, look up to admire the panelled ceiling which has been made from all the different timbers you can find around the island. A mosaic of wood that is inviting you to explore the geometric patterns with your eyes. I think many people will fail to notice this, which is a shame as it such a masterpiece of local artistry.
The statues of the saints along the walls are beautiful and colourful, yet rather somber. The local people decorate them with tropical flowers, corals, shells – typical for the South Pacific.
The cross is part of a larger wooden carved artwork, depicted as precious cargo on an outrigger canoe – a very poetic way of explaining to the people that the Christian faith was brought to the island across the seas.
The church, of course, is not a tourist attraction as such. But it is a wonderful example of the local culture and art which puts it right in the top position of places to visit on the Isle of Pines. While there, have a look around and enjoy the sight of the neighbouring presbytery with the two totems flanking the entrance to the front garden. Behind the church there is a little path leading up to a small hill where you will find a statue of the Virgin Mary who weeps over the world.
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