What a World

01.30.14

The Largest Church in the World Has The Fewest Worshippers

Former Ivory Coast dictator Félix Houphouët-Boigny built a beautifully massive church that barely anybody attends. Nina Strochlic takes a look inside.

If it’s in the Dictator Handbook that you must leave behind an extravagantly unaffordable and unnecessary vanity project, then Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny has fulfilled that requirement.

In the village-turned-capital of Yamoussoukro, the world’s largest church stands towering above a lush sprawl of grazing cattle and ramshackle buildings. A copper cross gleams atop a massive dome, while underneath, a marble and granite plaza stretches over seven acres and could fit a crowd of 300,000. But despite its $300 million price tag and 18,000-person indoor capacity, the out-of-place classical Greco-Roman structure has remained mostly empty for the past 25 years.

Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s first president after the country’s independence from France, was immensely popular for the 33 years he ruled the country. He was also immensely rich, amassing a fortune of billions that apparently paid for the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix de Yamoussoukro, or “The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro”—though he refused to answer questions of the church’s financing, saying it was “a deal with God.”

In 1985, after moving the country’s capital to his birthplace of Yamoussoukro, then an agricultural village of just 15,000, Houphouët-Boigny commissioned a lavish replica of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of the town’s new title and, presumably, as a lasting legacy to his reign as it dwindled.

He spent the next four years pouring millions into the project, led by architect Pierre Fakhoury, who brought in a crew of 1,500 workmen to sculpt the colossal structure in an expedited three years—compared to the 109 it took to construct St. Peter’s—to ensure the aging president could see its completion.

The end result was a complex stretching across 323,000 square feet and soaring 525 feet into the air. Inside, a massive, domed nave offers individual air conditioning vents for all 7,000 chairs. It’s decorated with 36 massive stained-glass windows, hand-made in Bordeaux, France, and one of which depicts Houphouët-Boigny offering a gift to Jesus.

Rows of 272 columns surround the basilica, four of which are large enough to hold elevators that carry visitors to a balcony under the dome with sweeping views of the capital. The severe contrast that the towering edifice struck with its surroundings lent it to become colloquially dubbed “the basilica in the bush.”

The severe contrast that the towering edifice struck with its surroundings lent it to become colloquially dubbed “the basilica in the bush.”

The Vatican wasn’t exactly pleased with its crowning glory being overshadowed by the African president’s passion project, though Houphouët-Boigny called it a “personal gift” to the church. When Pope John Paul II requested that the president not build the basilica taller than St. Peter’s, the architect lowered the dome height, but then plopped on a massive 30-foot cross on top, giving it 100 feet on the Vatican’s church.

Despite the duplicity and an initial year of hesitation to give his blessing, Pope John Paul II accepted an invitation to dedicate the church in 1990. He stayed at the official papal residence built specifically for him, boasting a swimming pool and a 40-room mansion for his entourage. The pope, in return for agreeing to visit, requested the government build a neighboring hospital for the poor. It was a promise unrealized until 2012, when construction finally began. Apparently, the money had been held in a Vatican bank account until then.

The project also divided native Ivorians, some of whom took pride in the massive monument to God, and others who condemned it as a waste of money in a country with an annual per capita income of $650. “The size and expense of the building in such a poor country make it a delicate matter,” a Vatican official told Time when it was completed. “But it is a project close to the President’s heart, and he sees it as an experience of faith. We want to respect that.”

Houphouët-Boigny was right to rush the construction. He died three years later, and his funeral was held in the basilica, filling the empty space for the first time since the pope’s consecration.

Today, Polish clergymen and members of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, who were appointed by Pope John Paul II, oversee the church, and the costs to maintain the complex are an estimated $1.5 million annually.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace manages to attract some 350 worshippers to Sunday services, but due to the country’s ironically small Catholic population—comprising only about ten percent of the Ivory Coast population—the thousands of seats in the largest church in the world have gone mostly unfilled.