Catholics at the End of the Earth

Evan Wing

One topic which has always fascinated me is the propagation of the Catholic faith in remote, isolated, or otherwise difficult-to-reach areas. Recently I’ve been researching the history of the Catholic Church in Greenland.

Christianity came to Greenland in the 11th century, with the Norse colonists being some of the last of their folk to convert. While the faith grew and flourished due to missionary efforts, Greenlanders suffered from a lack of priests, and frequently sent petitions to the king and bishops of Norway for aid. Greenland became a diocese – the Diocese of Gardar – in 1124, with a man named Arnold as first bishop. The first proper churches were not built until nearly two hundred years had passed since the land’s conversion; these are regarded by historians as the first churches erected in the Western Hemisphere. At the peak of Norse settlement, Greenland was home to five thousand Catholics, sixteen parishes, and a convent of Benedictine nuns.

The sudden abandonment of the Norse colonies in the 1450s effectively ended the presence of the Church in the country; the island briefly came under jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Lisbon in 1499 when Portuguese explorers laid claim to it, although no permanent settlements were established and the land returned to Norwegian control soon afterwards.

Greenland was resettled in the 18th century by Danish explorers, who were overwhelmingly Lutheran. The Catholic Church was therefore suppressed and persecuted in the country, with the faith effectively banned on the island until 1953 when religious liberty was declared.

In 1972, Catholics in Greenland finally got a church again: Christ the King Church, in the city of Nuuk. In 1980, the Little Sisters of Jesus sent three sisters to Greenland to found a fraternity, which has since grown into a convent.

Today, the Church in Greenland remains small; there is only one parish in the country, with about 50 registered Catholics in a nation of 53,000 people. The Diocese of Gardar, being sede vacante for some five centuries, has ceased to exist, and Greenland is now under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Copenhagen.

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