News Analysis

Greenland was once a Catholic bastion – then the Church vanished

Christ the King church, Nuuk

A 13th-century Norwegian chronicler thought long and hard about why anyone would want to settle Greenland – the subject of a recent dispute between Donald Trump and Denmark.

The place was chilly, seal meat appeared on menus with disheartening frequency, and far too many people developed irksome, often deadly, infections of the middle ear. “Desire for fame” was one possible reason to make the trip, while simple curiosity could not be discounted as a potential motive. For the most part, though, it probably came down to the fact that people would always “look for wealth wherever they hear they can get it”. A fireside in medieval Norway’s Bergen or the Oval Office in 2019: plus ça change.

Norse settlers, who began to arrive from the late 10th century, were often disappointed by the economic dividends. Thank goodness, then, that a more precious commodity – the Word of God – was also being cultivated: “All the people are Christian and they have churches and priests.” As many as 20 churches, in fact, tending to a population that hovered around the 1,400 mark throughout that era. Greenland even got its own bishop, based at Gardar, in the 1120s.

Then it all went wrong. A very posh wedding took place at the church-farm settlement at Hvalsey in 1408 (well-preserved ruins of the church survive) but that’s pretty much the last we hear of Greenland’s Catholicism for half a millennium or so. Very likely a drop in temperature made the living conditions intolerable, or run-ins with local Inuits came to a head, or homesickness simply took its toll. In any event, by the 1720s Lutheran missionaries encountered nothing but ruins and buried skeletons at the old settlement sites.

Happily, Catholicism did make a minor comeback in the 20th century and, at 5pm on any given Sunday, you can attend Mass at the little church of Christ the King in Nuuk. You won’t struggle to find a seat. Greenland has a population just shy of 60,000: this includes only 50 or so Catholics.

It’s all a long way from the 30ft-wide nave of the old church at Gardar, medieval seat of the titular bishopric.