Churches for blubber


The history of churches in Greenland is filled with shipwrecks and drama, but there are also stories of resourceful congregations that bought and paid for their own churches… with whale blubber!

Text: Martine Lind Krebs, greenland today November 2016

Top photo: The church in the village of Itilleq near Sisimiut. Photo: Mads Pihl / Visit Greenland

Recycled church
It was not unusual that churches and chapels were moved from one place to another as new ones were built. For example, there is a chapel in South Greenland that has been in four different villages. The same applies to the church in the village of Itilleq near Sisimiut. It was originally located in old Thule, where it had been built in 1930. The congregation in Qaanaaq had spent six years collecting funds to pay for the church, e.g. hunters in the congregation donated 13 Arctic fox skins. But in 1954, the inhabitants of Thule were forced to move to what is now Qaanaaq, where a new and bigger church was built. So in 1960-62, the church in Thule was moved plank by plank to Itilleq, where it is still used today.

Bethelkirken-SisimiutBethel Church, Photo: Sisimiut Museum

Blubber for a church
1771 was a lucky year for the hunters in Sisimiut. They caught four large whales; enough to fill 60 barrels with blubber and that was sufficient to order and pay for the church they dreamt of. Blubber was in demand in the towns of Europe where whale oil was used as fuel in the towns’ street lights. In the letter written by the congregation in Sisimiut to the Trading Company in Denmark, it said that if there was not enough blubber to pay for the church, they only had to ask for more. The church arrived as an assembly kit together with a Danish carpenter, but an epidemic delayed the work assembling the church, so it was first opened and consecrated in 1775. The weathercock still bears witness to the delay. It carries the inscription 1773.

Bethel Church in Sisimiut is Greenland’s oldest intact church building. It no longer functions as a church; instead it is part of Sisimiut Museum, which is working on restoration of the church so that it can function as a museum exhibition of religion in the 1700s and of the history of the building of the church.

nuuk-kirkeOur Saviour’s Church, Greenlands cathedral, Photo: Martine Lind Krebs

The maiden paid for the church
Karen Ørsted had never set foot in Greenland. And yet she paid for the church in Nuuk which would later become Greenland’s cathedral. Why Karen Ørsted chose to bequeath a legacy to build a church and some schoolhouses in Nuuk is something of a mystery. It has been suggested that she may have had an affair with Hans Egede’s son, Poul Egede. In any event, the two had met in Denmark. Karen Ørsted never married and she lived with her sister, who was married to the dean of Haderup near Ribe. In her will and deed of gift from 1775, Karen Ørsted wrote that the inhabitants of Greenland seemed to her, to be »like a lamp that needs oil«. Our Saviour’s Church in Nuuk was built for the sum of 2,500 rigsdaler from Karen Ørsted’s legacy. She had stipulated that the name of the church be Our Saviour’s Church. In contrast to many other churches, this was not ordered as an assembly kit. Instead, it was built up in stone, which was later replaced with wood. The church was finished in 1849. In 1993 it was declared a cathedral when the diocese of Greenland was founded.

Vor-Frelser-Kirke-QaqortoqOur Saviour’s Church, Photo: Mads Pihl / Visit Greenland

Assembly kit wrecked
Things did not quite go to plan when Qaqortoq got its first church. The church, which would be named Our Saviour, was a gift from the Danish Mission. It was sent as an assembly kit from Denmark to Greenland by ship in 1828. But the ship ran aground off Paamiut and the building materials and plans had to be salvaged and transported to Qaqortoq in smaller portions over the next year. The rough treatment made it difficult to assemble the church so expert help was sent from Denmark. The church did not open until 1932.

Zionskirken-IlulissatThe Zion Church, Photo: Qaasuitsup Kommunia

A small cathedral
It was the first time Greenlanders had used their own language in an official letter when, in 1777, Nikolaj, Nathanael, Abel and Ole from Ilulissat wrote to the Mission College in Denmark and asked for a loan for a church. The Zion Church, which in those days could almost be compared to a small cathedral, cost the congregation around 157 barrels of blubber and 59 whalebones. It was opened and consecrated in 1783. For a long time, this church was the biggest in Greenland and it is the oldest church building in Greenland that still functions as a church.

Christianity in Greenland
Christianity was introduced to Greenland in the 1700s. Hans Egede, a Danish-Norwegian minister of the church, came to Greenland in 1721 and founded the Godthåb colony, there where Nuuk is located today. Ministers from the German Moravian Church arrived some years later and also founded a church in Greenland.

By the end of the 1700s there were churches in all the towns on the west coast and during the 1700s and 1800s almost all Inuit were being baptized.

The last places to be converted to Christianity were East Greenland and northernmost Greenland. It is thought that the last believers of the original Inuit religion were baptized in Thule in 1934.

Today, 94.5% of the people in Greenland are members of the church.

no28   Read the article on page 10-14