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The Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral is one of the pearls of Paramaribo’s old city centre. From threshold to spire, the construction is entirely made of wood. This is one of the 2 largest wooden cathedrals in South America. Thanks to a recent renovation, the yellow and blue-grey painted façade looks just as bright as it used to be. Once you get inside a special experience awaits.
Not your eyes but your nose will register the first impressions of the slender Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral. Upon entry you will be greeted by the wonderful spicy musky scent of cedar. When the cathedral was built between 1883 and 1885, there were no brick factories in clay-rich Suriname. However, the jungle provided an abundance of wood. This has given the church not only a distinctive smell, but also a remarkably warm ambiance and acoustics.
The façade and pillars of the church are made of Surinamese Greenheart, a durable and remarkably strong wood that is practically indestructible. To lend more volume to the slender trunks of this tree, the church pillars have been wrapped in unfinished cedar wood. The rest of the church interior was also built with reddish brown cedar. This tropical-looking wood combines beautifully with the European architectural styles. The round arches and the colonnade are made in a neo-Romanesque style, whereas the 2 tall church spires look neo-Gothic. The cathedral’s decorative wood carvings are clearly local: the ornamental forms on the capitals and arches were carved by free Creole wood workers. This is quite unique as slavery in Suriname had only been abolished in 1863, shortly before the construction of the church. The priests used this opportunity to make the church more attractive to the growing community of freed slaves.
At the end of last century the cathedral was not in the fine condition it is today. After a failed renovation attempt, the church slowly began to tilt and the façade started to peel. When termites and wood rot were found, the cathedral was shut down and remained closed for 20 years. In 2010 the thorough 5-year renovation job was finally completed. Since then the wooden cathedral has been in superb condition. Look closely at the lighter and darker wood in the ceiling to see the new beams. In 2014, Pope Francis bestowed the highest honorary title for a Catholic construction: the wooden cathedral is now also a basilica.
The Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral is an important place of pilgrimage for Catholic Surinamese, who make up about 20 percent of the population. In a side-chapel of the church lies the tomb of beatified priest Peerke Donders (1809-1887). This Dutch missionary dedicated a large part of his life to caring for the lepers in Batavia, a leper colony west of Paramaribo, where they lived in wretched conditions.