In search of West Africa’s oldest Church
Last week, a group of prominent senior Christians comprising Fr Peter Lopez, Anthony Njie, Philip Saine, Dominic Mendy and George Gomez accompanied by Lamin Cham, the Editor of The Standard visited Albreda in Nuimi, famous for its history as the port for transporting slaves many centuries ago.
There, the group met with the Alkalolu of both Albreda and Juffreh as well as the joint Juffreh, Albreda Youth Association, JAYS, for an hour long meeting centering on an ambition to trace what is suspected to be the oldest church in Africa which once existed in Albreda.
According to oral history, when the Portuguese explorers visited what was then Pagan Gambia in the 15th century, they stayed at James Island where their 1st officer died from high fever which may have been malaria.
He had to be buried but there was no priest on the Island to conduct Christian burial rites. The Portuguese promised to bring a Missionary when next they visited. The Island was then named St Andrew’s Island in remembrance of the 1st officer who died. Four years later, three priests arrived and it is believed those priests settled in Dan Domingo and built the Church in Albreda.
The material in the remains of the church is definitely pre-Victorian. The area for the Tridentine Tabanacle is still showing, confirming that there was indeed a Church. This church according to oral history would therefore be the first church in Sub Saharan Africa.
Mr George Gomez informed the meeting that if the oral historians are correct, then there is great potential and value in preserving that edifice which would definitely attract religious tourism, added to the already high stream of conventional tourists who visit the area.
The potential to market the church as the first church in the region will help to develop the area and bring much needed employment to the youths, Mr Gomez, told the gathering.
According to George Gomez in 1985 as part of an exercise to look for a shrine in The Gambia, he as chairman of the Shrine committee visited Albreda and San Domingo on the recommendation of Fr Casey who was then the Parish Priest in the North Bank.
“In Albreda we found the remains of the small Church said to have been built by the Portuguese explorers in the 15th or 16th century and in San Domingo, there was old derelict buildings said to have been the residence of the Portuguese Missionaries near a bakery,” Gomze said.
“A space was pointed to us then where someone called the King of the Priests was buried. Since that day in 1985, I have had sleepless nights thinking why that area wasn’t claimed by the Church for restoration,” Mr Gomez added.
The Alkalolu and the youths as well as the Arts Council officer in the area warmly received the delegation and the idea while promising to work with the team in the realisation of the dream to turn the church into a tourist attraction.
The youths and the elders expressed concern about the non-benefit of the two villages from all monies that are made in the name of tourism featuring the area. The group was taken to a conducted tour of the derelict buildings in San Domingo and the site of the Church in Albreda.
The delegation returned home fully energized and passionate that when effectively explored, the history of this first church in West Africa could be transformed to be of great historical and tourist significance in The Gambia.