PHILIP BURKE took a trip to Colombia for his son’s wedding and stumbled upon a church that has to be seen to be believed.
I HAVE been to churches all over the world but have never seen anything like the Salt Cathedral.
About an hour out of Bogota in Colombia exists what has to be the most unique church in the world, built within the tunnels and caves of a salt mine, near the town of Zipaquira.
Believe it or not it is a functioning church where Mass is celebrated regularly with about 3000 visitors on a Sunday.
And there is an Australian connection.
The mine opened about 200 years ago.
The miners being religious people built a chapel within the mine where they could ask for protection before starting their daily work.
In 1950 construction of a church began.
It opened in 1954 and was dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, patron saint of miners.
However in 1990, because it was inside a functioning mine, safety concerns led to it being shut down.
In 1991 a new cathedral was constructed 200m under the old.
The cathedral was inaugurated in 1995 and has a capacity of about 8000 people.
The church precinct starts not far in from the tunnel entrance.
Here you come across the Stations of the Cross, each of the 14 set within its own cave, the leftover remnants of the salt extraction.
In each there is a large cross carved from solid blocks of salt.
In the small forecourt in front of each cross are two kneelers – also carved from salt – set aside for worshippers.
A small plaque identifies each station.
In many, the cave continues deep into the mountain, each illuminated by variously coloured lights casting eerie shadows across the uneven surfaces. In the three caves representing the three times Christ fell on his journey to Golgotha, the crosses are set lower into the floors.
What cathedral is complete without a dome? The Salt Cathedral has its dome carved into the tunnel roof and forms an antechamber to the cathedral set lower into the old mining caves.
On the descent there is a viewing balcony, which gives a spectacular view into the body of the cathedral.
The cathedral has three naves interconnected by a narrow crack representing the birth and death of Christ.
There are four cylindrical columns, which represent the four evangelists. The chapels and the cathedral itself surely must be one of the wonders of the modern world.
The main nave is dominated by a huge cross, like the others, carved into the salt walls and illuminated by soft lighting. It dominates the chamber.
Then there is the altar and – an uncommon sight these days – communion rails separating the people from the celebration.
Behind the pews carved into the floor is a depiction of Michelangelo’s fresco from the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Adam.
The cathedral is amazing to see.
While it is called a cathedral, it in fact is not attached to any parish and has no real status.
Nevertheless it is in every sense a functioning and real church.
Water, of course, is the enemy of salt, and water seeping into the cathedral has the capability of weakening the salt walls and if left unchecked would eventually destroy it.
So to lessen the impact, the builders have planted numerous eucalyptus trees imported from Australia all over the surrounding hillsides – little touch of Australia in a distant but welcoming land.
The existence of the Salt Cathedral is not well known outside of the Latin American world but it deserves to be.