Missionaries introduced Christianity in the country in the early 19th century. Their profound impact on Samoa has become particularly evident in the religious landscape of contemporary society. –The Cultural Atlas

By Roger Childs

Key features of the built-up environment

Near the city centre in Apia is a memorial to the Methodist missionaries who came to Samoa in the 1830s. 

Today when driving on the roads in and around Apia churches, schools and fales are a pervasive features. Churches are usually the largest buildings in any community. Many of the educational institutions in Samoa are associated with and run by religious groups.

 Along the 35km road from Faleolo Airport to downtown Apia there would be at least 15 churches and many schools. Most churches have a large visual of Christ near the building, perhaps 4-5 metres high. There is even one at the airport.

A range of denominations

The vast majority of the Samoan population associate with some form of Christianity. 

Just over half the population identify with Protestant churches mainly Congregationalist and Methodist. About one fifth belong to Catholic Churches and according to a 2016 survey nearly 17% are Mormons. The distinctive architectural style of the churches of the Latter Day Saints can be seen in many areas around Upolu. In that 2016 survey less than 1% had no religion.

The Church of the Parish of St Anthony of Padua

The Immaculate Conception Catholic Cathedral is a dominant building on the skyline of the waterfront in Apia. We attended two choral masses there to experience the superb singing of Samoans. There were 400-500 people at each service. It was a moving experience hearing the music and witnessing the commitment of the people to their faith.

Many Samoans tithe to their churches and at the Catholic Cathedral 50% of the offertory goes to the “Priests Fund”. 

The Cathedral even has an Immaculate Caffe next to it!

Sunday is a quiet day

Sundays are often reserved as a day for church and for rest. Activities that may be acceptable on other days, such as swimming, may not be permitted on Sunday. –Cultural Atlas

Shops in the downtown zone of Apia were all closed on the two Sundays where we were there. In the area near the major bus terminus which teems with temporary traders during the week, only a handful of hawkers were breaking the rules for a short time.

However, in the afternoon McDonalds was open!

The ubiquitous fale

Fales are structures which have a base, often concrete, and vertical wooden uprights which support the curved roof – often made of thatch. They come in a range of sizes however their function is to provide a meeting place for the community and groups. Their structure which has no walls or windows allows for ventilation in the tropical climate where the temperatures never drop below 20º Celsius. 

There are literally thousands of fales in Samoa and every village has a number.

Small beach fales close to the sea are a common sight along the south coast of Upolu especially at tourist resorts. Visitors can experience living Samoan style but still use resort eating places.

There are also very large fales such as the massive market in Fagalei St and another in the same street used for meetings. We met a lady driving in beside the latter to play BINGO!