Église Sainte Catherine – Honfleur, France - Atlas Obscura

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Église Sainte Catherine

Honfleur, France

One of the oldest and largest wooden churches in France was very evidently constructed by shipbuilders. 

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Of the seemingly endless collateral damages stemming from the lengthy Hundred Years War, one was a stone church in the heart of Honfleur, a town at the mouth of the Seine River. While its replacement in the wake of the war was meant to be temporary, it is today (by some estimates) both the oldest and largest wooden church in all of France. And while this is far from an objective measurement, it’s also probably the most boat-like.

Given the state of Honfleur in the late-15th century, the church was—almost by necessity—built by the wrong hands altogether. Following the British departure, stonemasons prioritized the refortification of the city’s defenses over church-building, lest the conflict spasm into another violent episode. But Honfleur is a maritime town long-famed for shipbuilding, and one surrounded by dense forests, at that.

The town’s shipwrights set to work felling and hauling timber from the nearby forest. Allegedly without the use of a single saw, these naval architects constructed a massive, double-naved structure atop the site of the former stone church in the heart of town. That placeholder has now stood for over five centuries.

The church dominates its namesake plaza, a resplendent monument of dark wood and sun-beaten shingles. From the outside, you’d never guess it was built to be temporary, or that it was built by shipmakers. Inside, however, is a different story.

The vaulted roof of the church’s twin naves don’t merely look like two upside-down hulls—given the nature of their construction, they essentially are. Elsewhere in nautical aesthetics are Biblical figures carved into cornices much in the style of naval figureheads; shell-shaped sconces offering holy water; an extensive collection of oversized, nautical oil paintings; and a fleet of model ships flanking the grand altar.

Know Before You Go

The church is open for free visitation by the public, and arts and farmers markets line the outside walls weekly.

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