Mai Mahiu Catholic Church, popularly referred as the ‘Travellers Chapel’, is the smallest church in Kenya and only slightly bigger than America’s Our Lady of the Pines, the world’s smallest, which measures 12 by 12FT.
Mai Mahiu, nicknamed ‘Msikiti’, Swahili for a mosque, measures 15 by 8FT and has a capacity to seat 12 people during mass. This Catholic church is a favourite among truck drivers on transit from Mombasa to the landlocked central African countries.
During the Second World War, British and Imperial forces captured more than half a million Italian soldiers, sailors and airmen. These Italian Prisoners of War are the ones who built the Mai Mahiu Catholic Church in 1942 under strict supervision from the British.
Construction of the church is itself an interesting story. Since the Italians were Catholics and the British were Anglicans, they could not mingle in prayer so the POWs were allocated land to build their own place of prayer. Believe it or not, they achieved this fit while working in shifts during breaks from the construction of the Mai Mahiu road! Many of them, like their companions who built the Italian War Memorial Church in Nyeri, died from Malaria and attacks by wild animals, including poisonous snakes that apparently live in the area to date.
The pentagon-shaped Mai Mahiu church is awash with Latin inscriptions and symbols mostly found above the stained glass windows and the entrance doors. Some like Venite Ad Memone (Come to me my people), Haec Est Victoria Quae Vincit Mundum Fides Mustra (This is the victory that has won the world by our faith) and Benedicite Coeli Domino Benedicite (Blessed be the sky and blessed again), capture the triumphant mood of the moment. Others like Universa Germinatia In Terra Domino, which means ‘everything will germinate in the sky and also on the earth’, are a complete mystery.
Writings and symbols are not the only embellishments that make Mai Mahiu church so fascinating. Behind the altar and facing the congregation, rests a 71-year-old mural of the nativity scene where the Christ child is with his parents Mary and Joseph and surrounded by angels. It is not very clear why, despite the name Pittore R. being inscribed on the mural, most still think this could have been the work of one Navitatis NDJC.
Navitatis, if at all he was a person, does not seem to have painted much either before or after the mural at the Mai Mahiu Catholic Church. An inscribed date, 25.02.1943, similarly seems to pose more questions than it can answer. Is it the date the mural was done, could it be the day the church was commissioned or might it mean something else?
As you get inside the church, you begin to encounter its numerous symbolisms. The 3 stairs at the entrance symbolise the Holy Trinity; The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. Two crosses and a compass on the roof symbolise that the church will stay for as long as the world will turn around it.
Another staircase outside the church compound leads to an area where the graves of the deceased soldiers were laid to rest. A mausoleum designed in the form of a cemented cross is particularly interesting. It was apparently donated by Mrs Nyagitha Miller, wife of the late chief justice Miller, in honour of the fallen Italians. Mrs Miller has also financed the construction of a new pillar at the church’s entrance which is expected to house anyone wishing to conduct private prayers.
Mai Mahiu Catholic church is not only a site of rich history, but it also has its fair share of mystery and myth. There is, for instance, the mystery of a clock which can be heard ticking but is never seen. Another myth describes how POWs were drowned in the sea by the British. The most popular is one which claims the Italians hid a massive fortune – rings, jewels and wills – in the church’s concrete columns which has set the world on a hunt for its ‘hidden treasure’.
Today, the Mai Mahiu Catholic Church is managed by the Italian Embassy, the Kenyan government and well-wishers who put in their resources to conserve this religious scenic feature. The church is open to the public at no cost from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Interestingly, Christians and Hindus are allowed to worship but Muslims can only visit.
Mai Mahiu church is a true representation of what the soul is willing to achieve in the midst of adversity. That there is freedom and peace which allows you to go through the toughest times of life when you are close to God is aptly captured by this little church.
It is a popular venue for weddings and photoshoots. Unfortunately, since robbers stole the original Italian bibles which were here, you will have to come with your own. Besides the bible, other valuables including a clock, the gate and windows were also stolen.
Today, the Italian Bible has been replaced with an African bible which is only put on the altar during mass. Pay the scenic place a visit. Who knows, you may even stumble upon the so-called hidden treasure left behind by the Italian POWs!