When they call Our Lady of the Pines the world’s smallest, they have not seen the Mai Mahiu Catholic Church. Popularly referred to as the ‘Travellers Chapel’, it measures 15 by 8FT – certainly smaller than Our Lady of the Pines at 24 by 12FT. However, there is no doubt that Mai Mahiu is the smallest church in Kenya and Africa.
Mai Mahiu, nicknamed ‘Msikiti’, Swahili for a mosque, only seats twelve congregants during mass. Truck drivers from Mombasa en route to the landlocked central African countries cannot resist a stopover here.
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 then built the Mai Mahiu Catholic Church in 1942 under strict supervision from the British.
The 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 built their own place of prayer. Believe it or not, they achieved this fit while working on the Mai Mahiu road. The soldiers took turns during their breaks from the road to work on the chapel! Unfortunately, like their companions who built the Italian War Memorial Church in Nyeri, many died from Malaria and attacks by wild animals. Some succumbed to snake bites from poisonous snakes that apparently live in the area to date.
The pentagon-shaped Mai Mahiu church is awash with Latin inscriptions and symbols. Most sit above the stained glass windows and the entrance doors. Some capture the triumphant mood of the moment. Venite Ad Memone means ‘Come to me, my People’. Haec Est Victoria Quae Vincit Mundum Fides Mustra declares that ‘This is the victory that has won the world by our faith’. Benedicite Coeli Domino Benedicite means ‘Blessed be the sky and blessed again’. Others like Universa Germinatia In Terra Domino, which means ‘everything will germinate in the sky and on the earth’, remain a complete mystery.
Writings and symbols are not the only embellishments that make the church at Mai Mahiu 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 answers. Did the mystery artist start or complete the mural on that date? Could it be the day the church was commissioned, or might it mean something altogether?
As you get inside, you begin to encounter numerous symbols. The three stairs at the entrance depict the Holy Trinity; The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. Two crosses and a compass on the roof mean that the church will stay for as long as the world will turn around it.
A second staircase outside the church compound leads to where the deceased soldiers were laid to rest. A mausoleum in honour of the fallen Italians 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. Mrs Miller has also financed the construction of a new pillar at the church’s entrance. The pillar will house anyone wishing to conduct private prayers.
Mai Mahiu Catholic church is not only a site of rich history. It also has its fair share of mystery and myth. There is, for instance, the mystery of a clock that ticks unseen. An unconfirmed story of the British’s murderous drowning of the POWs at sea also stirs up curiosities. Perhaps the most popular myth claims the Italians hid a massive fortune – rings, jewels and wills – in the church’s concrete columns. The claim has set the world on a hunt for its ‘hidden treasure’.
Today, the Italian Embassy, the Kenyan government and well-wishers manage the Mai Mahiu Catholic Church. They dedicate resources to conserving this religious scenic feature. The church is open to the public at no cost from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Interestingly, only Christians and Hindus can worship, but Muslims can only visit.
However small, the Mai Mahiu Church is a big representation of what the soul is willing to achieve in the midst of adversity. In its little space, the big idea that freedom and peace allow us to overcome the toughest times in the presence of God comes alive.
Unsurprisingly it is a popular venue for weddings and photoshoots. Regrettably, since robbers stole the original Italian bibles here, you will have to come with your own. Unfortunately, the robbers also took off with the gate, a rare clock and antique windows.
These days, the African Bible has replaced the Italian one. They only place it on the altar during mass. So whenever your journeys take you that way, visit the place. Who knows, you may even stumble upon the so-called hidden treasure left behind by the Italian POWs! Let me throw in a fun fact as I end. Did you know that the 4.25 by 6.75FT Cross Island Chapel in New York is currently the smallest church in the world? Perched in the centre of a pond, it seats two people who can only access it by boat!
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for accuracy and relevancy. [Originally Published: September 2019 / Revised: July 2022]