Visitors to Greenland, a large island found in the North Atlantic, encounter a mixture of Inuit and Norse history as well as a view of nature rarely seen. It is dotted with small villages and few roads. Hvalsey (also known as Whale Island), is found near Qaqortoq, the largest town in southern Greenland. It is in the fjord of Hvalsey. This area contains the best preserved and largest site of Norse ruins, notably the Hvalsey Church, one of the first Christian churches on the continent of North America.
Before Columbus had even thought about finding a new, shorter route to India, Norse settlers had established communities in Greenland. Hvalsey, a farmstead in the Eastern Settlement, was the largest of three Viking settlements there. Norse farmers from Iceland settled it in about 985. Vikings in Greenland built the Hvalsey Church during the middle of the 12th century to serve the Christians living in Hvalsey Fjord and the nearby area.
When it was at its peak, the Hvalsey Parish area included the church as well as 14 other buildings. Archaeologists believe that these may have included storehouses, residential homes or the priest’s home. Other ruins may be those of a banquet hall and a residential complex.
Most signs of the other buildings have disappeared, but the Hvalsey Church still has all four walls, between 4.5 and 6 meters (15 and 20 feet) high, as well as the openings for two windows and three entrances. The wooden interior and the roof are no longer there, but the church itself looks very much like it did when the settlers abandoned it in the 15th century.
The farmstead, of which Hvalsey Church was a part, was occupied from the 11th century through the 15th century. On September 16, 1408, a wedding was held at the church, and the documentation of this celebration is the last record of the Vikings living there. A short time later, they disappeared from Greenland for unknown reasons. Some archaeologists think that climate changes made it difficult to farm and ranch, while others believe that identity and economic problems caused the Vikings to return to their ancestral homes.
Not knowing whether the old Norse civilization remained in Greenland or not an expedition led by the Norwegian missionary Hans Egede was sent to Greenland in 1721. The expedition found no surviving Vikings.
Today, Hvalsey is located near the town of Qaqortoq, with about 3,000 inhabitants still the fourth-largest town in Greenland. Visiting the ruins of Hvalsey Church is like taking a pilgrimage back in time. Along with a view of the idyllic area in which these early explorers lived, these ruins are all that is left of the story of medieval Catholicism in Greenland.