When was the first building that we would consider a Catholic church built? Not a converted home or pagan temple, but a church dedicated the worship of Jesus Christ. – Joe Kessler
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest Christian church was built between 293 and 303 in Jordan. Here is what their website says about it:
The oldest known purpose-built Christian church in the world is in Aqaba, Jordan. Built between 293 and 303, the building pre-dates the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel, and the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, West Bank, both of which were constructed in the late 320s. The church is the first purpose-built Christian church discovered from the period before Christianity found favour with the Roman imperial government. It even pre-dates the greatest of all the Roman anti-Christian persecutions, that of Diocletian in 303-313. The church, the ruins of which were excavated in 1998, is in the form of an east-west oriented basicila, with apse and aisles. It also had a narthex and chancel. Excavation has unearthed walls up to 4.5m 14ft 9in high. During its first phase the church would have held about 60 worshipers; it was later extended to hold about 100. The building appears to have been abandoned during the presecution of 303-311, then refurbished between 313 and 330. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 363.
There was a sort of “in-between” stage in which Christians set aside or remodeled houses for the exclusive purpose of praying and worshiping God. Christianitytoday.com tells us
Unless claims for recent discoveries of early Christian meeting places are confirmed, the earliest building certainly devoted to Christian use is at Dura Europos on the Euphrates River in eastern Roman Syria. It was a house that came into Christian possession and was remodeled in the 240s. Two rooms were combined to form the assembly room, and another room became a baptistery—the only room decorated with pictures. Dura was destroyed by the Sassanian Persians in 256, so the house’s use as a church was short-lived.
The church’s house at Dura represents an intermediate stage between meeting in members’ houses or other suitable places, and constructing buildings specifically for church meetings. There are literary references to separate church buildings from the end of the second century and through the third century, but it is uncertain whether these were existing structures remodeled for church use, like the house at Dura, or new constructions. We have archaeological evidence of halls being built for church meetings at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century. The great era of church buildings began with Constantine’s patronage of the church in the fourth century. He commissioned basilicas to signal his support of the new religion and to advertise his reign.
It is true that Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 313 led to a widespread construction of churches. This is true for several reasons. First of all, before Christianity was legal, there would not be much effort to build a church that was destined to be destroyed in short order. Also, funding for churches would probably have been directed to a different purpose in the Church, given their challenges with persecution and poverty. St. Helen, Constantine’s mother, was also responsible for some prominent churches being built. She journeyed to the Holy Land and helped organize and pay for churches to be built at the site of the Nativity of Jesus, the Ascension of Jesus, and possibly at Calvary, where Jesus died and rose from the dead. It is also said that St. Helen discovered the true Cross of Christ, which was still nearby the place of crucifixion.
We are certainly blessed with many amazing churches as Catholics, including right here in Springfield! Our Cathedral, the chapel at the Evermode Institute, and Blessed Sacrament are all amazing places to pray and experience a special closeness to God through beauty. It is fitting that the largest church in the world is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, built over the tomb of St. Peter, who was the leader of the Apostles of Christ.