Church’s controversial plan to tear down, rebuild century-old cathedral could stall

By Viet Tuan, Hai Le   May 7, 2019 | 10:52 am GMT+7
Church’s controversial plan to tear down, rebuild century-old cathedral could stall
Bui Chu Cathedral stands 50 meters tall in Nam Dinh Province, northern Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Viet Anh

Vietnamese cultural authorities have decided to step in after plans to dismantle and rebuild a 135-year-old cathedral caused an outcry.

In a communication he sent to culture officials in the northern Nam Dinh Province last Thursday, Tran Dinh Thanh, deputy director of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s department of cultural heritage, asked them for recommendations to conserve the Bui Chu Cathedral.

Thanh wrote to them after reports the cathedral will be rebuilt prompted a group of architects to request relevant authorities to conserve it instead.

The Bui Chu Diocese's website said the cathedral would be dismantled next Monday.

Speaking to VnExpress, Tran Van Chung, Nam Dinh's deputy party secretary and head of the legislative People's Council, said he had already met with Bishop Thomas Vu Dinh Hieu, head of the diocese, to discuss the issue.

"I emphasized the historical, cultural, architectural significance [of the cathedral] and the architects' request to conserve the Bui Chu Cathedral. But Bishop Thomas Vu Dinh Hieu said the rebuilding of the Bui Chu Cathedral has been carefully considered for several years."

He quoted the bishop as saying the structure was too old to be restored and the rebuilding option was to ensure the safety of parishioners.

According to the province culture department, while the cathedral has yet to be recognized as a heritage, it is in the list for consideration, he said.

Inside Bui Chu Cathedral in Nam Dinh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Van Hoc

Inside Bui Chu Cathedral in Nam Dinh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Van Hoc

The issue came into the limelight last Wednesday when 25 architects sent a letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Nguyen Ngoc Thien and Nam Dinh Chairman Pham Dinh Nghi asking them to intervene to save the cathedral.

They said the cathedral "is an architectural, artistic and cultural heritage that our ancestors put much work into to create and a unique architectural work that nowhere else in Vietnam has, and belongs with other national cultural heritages.

"The structure not only uses European architecture but also combines Vietnamese elements, details and materials to create a unique artwork, demonstrating an east-west cultural exchange."

They also said they had inspected the structure and found it only slightly damaged, while its frame is still good and could withstand forces for long if reinforced. They pleaded with the PM to suspend its dismantling until the National Heritage Council could make a comprehensive assessment.

Last Friday the Save Heritage Vietnam, a Facebook community founded last month with more than 1,800 followers, wrote to Pope Francis seeking his intervention to rescue the cathedral.

Gushing about its beauty and architecture, the group said it "cannot begin to describe the intangible historical values that this particular cathedral possesses." They stressed that with renovations in 1974 and 2000, the cathedral is "strongly built to stand for centuries."

They said they could travel to Rome to speak to the Pope in person and invited him to visit and appreciate the cathedral.

Bui Chu in Xuan Ngoc Commune, Xuan Truong District, 118 kilometers (73 miles) south of Hanoi, was built in 1885 by Spanish Bishop Wenceslao Onate Thuan. It is 78 meters (256 feet) wide and 15 meters tall and its towers stand 35 meters.

Martin Rama, a senior advisor with the World Bank and a project director at the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences, has been among those calling for the church’s conservation.

The scheduled destruction of the "magnificent and extraordinary building" comes just after the demolition of Tra Co Church in the southern Dong Nai Province in 2017 and the loss of Nam Dinh's Trung Lao Church in a major fire the same year, he said.

The renovation could be very expensive and Vietnam might not be able to afford the conservation of all old buildings, he said.

But "new generations will travel abroad, enjoy European cities, be exposed to global ideas...  And sooner or later they will look back, remember the beautiful country they grew up in, and ask who was responsible for the loss of its character," he warned.

 
 
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