Controversy over 135-year-old church swings towards demolition again

By Viet Tuan   May 8, 2019 | 01:32 am PT
Controversy over 135-year-old church swings towards demolition again
Bui Chu Cathedral in Nam Dinh Province in northern Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy
The culture ministry concurs with local officials that the Bui Chu Cathedral is seriously dilapidated and dangerous for churchgoers.

A delegation from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, including officials of the cultural heritage department, came to the conclusion after a study trip Tuesday to the 135-year-old cathedral in the northern province of Nam Dinh.

Tran Dinh Thanh, deputy head of the department, said the church was degraded and many parts, such as the door and the dome, are cracked, and one of its two towers is leaning.

"The interior of the church has rotted and many parts of it could fall down anytime. But the church still organizes its services frequently and therefore, it needs solutions to guarantee safety."

The delegation reported its findings and suggested solutions to the culture minister the same day.

Thanh said the scale and architecture of the new church could be kept the same as the old one.

The department’s conclusion strengthens the controversial plan to dismantle and rebuild the church that triggered a public outcry when it was revealed earlier this month.

Under the original plan, demolition work was set to start on May 13.

Following the announcement, 25 local architects had 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 and save the cathedral.

They said the cathedral was "an architectural, artistic and cultural heritage that our ancestors put much work into to create and a unique architectural work found nowhere else in Vietnam, belonging 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 last for long if reinforced. They pleaded that the PM acts to suspend its dismantling until the National Heritage Council makes 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 high.

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, he added: "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."

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