Parishioners endorse plan to dismantle, rebuild 135-year-old church

By Viet Tuan   May 9, 2019 | 04:00 am PT
Parishioners endorse plan to dismantle, rebuild 135-year-old church
The front part of Bui Chu Cathedral in Nam Dinh Province. Photos by VnExpress/Giang Huy
Churchgoers are sad, but feel the Bui Chu Cathedral should be dismantled and rebuilt so they can attend its services in safety.

The parishioners said the 135-year-old cathedral in the northern province of Nam Dinh carries great meaning for them, but stressed that its condition was so bad that it posed a danger to their health.

Do Kim Ngan, 69, parish chief of Bui Chu Diocese, said every year, during the rainy and stormy season, parishioners would attend church services in fear as the wind blew strongly and rainwater leaked into the church through the cracks.

"It is really scary every time I go up to close the doors in the two towers of the church. Sometimes, the wind blows and peels off chunks from the walls," said Ngan.

There have been many cases in which the ceiling plaster has fallen down suddenly. Sometimes it happened during the service and even injured churchgoers, and one of them had to be hospitalized for emergency treatment once.

The electricity system in the church is also unsafe because all connectors have been in use for a long time and easy to cause short circuits, which could lead to fires, he said.

Even though he really wants the church to be preserved as a heritage, Ngan said, he agreed with the decision of the bishop Vu Dinh Hieu and the council of priests to dismantle and rebuild it.

"We really treasure this church but it is necessary to build a new one to ensure safety for churchgoers."

Two years ago, the bishop and the council of priests had sought opinions from parishioners on a project to rebuild the church and last year, they handed out photos of an artist’s impression of the new one.

Vu The Du, 70, a parishioner living next to the church, said the new project is a wish of many churchgoers, although "we are really sad because this church is something our forefathers have left us."

He said bishop Hieu initially had the intention of keeping the church unchanged and just fixing the downgraded parts. Many local and foreign experts had come to study its situation to map out a plan for fixing it, but, in the end, the project was treated as unfeasible because the church was seriously degraded and the climate near the sea would not allow to keep it for much longer, he said.

Du said he is happy that the new plan says that the architecture of the old church would be maintained in the new one.

There have been ideas suggesting changes in several details of the church, but according to the plan, the new church should be kept the same as the old one, with full advantage taken of the old materials in building it.

"It was my grandfather who built and set up the statue of Jesus in front of the church. That statue will be kept and set up at the same position in the new one," Du said.

Bui Chu stands 15 meters tall, with 35-meter-high towers, in Xuan Ngoc Commune, Xuan Truong District, 118 kilometers (73 miles) south of Hanoi. It was built in 1885 by Spanish Bishop Wenceslao Onate Thuan.

According to the plan, the demolition work is set to start on May 13.

People attend a service inside the Bui Chu Cathedral on May 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

People attend a service inside the Bui Chu Cathedral in May 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Nguyen Dinh Khanh, head of the planning office of Nam Dinh’s Construction Department, said Bui Chu Diocese and local authorities had asked for approval from the department for the plan to rebuild Bui Chu Cathedral in 2016.

As many parts of the church were seriously downgraded, the department had approved it the same year.

"In the preliminary design, the Bui Chu Diocese commits that the new church will be built on the floor of the old building, with the same scale, architecture and function," he said.

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 on Tuesday that the church has badly degraded and many parts, such as the door and the dome, are cracked, and one of its two towers was 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," said Tran Dinh Thanh, deputy head of the department.

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 plan to demolish and rebuild the Bui Chu Cathedral had triggered a public outcry when it was made known this month.

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, that its frame was 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 save the cathedral.

The group gushed about the church’s beauty and architecture, saying they "cannot begin to describe the intangible historical values that this particular cathedral possesses." They stressed that with renovations in 1974 and 2000, the cathedral was "strongly built to stand for centuries."

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

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