Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Follow trail of Catholic missionaries in Taiwan and come upon interesting church architecture


By Nancy T. Lu

Roman Catholic churches are overwhelmingly outnumbered by elaborate Buddhist or Taoist temples in Taiwan. The trail of the Catholic missionaries, however, shows a legacy of churches, and these lend themselves to a study of the enriching imported and local or even ethnic influences on Taiwan’s architecture. Some houses of worship are admired for their historical style in design and others grab attention because of the bold and experimental approach in creating cultural monuments.

Spanish Dominican friars known for their pioneering spirit in spreading Christianity arrived in Taiwan with the Spanish explorers in 1626, settling down to plant the seeds of Christianity initially in the north, building churches particularly in Tamsui and Keelung. But the Dutch colonizers in southern Taiwan headed north in 1642, forcing the Catholic missionaries to abandon their work and leave. Thus, Christianization in Taiwan was interrupted for about 200 years.

In 1858, the western powers overthrew the Qing Dynasty. China was forced to sign the Treaty of Tianjin despite the unequal provisions. The foreign missionaries’ freedom to engage in evangelical work in Taiwan returned with the treaty.

In 1859, the Dominicans sent Fernando Sainz, O.P. and P. Angel Bofurull, O.P. to Taiwan. The missionaries belonging to the Order of the Preachers set out from Manila in the Philippines, traveling through Xiamen and landing finally in Kaohsiung to begin rebuilding churches in southern Taiwan after a long absence. But only Sainz stayed to face the difficult challenges of the evangelical mission. Health reason forced Bofurull to return shortly to Xiamen.




Of the many Roman Catholic churches in Taiwan, the Wanchin Basilica in Pingtung County deserves special mention because of its history which goes back to 1859. Indeed the fortress-like structure is the oldest Catholic church in Taiwan today. Pope John Paul II elevated the basilica to pontifical status in 1984. Whenever possible, Catholics who trail the Protestants in headcount on the island turn up as devout pilgrims at this site of great significance in Taiwan’s evangelization.

Initially this house of worship used by the local converts to Catholicism was just a simple house of prayer with a thatched roof. In 1869, the parish priest enlisted the support of the parishioners to rebuild the church. Construction was completed in 1870. The church was expanded to a depth of 116 feet. The walls were 25 feet high and 3 feet thick. The granite tablet with ” 天主教 (tian jhu jiao)” or Chinese characters meaning Catholicism on it is regarded today as an important Qing Dynasty cultural and historical relic.

The exterior of this church shows architecture with both western and Taiwanese influences. The three-part façade features a bell gable flanked by parapets on top. The solemn interior has a nave and two aisles. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s palanquin in the altar area of the church was carved by an artisan from Fujian province. Stained glass windows can be seen here.

The reopening of Taiwan to foreign missionaries as a result of the treaty signing led to the purchase of a piece of land near the Love River in Kaohsiung. In December 1859, Father Sainz paid 62 pieces of silver for the land on which a temporary house of worship with thatched roof was to be built. In May 1860, the church acquired the name of Holy Mother Church. In 1862, a church of bricks replaced it. This church became the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Kaohsiung. The image of the Virgin Mary came from Spain.

Trends of the times have dictated church architecture in Taiwan over the years. The Japanese colonial period from 1895 to 1945 saw the importation via Japan of western architecture that was mainly historical in style. Builders borrowed elements from western architecture in their construction projects.


















Despite the architectural restrictions imposed by the Roman Catholic Church, building concepts continued developing and evolving. Trends in the building of churches included copying the Romanesque style and simplifying the Gothic architecture as seen in the present-day Holy Rosary Cathedral dating back to 1931.

The construction of this landmark Gothic church in the Kaohsiung diocese by the Dominicans began with soil refill in a low-lying area in 1929. Work on the beautiful church with a steeple was completed in 1931.

Renovation was undertaken in 1995. Wood braces inside, which were purely decorative and not functional, were given steel replacements. In general, the original church design remained unchanged though.




Actually the Dominican friars built the original Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Minsheng West Road in the old section of Taipei in the Gothic architectural style years earlier in 1911. Clemente Fernandez, O.P. had acquired the land for the church in 1905.

The Dominicans’ seminary was constructed next to the church. Also adjacent was Blessed Imelda’s School.

The beautiful church along with the seminary got bombed and destroyed by the attacking American forces on May 31, 1945. The community shortly transformed a hall at Blessed Imelda’s School into a place for prayers.

A temporary chapel to serve the community was built next to the ruins. A new and modern church which replaced it was inaugurated on May 31, 1961. Chen Xi-zhao, a Catholic architect, designed the new and modern cathedral. Its architectural design was a complete departure from the traditional look of the Roman Catholic church.

Actually getting a building permit for the new church in old Taipei was very difficult due to tension across the Taiwan Strait after 1949. The entire process was long and discouraging. But prayers and patience finally brought positive result. The diocese contributed one-third of the required sum for the church construction. The rest came from a couple of generous benefactors as well as the parishioners whose donations were partly in kind such as gold jewelry.

The church with an underground area is 152 feet long, 53.5 feet wide and 71.5 feet high. Its pitched roof of bronze has exposed braces inside. This gathering place of the Catholic community can accommodate 1,200 people.



The altar of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is made of Italian marble. The mosaic depiction of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in front was added much later. There used to be just a cross at the center. The church will be renovated and spruced up this year for the celebration of its 50th anniversary next year.

Many Roman Catholic churches in Taiwan were built after 1952. The Paris Foreign Mission Society and the Bethlehem Mission Society did the fund-raising for the churches in Hualien and Taitung. This meant bringing in western influences in architecture. However, the designs of the churches were not entirely dictated. Parish priests, usually foreign missionaries, and communities of faithful took into consideration the living environment and the needs of the people. Priority was given to the use of local materials in Hualien and Taitung.

Houses of worship, temporary in nature for they were built in a hurry, gradually gave way to more permanent structures depending on access to funding resources. The Paris group relied on help from the United States. The Bethlehem Mission Society turned to Switzerland for financial assistance.

Karl Freuler, who was based in Japan, was invited to help in the design of several churches in Taitung County in the Sixties. These included Our Lady’s Church in Guanshan, Tunghsin Church in Dongxing, St. Joseph Church in Jinlun, and Immaculate Conception Church in Jhiben. The influence of modern architecture was worthy of note. Structural design, choice of construction materials and building technology met the demands of the times.

Churches are monuments of their builders. Thrust into the limelight in recent months has been the Holy Cross Church in Qingliao, Houbi, Tainan County. Gottfried Boehm, the German winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1986, was the architect of the landmark Catholic church with simple, defined lines in southern Taiwan. The striking pyramid-like design was believed to be his first church project abroad.


Not too long ago, the original architectural blueprint of the Holy Cross Church in Qingliao, Houbi, Tainan County, got secretly removed without permission from the desk of the parish priest.

Lin Jun-han, an architecture student from Cheng Kung University, climbed a post and broke into the locked church compound about three years ago. He came upon the blueprint of the church in a dust-covered brown envelope on the table.

Lin tried to photograph the original manuscripts dating back to 1986 but his camera jammed. Thus, he took the papers and returned them two months later after copying everything. He attached a note, saying that the drawings should be carefully preserved for these were done by a Pritzker Architecture Prize winner.

Two years later, Hsu Ming-song, a professor of architecture, went to give a lecture at Cheng Kung University. When he mentioned that he was doing research on Boehm’s church, Lin volunteered a disk containing reproductions of the manuscripts. Lin’s handling of the materials was brought to the attention of the authorities. He was finally asked to pay within six months a fine of NT$50,000 to a charity organization for illegally breaking into the church.

Boehm was the third and youngest son of one of the most prominent Catholic church builders in Germany. He was a student of architecture and later, sculpture, too. He worked in partnership with his father from 1952 to 1955, taking over his father’s office after his death.

With Taiwan becoming the 21st separate province of the Roman Catholic Church at one point, emerging houses of worship veered towards the introduction of Chinese architectural elements.

Standing out today due to its Chinese architecture is Our Lady Queen of China Cathedral in Tainan. The pillars inside of wood are painted over in red and writings are done in gold against a black background. Decorative ceiling and window features also contribute to this impressive reminder of a traditional Chinese palace or pavilion.


St. John Church on Nanya West Road in Banciao, Taipei County, can be cited as another example. Taipei Bishop Guo Ruo-shi acquired the piece of land for this particular second church in Banciao, still a town in those days, and Father Mao Zhen-xiang, who oversaw the building of the house of worship, sought the help of Fu Guo-shao, whose expertise was in roof construction and church design.

The church built with financial help from friends in America started out with just a warehouse. The church proper broke ground on March 25, 1961, and was inaugurated on November 25 of the same year.


The cross-shaped interior of the church has a length of 142 feet and a width of 66 feet. With a total area of 246 pings, the church can accommodate over 1,000 faithful during Mass or service. Sixty-eight pews are lined up on the left side and another 68 pews are on the right.

There are three altars inside. The main one at the center has an image of the suffering Christ. The left one honors the Blessed Virgin Mary and the right one is dedicated to St. John.

Up front and to the right side of the church, too, is a huge painting commemorating the Chinese martyrs of the Roman Catholic Church. The first church in Banciao which was built to honor their memory was closed down in 1997 due to the downsizing of the Catholic community in the area. In fact, the two churches simply merged at that time after the other place of worship was asked to partly give way to road expansion. The open-air Way of the Cross has newly-acquired marble pieces of sculpture created by Vietnamese artists to inspire prayers.

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