A PLACE OF PEACE

HCMCs oldest church still welcomes parishioners to this day

By Ngoc Linh on December 12,2017 10:53 AM

A PLACE OF PEACE

Photos: Xuan Thai

According to several documents, including the book ‘History of Cho Quan Civil Parish’, Cho Quan Civil Parish in HCMC’s District 5 has borne witness to the ups and downs of 300 years of the city’s history. 

Migrant beginnings

A PLACE OF PEACE

Many Christians from different parts of Vietnam settled in this part of HCMC and founded Cho Quan Civil Parish. While it’s not known when the name ‘Cho Quan Civil Parish’ was bestowed upon the church, followers have been told by their ancestors that migrants with similar occupations and beliefs settled here to form an area called Xom Bot, with a market and inns, which then became known as Cho Quan (meaning market and inn).

According to scholar Truong Vinh Ky (1837-1898), Cho Quan may have been a shelter for migrants from Hue escaping a ban on practicing Christianity enacted by Vo Vuong (1714-1765). It may have been in 1670 when the first simple church of Cho Quan Civil Parish was built as a place of worship for the recently-settled followers.

In those days, vicars took turns taking care of parishioners, including Christian officials such as Vicar Emmanuel Quintaon from Dong Nai and Jaoé Garcia and Diego Jumilla. Some were Vietnamese vicars, like Vicar Loi, Vicar Doan, and Vicar Hap.

The vicars experienced many difficulties in their missionary work due to bans enacted by the Nguyen Dynasty between 1834 and 1859, which did not permit the teaching of Christianity. Wars and natural disasters counted among the other difficulties to be endured.

Oldest chancel in HCMC

According to stories passed down by word of mouth, Cho Quan Civil Parish may have been built from 1674, but no materials have been found to support such claims.

GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE WAS USED FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE CHURCH. ALL DOORS HAD AN ARCHWAY, ITS HUGE STONE COLUMNS HAD ELABORATE DESIGNS, AND ITS ROOF WAS COVERED WITH FISH SCALE-SHAPED RED TILES, WHICH HAVE AGED OVER TIME.

Officially, construction got under way in 1720, when Cho Quan Civil Parish invited Vicar Quintaon from Dong Nai to come and help. It was just a small church with a thatched roof and bamboo walls.

Through historical ups and downs, the church was rebuilt eight times. When Vicar Nicolas Hamm was in charge between 1882-1885, the church was totally renovated to how it appears today. During its 14 years of construction, six vicars were in charge at different times.

Vicar Hamm passed away in 1886, and he was buried in front of Mother Mary’s altar in the church in remembrance of his significant contribution in laying the foundation stone of the renovated church.

I visited Cho Quan Civil Parish on Tran Binh Trong Street in District 5 late one afternoon as the Christmas season approached. I obtained permission from the vicar in charge, who welcomed me in and showed me around.

‘The church’s structure has remained unchanged for more than 100 years,’ he told me. ‘The vicars in charge over the years only had it partially repaired or repainted to make it look nice for the parishioners.’

Gothic architecture was used for the construction of the church. All doors had an archway, its huge stone columns had elaborate designs, and its roof was covered with fish scale-shaped red tiles, which have aged over time.

Above the main entrance is the number 1896, which is the year final reconstruction was completed. I couldn’t have imagined how large the church was until I stepped inside. Rows of smooth wooden seats allow more than a thousand people to pray at any one time.

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There are different pictures of saints on the walls. In the middle is a statue of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary’s altar. ‘There are five masses on Sundays and followers spill outside to the front yard and the side yards,’ the vicar said. ‘At Christmas, large crowds fill the inside of church and take up all the space outside.’

The church has a three-storey bell tower with five bells, two of which are used on ordinary days, two for big events, and one for announcing deaths. On very special days, all five bells are rung at once. Only four bells, however, are in good condition.

The bells were made in France and brought to Vietnam by ship. Moving the bells into their places in the tower required the labour of five elephants. At the top of the tower is a good view of District 5, but its old age means people are discouraged from climbing to the top.

There are several other old churches in HCMC that are over 100 years old, including Huyen Si Church, Chi Hoa Church, and Hanh Thong Tay Church, but Cho Quan Civil Parish Church is the oldest.

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