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PHÁT DIỆM CATHEDRAL

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Phát Diệm Cathedral is one of Vietnamese architectural masterpieces, covering over two hectares (five acres) and consisting of a lake, a grand Cathedral with five separate side chapels, three artificial grottoes, and a majestic bell tower named Phương Ðình.

Of special interest for the visitor to this particular Catholic Church, is its unique style of architecture, which resembles a budhist temple or pagoda, characterized by several tiers of over hanging curved roofs.

The building of Phát Diệm Cathedral was the work of Father Trần Lục, more popularly known as Father Six, the then parish priest of Phát Diệm, and was accomplished in twenty four years (1875-1899). Phát Diệm was a simple parish, eventually becoming the seat of the new diocese in 1901. doubtless to say, had Phát Diệm Cathedral been built by a European missionary, it would probably resemble most other Catholic churches of the time. Instead, it has become one of the most uniquely important churches ever to be built in Asia in the Far-Eastern architecture.

The following is a more detailed description of the Cathedral complex.

THE BELL TOWER

The Bell Tower is an imposing stone structure standing majestically near the lake, and resembling the communal house of most Vietnamese villages. It is an almost square building with a spacious interior, and was purposely built without doors. Above the central entrance the visitor can see four large chinese characters translated as: “Precious Seat of the Holy Body”. The smaller chinese characters indicate the date of the building, Holy Thursday, 1899. On the opposite side a Latin inscription reads: “Capella in Cœna Domini”, or: “Chapel for the last Supper”.

In the center of each of three compartments is a slab of stone, serving as a large common seat-Vietnamese sit upright with crossed legs on the flat surface- the large slab in the middle compartment is said to have belonged to the royal hall of Tây Giai, Citadel, Thanh Hoá.

On the walls can be seen low stone reliefs depicting Saints, with bamboo shaped stone bars on the windows. Narrow steps lead the visitor to the first floor, where hangs a great tam-tam (drum), used only on Sundays and Feast days as an accompanyment to the bell. A ladder leads up to the top floor where hangs a two-ton bell, which when struck by means of a wooden ram, can be heard as far away as ten kilometres around. Also from the top floor the visitor can see twenty churches scattered in the region, and on a clear day, the sea in the south, and the mountain range to the west.

The Bell Tower was the last monument to be built in the complex, and according to many critics it is also the finest one. It was finished in 1899, which was also the year of Father Six’ death. Over 40,000 people attended Father Six’ funeral, his tomb is located in the courtyard between the Bell Tower and the Cathedral.

THE CATHEDRAL

Upon reaching the courtyard, the visitor cannot help but be inspired by the Cathedral. As the Bell Towerr was colossal, the stone façade of the Cathedral is elegant. A memorial stela on the right bears a hymn in Latin in honour of Mary, and the dedication of the Cathedral ot Our Lady of Holy Rosary, signed by Father Six A.D.1891.

On top of the central tower, we see two Angels holding up the cross, two others blowing trumpets and four characters meaning: “Foreboding of Judgement Day”. The towers are made of bricks. The five porches are made of stone. The central porch is a large slab carved into an elaborate rose bush spreading its twigs, among which appear seventeen Angels. Above the porches are fifteen stone reliefs representing episodes from the lives of Jesus and Mary-15 mysteries of the Rosary. Five entrances, 9 m deep (291/2 feet) built of stone, lead to five massive carved wood doors.

Above each Angel holding a holy water basin is a sentence in Latin telling the right attitudes a Christian must have when he comes to pray.

When one penetrates inside, one is impressed by the dim and quietness of the interior, and the pleasant sense of warmth radiating from the wood construction and decoration.

What immediately catches one’s eye are the two rows of huge pillars leading to the sanctuary, which is splendily decorated with chiseled woodwork, lacquered and gilded. Many more pillars are to be seen.

The roof rests on 52 iron wood pillars 16 of which are 11 metres high, 2,60 metres in circumference and 7 tons in weight.

In the sanctuary, a statue of “Our Lady with Infant Jesus” is prominent. On both sides are pictures of Saints. On the glass windows above, are pictures of six Martyrs, five are Vietnamese and one is European. The top picture is Our Lady giving the Rosary to St. Dominic. The pictures and the statue, dominantly painted blue, suggest a big cross. The lacquered and gilded woodwork keeps amazingly well after a hundred years and war damage not withstanding.

The old altar in the rear, was cut in a single block of white stone, meticulously chiseled. The front altar is new; made of a single slab, consecrated on 6th October, 1991, the 100the   Anniversary of the Cathedral.

From outside, on the side wall near the façade, one can see two windows made of stone and carved into the form of a lion.

THE CHAPELS AND GROTTOES

All around the Cathedral, Father Six built four Chapels. A fifth, the “Stone Chapel” was constructed a little farther away. One writer has compared them to beautiful “Ladies in waiting”, attendants to the queen. One might also say “ Four altar servers” assisting the ceelebrant. They are similar in structure, but each has its own features as follows.

Saint Joseph’s (9)- the front Chapel on the west side- was built entirely of iron wood. On both walls of choir are stone reliefs depicting episodes from Saint Joseph’s life.

Saint Peter’s (10) – directly behind Saint Joseph’s- was built of jack wood fruit, and Father Six dedicated it to his patron Saint. The tympanum of the central porch is worth seeing. On the choir above the windows decorated with stone bars, are reliefs portraying twelve Apostles, whose names are written in Ancient Vietnamese script. The altar is made out of a single block of stone weighing twenty tons.

The Immaculate Heart (11) – the “Stone Chapel”, north-west of Saint Peter’s was the first Chapel to be built by Father Six  and was constructed in 1883. Everything was made of stone, floors, pillars, beams, walls, window bars, towers and altar. The façade has two lateral towers with many stories which taper towards the top, like the Tháp Búp tower at Restored Sword Lake in Hà Nội. Above the niche in the central tower is engraved an invocation to the “Immaculate Heart of Mary” in four languages. The first line is Vietnamese, and is the unique inscription in the Vietnamese language to be found in the whole Cathedral complex until 1991. Although made of stone, the interior looks light and graceful thanks to glossy marble decoration beautiful windows and scultptures. From outside, one can see a phoenix, and a lion which has a smiling human face. The “Stone Chapel” is worth the label “gem” given by a noted person.

The Calvary Grotto (12) is in front of the “Stone Chapel”.

The Bethlehem Grotto (13) – East of the Calvary grotto – was originally named the Sepulchre Grotto, and was built by Father Six  in 1875 to test the solidity of the soil before starting other construction.

The Lourdes Grotto (16) – East of the Bethlehem Grotto.

On the way to Lourdes Grotto, visitors may stop (14) to have a view of the Bishop’s House (15) in the Nord, the right wing of the old two-story house was built by Father Six one hundred years ago. Look back to the Cathedral chevet and one can see three stone windows decorated with sculptured phoenix. This Grotto stands in a picturesque setting, topped by a secular tree. Under the tree is the tomb of two parish priests of Phát Diệm and layman, martyred in the 19th century.

The statue of “Our Lady of Lourdes” is the gift of a missionary in Yun-Nan, China.

The Sacred Heart Chapel (17) – East side of the Cathedral. Its interest lies in its three-tower façade and its meticulously sculptured doors. It is said that a high French official asked Father Six to take these doors to an exhibition in Paris, but he refusedd for the reason that they were offered to God in perpetuity.

Saint Roch’s (18)- South of the Sacred Heart Chapel-built in 1895, was originally dedicated to St. John the Baptist but was renamed out of gratitude to St. Roch for his deliverance from an epidemic of cholera in 1923. Except for the altar, which is made of a single slab of stone, the parts are of jack wood fruit.

CONSTRUCTION

How was it possible to build the huge stone edifices at that time, when there was no cement or mechanical engineering?

The thorny question Father Six had to resolve were: materials, foundations and construction.

Materials: The stone, timber and marble, had to be fetched from distant places as they were not available locally. The timber came from as far away as Nghệ An-200 kilometres (124 miles), Thanh Hoá 60 kilometres (37 miles) and Sơn Tây-150 kilometres (93 miles). The stone came from Thiện Dưỡng-30 kilometres (19 miles) and the marble came from Thanh Hoá- 60 kilometres (37 miles). Huge blocks of rock, some weighing up to 20 tons, and immense trunks of iron wood trees weighing as much as 7 tons were carried on bamboo rafts and unloaded at high tide, where they were pulled to the building site by men and buffaloes.

Foundations: Father Six decided to turn the illusion of building “palaces on sand” into reality. Phát Diệm was a reed grown alluvial plane, not populated until 1829. First, he built an artificial Grotto to test the soil. After deep excavation, he had millions of bamboo stakes driven into the ground to the depth of 30 metres, until they could go no further. Then earth and gravel were poured on trampled by men and buffaloes. After that, bamboo rafts were embedded before the actual foundations were laidnote that bamboo keeps well in wet soil- the Cathedral has stood well the test of time and also a bombing in 1972.

Construction: As the placing of the stonework rose higher, earth was tightly packed on the inside for support and gently sloped against the outside, enabling the huge stone blocks to be dragged up and mortered in place, using sand and lime, allowing time for each block to set firmly. For the woodwork, each one of the nine partitions in the Cathedral was assigned to a group of carpenters, so that after only three months, the longitudinal head beams could be put in place. In order to erect nine sets of “assembled” pillars and beams, weighing 25 tons each, the five entrance stone porches had been first, to serve as a firm and high position for hoisting.

THE BOMBING OF 1972

On August 15th, 1972, an American bomber released eight bombs which fell in line from the Bishop’s House to the west side of the lake. One exploded in the open space on the west side of the Cathedral, flattening Saint Peter’s Chapel and tilting Saint Joseph’s Chapel, as well ass sending 36 stone slabs from the ground to the roofs, while at the same time, blowing away almost all the tiles from the roof of the Cathedral. Fifty-two out of fifty-six doors were damaged as well as the four stone reliefs of the stations of the Cross. All of the lacquered and gilded works were coated with thick layers of dust. The blast tilted the Cathedral 15 to 20 degrees north-west. Only the strong stonework of the façade and the chevet kept the body of the Cathedral, which was all in wood, from tilting further and, outright collapsing. Despite the ongoing war, restoration was started immediately and special efforts were made to restore the complex to its original condition and features. Tiles of the same age and tint were obtained from whatever source possible. It took two years to carry out the restoration. Eye witnesses to the bombing can only speculate what damage would have resulted to the Cathedral and the Bell Tower had the seven subsequent bombs followed the first in an exact straight line.

FATHER SIX: PRIEST,  ARCHITECT AND ENGINEER

 We can only guess at why Father Six adopted this style of achitecture for his buildings. As we have said before, an European missionary would have built the church in the European style; however, Father Six was a Vietnamese, and was very deep in Vietnamese culture, blending it with his christian beliefs, and his exposure to the European cultures. He designed Phát Diệm Cathedral to be traditionally Vietnamese with just a touch of European gothic.

Besides Father Six’ architectural talents, he excelled in politics, Chinese literature and Vietnamese poetry. He composed prayers, catechistic and educational lessons in good veres, which old people still cherish. Regarding the “new” method of evangelisation called “inculturation”, Father Six was a forerunner, 100 years ahead of his time, and comparable with Rici in China and De Nobili in India.

 

SERMON GIVEN BY BISHOP PAUL BÙI CHU TẠO AT THE MASS INAUGURATING THE CENTENNIAL YEAR

(OCTOBER 7TH 1990)

 

Most Reverend Bishops,

Reverend Apostolic Administrators,

Reverend Vicars General,

Fellow Father,

Brothers and Sisters,

Dear Christians,

Today we are celebrating the centennial year of this Cathedral. I would like to summerize the history of this sanctuary, an architectural masterpiece famous in our country as well as abroad.

The founder of this Cathedral, Father Trần Lục, was commonly known as Cụ Sáu (Father Six). His real name was Triêm. He was born in 1825 in Mỹ Quan village, Nga Sơn district, Thanh Hoá province. He belonged to Kẻ Dừa parish, now part of Thanh Hoá diocese.

In 1858 he became a deacon. Before he could be ordained as a priest, he was arrested and exiled to Lạng Sơn where he was to be known as Father Six. In 1860, still in exile in Lạng Sơn,  he Was allowed to pay a visit to his home, and took this opportunity to ordained a priest. After his release in 1863, Bishop Jeantet Khiêm placed him in charge of the Thanh Hoá, Kẻ Dừa and Tam Tổng parishes. After more than a year there, he became the pastor of Phát Diệm parish.

Father Six was pastor of Phát Diệm during 34 years. He achieved numerous feats including the construction of this compound which includes three artificial caves, five small Chapels, one of which is entirely made of stone, a Cathedral and bell tower commonly called Phương Ðình. All of these buildings are still standing. In order to assess the scope of his work and talent, let me remind you that the land we are standing on was then alluvial soil and swamps covered with reeds. It took him more than ten years to gather all the construction materials to build this Cathedral: the wood for the 16 central pillars that weighed 7 tons each, and of a height of 11 meters came from the forests of Bến Thuỷ (Nghệ An), 200 km away, and Hồi Xuân (Thanh Hoá). The stone came from Thiện Dưỡng quarries, 30 km away, and the more valuable stone from Nhồi mountain (Thanh Hoá), 60 km away. Wood and stone were brought in along waterways on hundreds of rafts, and had to be unloaded at high tide, each raft orderly queuing at the wharf.

After construction materials were eventually gathered, the time came to launch the actual construction work. In order to fathom the stability of the soil, Father Six first built the grotto of Bethlehem then tackled the Cathedral’s foundation work. Deep trenches were dug, and countless bamboo poles pounded 30 m deep into the ground for several layers, until it was impossible to bury them further. Tons of earth and rock were then poured into the trenches, and packed by men and buffaloes. Bamboo mats were laid between each layer, and the actual foundations eventually took shape.

Carpenters, stone cutters and workers set up a camp on the construction site. Father Six hired skilled workers all over the country. 9 different teams of workers were in charge with erecting the 9 wings. This organization enabled them to complet the construction within three months. The roofs’s frame could be laid. To lift the 9 preasembled beams weighed up to 25 tons each, Father Six had the 5 porches completed. They were used as supports to lift the heavy beams. As for the large granite blocks, he built dirt ramps to pull them up. After the blocks were assembled, the ramps were dismantled and the earth spread all over the site. Nowadays, the ground level on the compound is still higher than the surrounding land by 1 m. over the years, through rain, storm, and sunshine, the Cathedral is still standing firm, sinking a little but without cracking. Standing in front of this Cathedral, one cannot help but praise the will, talent and creativity of Father Six and our forefathers. They did not spare their efforts, physical as well as moral.

Our Cathedral not only withstood the sun, rains, storms, winds and erosion, but also the destructive power of shells and bombs during both the French and American wars. In 1953 French artillery shells hit the eastern wing, collapsing part of the roof. On August 15th, 1972 an American bomber dropped a stick of 8 bombs whose impacts stretched from the Bishop’s House to the pool on the west-north. Four bombs left craters on the ground. One fell on the procession way on the west side, near the two side Chapels. The northern Chapel collapsed, and the southern one was damaged. Most of the tiles on the upper and lower roofs of the Cathedral were blown away. 52 out of the 56 wooden doors on the sides of the Cathedral flew into pieces. The north-east wing of the Cathedral sunk by 20 cm. Four of the stations of the Cross in the sanctuary were broken, dirt covered all the pillars and beams. We were left disheartened by the disaster, thinking we would have to wait until the war was over before we could repair the damages. But, should we leave the scene in this condition for too long, the gold leaves on the art works would soon disappear. So we decided to start repairing it right away. The decision aroused general enthusiasm, and as a result, the renovation could start as early as the beginning of the month of the Rosary(October 1972). The bomb craters were filled, wood was sawed for the panels of the side doors, and tiles were bought from the surrounding villages to rebuild the roof.

Worshipers from Bùi Chu and Thanh Hoá contributed paddy and rice to feed the workers. In the first three months, some 200 helpful people gathered around the Cathedral to work, most of them unpaid. Wood was recovered from the ruins of the Thượng Kiệm church that had been bombed. It had the largest pillars in the diocese, and could provide all the wood that was needed for the renovation. In their enthusiasm, workers from far away brought with them their own rice supply. Some carpenters worked for months without pay. Despite the aircrafts raiding the area, and constant gunfire, they worked on for three months. Then it was time to rebuild the courtyard and side Chapels. The renovation completed in two years.

This only summerizes the hard work of our forefathers who built this Cathedral and of their children who preserve it with the help of God, our Father. I believe God helped us. Should all eight bombs have followed their foreseen trajectory, the Cathedral would have been directly hit. But the bombs somehow were diviated and fell in empty areas. Was not it the work of God’s helping hands? Because this Cathedral was built by our ancestors’ Faith, God wanted to save it for their children. He protected it from destruction.

Therefore, dear christians of Phát Diệm diocese, we should live in such a way to be worthy of God’s love, and preserve this Cathedral for the future generations, hoping they will be able to celebrate its bicentennial and tricentennial. However, this wooden and stone Cathedral will not last foreveri. It’s only a symbol for the spiritual temple that the missionaries have painstakingly built. Our forefathers have sacrificed even their lives to protect, preserve and pass it on to us. For our part, we have to perpetuate the tradition received from our forefathers, and protect this Holy Temple to pass it on to the future generations. Amen.

 

Appendix

 

THE RESTORATION OF PHÁT DIỆM CATHEDRAL

Phát Diệm Cathedral  is still making a strong impression because of its majesty in spite of the ravages occurring more than one hundred years of its existence through time wear and war damages. This is the reason why Bishop Paul Bùi Chu Tạo exhorted his people during the opening Mass sermon on the Centennial Anniversary of the building of his Cathedral that they had to keep it in good condition.

The restoring work of four side chapels surrounding the Cathedral was done during the years 1980-1989.

In 1994 the Central Historical Monuments Restoration Company came to Phát Diệm Cathedral to asseses its state of repair and to make a report on how to restore the Cathedral  and its bell tower called Phương Ðình which are the most important buildings of the Cathedral complex. When the report was complete, Phát Diệm Bishop’s House immediately started the restoring work of the Cathedral and its bell tower Phương Ðình.

From 1997 hundreds of cubic meters of iron wood (teawood) were hauled from Quảng Bình province and from as far as Laos to Phát Diệm. Then teams of carpenters and chisellers were called in from many regions and set to work uninterruptedly since.

In  1998 the above-mentioned Company was called in again to restore the bell tower Phương Dình with the instruction to be strictly faithful to the original. Then, on July 23th 1999, Bishop Joseph Nguyễn Văn Yến celebrated a solemn Mass, both to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the death of Father Six the pastor of Phát Diệm and the architect of its Cathedral, and to inaugurate the restoring work of the bell tower Phương Ðình. The cost of the restoration amounted to USD 90,000.

With the valuable experience acquired from the restoring work of the bell tower Phương Ðình, the Bishop’s House is now able to perform the restoring work of the Cathedral by itself with the advice of the above-mentioned Company. Toward the end of 1999, the triple tower of the Cathedral was restored to its original beauty. The cost amounted to USD 70,000.

Then, on September 4th 2000, another Holy Mass was celebrated to make a formal beginning of the restoring work of the Cathedral itself. Of course the restoring work of the Cathedral went by the same instruction as for the restoring work of the bell tower Phương Ðình, that is: to be faithful to the original, to change only the parts which had been irreparably damaged and not to replace those pillars which had been consecrated by anointement. On June 17th 2001 after the inauguration of the first Centenary of the foundation of Phát Diệm diocese (1901-2001), the restoring work was complete.

Visitors can now contemplate the bell tower Phương Ðình and the Cathedral with their graceful curved roofs which still keep their pristine grace but now coated with the patina of time.

Now the visitors cannot form an idea of the labour of hundreds of workers and craftsmen who work for five years on end have dismantled the whole framework of the roofs and replaced all the stone or wood parts which were irremediably damaged. They have done so only with their own physical strength because the use of machinery would have been too expensive. They used one thousand cubic meters of iron wood (teakwood). The Bishop’s House assumed the total cost of the restauration work which amounted to six hundred thousand(600,000) US dollars: it was higher than expected.

To sum up, Phát Diệm Cathedral is a Catholic architectural complex most original and most imposing in Việt Nam and, at the same time, a valuable cultural heritage handed down to us from our ancestors. Our ancestors had built it, we their heirs should preserve it carefully to pass it on to our children and grandchildren, so that, as Bishop Paul Bùi Chu Tạo said in the above-mentioned sermon: “in the future our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to celebrate the second Centenary, then the third Centenary of Phát Diệm Cathedral…”


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