Visita Iglesia in Taiwan    Nancy T. Lu
The present Holy Rosary Church in Kaohsiung featurs a simplified Gothic style.

Visita Iglesia in Taiwan Nancy T. Lu

(The Philippine Star) - April 2, 2017 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Roman Catholic churches are overwhelmingly outnumbered by 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.

Visita Iglesia in Taiwan opens eyes to how some houses of worship are admired for their historical style and how 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 and 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 and P. Angel Bofurull to Taiwan. The missionaries belonging to the Order of the Preachers set out from Manila, traveling through Xiamen and landing finally in Kaohsiung to begin rebuilding churches in southern Taiwan after a long absence.

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. The fortress-like structure is the oldest Catholic church in Taiwan today.

The exterior of this church rebuilt and completed in 1870 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 Virgin Mary’s palanquin in the altar area 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 built. In May 1860, the church acquired the name of Holy Mother Church. In 1862, a church of bricks replaced it. This became the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Kaohsiung. The image of the Virgin Mary here 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.

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.

Renovation of the Kaohsiung church in 1995 saw wood braces inside, which were purely decorative and not functional, give way to steel replacements. The original church design remained unchanged.

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. 

The beautiful church along with a seminary got bombed and destroyed by the attacking American forces on May 31, 1945. A new and modern church which replaced it was inaugurated on May 31, 1961. Its architectural design was a complete departure from the traditional look of the Roman Catholic church. 

Getting a building permit for the new church in old Taipei was very difficult due to tension across the Taiwan Strait after 1949. But prayers and patience finally brought positive result.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with an underground area has a pitched roof of bronze with exposed braces inside. The altar is made of Italian marble. The mosaic depiction of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in front was added much later. This gathering place of worshippers can accommodate 1,200 people.

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. Priority was given to the use of local materials.

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. The Paris group relied on help from the United States. The Bethlehem Mission Society turned to Switzerland for financial assistance.

Churches are monuments of their builders. Thrust into the limelight in 2010 was the Holy Cross Church in Qingliao, Houbi, Tainan County. Gottfried Boehm, the German winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1986 and a son of one of the most prominent church builders in Germany, was the architect of the landmark Catholic church in southern Taiwan. The pyramid-like design was believed to be his first church project abroad.

Years ago, the original architectural blueprint of the Holy Cross Church 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. He came upon the papers of the church in a dust-covered brown envelope on a table.

Lin tried to photograph the original 1986 manuscripts but his camera jammed. Thus, he took the papers and returned them two months later after copying everything.

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.

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.

The St. John Church on Nanya West Road in Banciao, Taipei County, can be cited as another example. 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 Nov. 25 of the same year.

There are three altars inside. The main one at the center has an image of the suffering Christ. The left one honors the 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 open-air Way of the Cross has marble pieces of sculpture created by Vietnamese artists to inspire prayers. Photos by Nancy T. Lu

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