Friday, January 8, 2010

French Cathedral still stands at hilltop in Nha Trang

The Nha Trang Cathedral was built by the French in 1928 and sports a grand clock on its face together with three giant bells (built by the famed Bourdon Carillons Company). To provide a hilltop setting, the top of a mountain was blown off with no less than 500 mines; it was built with steel reinforced concrete with cemented walls. If you visit the Nha Trang Cathedral, you will imagine that you have stepped into an authentic European church. 

Approximately 10% of the population of Vietnam, or about 8 million people, are Christian. The religion came to Vietnam around the 16th century through the missionary works of evangelist European countries. The man responsible for anglicizing the language, Alexandre de Rhodes, facilitated the set-up of permanent missions in major cities. Unfortunately, he fell out of favor with the reigning lords of the time and was thrown out of the country for subversion. The years that followed witnessed great suspicion and prosecution of the Catholic Church, including demolition of worship sites and execution of believers. By the time the French invaded Indochina in the 19th century, they reinstated a very strong foothold with the Church, which became the largest landowner in Vietnam. Catholics were regarded as elite and were favored over non-Catholic Vietnamese, as they were more educated.

As with the rest of Vietnam, the most popular form of transport
 is the motorbike, even for churchgoers.

Fast forward to today. Our cab driver was keen enough to take us all the way up the hill to the entrance. There was a service in progress, and I tiptoed in so as not to disturb the ceremony. Straight ahead, I could see an enlarged photo of the Pope John who had just died (this was in 2006) ; this mass was a commemoration to him, and our timing, as usual, couldn’t have been better. The interior of the building reminded me of Westminster Abbey, with its magnificent arches and stained-glass windows.

Most of the women are in traditional dress, white or beige. There was a special procession going on, led by three men carrying crosses of different sizes; behind them were young women in Ao Dai dresses of different colors. There must have been a special meaning to the order of the colors: the ladies in celadon/white were first, followed by the ones in pink, with the greatest number last in dark blue/white. 

Around the main building were packs of motorcycles that would carry the families back home. I recognized many of the saints’ names as I went from statue to statue around the perimeter of the outer court. A crèche was built into this circle, and aside from the familiar cross, it had offerings, license plates of various origins, potted flowers, and a cascading bougainvillea tree on the top. 

The chant was really beautiful, and during moments of silence, you could hear a pin drop. Urns that are set along the road going up the hill hold the ashes of an exhumed cemetery. 

I noticed that most of the worshipers never smile

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