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Published: October 27th 2009
Following the French Conquest of Cochinchina and Saigon, the Roman Catholic Church established religious services for the French colonialist in an abandoned Vietnamese pagoda. That was too small so they built a wooden church which was damaged by termites.
In August 1876, the Governor of Cochinchina M. Duperré held a design contest for a new cathedral. Apart from creating a religious building for the Catholics, the cathedral, by some opinion, was also aimed at displaying Christianity and the greatness of French civilization. The design by architect J. Bourad defeated 17 others and was chosen by the contest organizers. J. Bourad's design was in a revised Roman style mixed with Gothic elements. The chosen design was considered the most beautiful one in the French colony at that time.
J. Bourad was also the successful bidder so he was the supervisor of construction.
On 7 October 1877, Bishop Isidore Colombert laid the first stone in an inaugural ceremony to start the construction of the cathedral which lasted three years and was finished on Easter Day, 11 April 1880. A blessing ceremony and ceremony of completion were solemnly organized in the presence of the Governor of Cochinchina Charles Le Myer de Vilers. Just inside
of the main entry gate the granite plate commemorating the start and completion dates and designer can be seen
All of the building materials were imported from France. This is unusual, as Vietnam has great amounts and quality of materials. But this was the 19th century and maybe the qualities of materials were not so good then.
The bricks were from Marseille France. The contractor did not use coated concrete but the bricks have retained their bright red color until now.
In 1895, two bell towers were added to the cathedral, with 6 bronze bells with the total weight of 28.85 metric tonnes. The crosses were installed on the top of each tower of 3.5 m high, 2 m wide, and 600 kg in weight. The total height of the cathedral to the top of the Cross is 60.5 m.
The pipe organ was designed especially for this Church so to have perfect acoustics. Today, I think the instrument to play the pipes has been improved and a new player was installed in 1967 and blessed in 2005.
The foundation was designed to carry 10 times the weight of the cathedral.
Most of the stained glass windows were destroyed during
World War II.
Some broken tiles have been replaced with local tiles with the imprint of “Wang-Tai Saigon.” The original tiles were imprinted with the words Guichard Carvin, Marseille St Andre France.
In the flower garden in front of the cathedral, there was a bronze statue of Pigneau de Behaine (also called Bishop Adran) leading Prince Canh, the son of Gia Long by his left hand. In his right hand is a symbol of the 1787 Treaty of Versailles. The statue was made in France. In 1945, the statue was removed, for what reason and where the statue is today is a good question. My guess is the statue was offensive to some Vietnamese. In 1945, the last Nguyen Emperor, Bao Dai, had abdicated. Ho Chi Minh had declared Vietnam an independent nation. A reminder of French meddling in Vietnam affairs probably was offensive.
The foundation remained. In 1959, Bishop Joseph Pham Van Thien, whose jurisdiction included Saigon parish, attended Holy Mother Congress held in Vatican and ordered a Peaceful Notre Dame statue made with granite in Rome. When the statue arrived in Saigon, on 16 February 1959 Bishop Pham Van Thien held a ceremony to install the statue
on the empty base and presented the title of "Regina Pacis". It was Bishop Pham Van Thien who wrote the prayers "Notre-Dame bless the peace to Vietnam.” On the next day, Cardinal Aganianian came from Rome to chair the closing ceremony of the Holy Mother Congress and solemnly chaired the ceremony for the statue, thus the cathedral was then-on called Notre-Dame Cathedral.
In 1960, the Vatican founded Roman Catholic dioceses in Vietnam and assigned archbishops to Hanoi, Huế and Saigon. The cathedral was titled Saigon Chief Cathedral. In 1962, Vatican anointed the Saigon Chief Cathedral conferred it basilique. From this time, this cathedral was called Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. The Future US President, the Prince and the Missionary and Three Revolutions
Some of my Vietnamese friends talk about their six thousand year history. Of what? Most of that history centers on a small kingdom around Hanoi. When Father Alexandre de Rhodes got to Vietnam around 1630, Vietnam was two small kingdoms in what we know today as Northern Vietnam. What we know as South Vietnam was the Kingdom of Champa. Champa, an entirely different people, different language and customs. As Rhodes pointed out in his book, “The Travels
and Missions of Father Alexander de Rhodes in China and Other Kingdoms of the Orient,” they were almost constantly at war with each other.
For the purpose of this story let us start with the Nguyen Dynasty which came in 1802. This dynasty lasted officially 143 years and it was the first time Vietnam looked much the same as it looks today. It was actually larger because it also included parts of Cambodia and Laos. Before 1802, there were three kingdoms in Vietnam: Cochinchina, the lower part, Annam, the middle and Tonkin, the Northern part.
The first Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty was Nguyen Anh who reigned as Emperor Gia Long. He came from the South. In 1783 the Tay Son brothers defeated him taking Saigon. He was down but not out. He could not raise enough forces on his own to defeat the Tay Son brothers so he dispatched his 5 year old son, Prince Canh and a Catholic missionary Msg. Pigneau known as Bishop of Adran to France to enlist French help. It took the couple two years to get to France but when they arrived the Prince was a sensation in the French Court.
The Prince also
Vietnamese writing when the Cathedral was built
Chữ nôm writing. Used in Vietnam until the early 20th Century. It was replaced with Quốc ngữ the present form of Vietnamese writing.
got the attention of another famous man who was the United States Minister to France, the future President, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had written “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” in 1774. He also wrote the “Declaration of Independence” in 1776, which became an inspiration to the French people in their revolution of 1789-90.
Revolution was not on Jefferson’s mind when he met the Prince. Someone had told him that in Cochinchina they grow six kinds of rice. Three upland which requires only normal rain to grow and three lowland that must stand in water. Jefferson wanted to obtain some seeds of the upland rice from Cochinchina because he knew that growing rice in stagnant water caused sickness. This was before their knowledge of malaria but they did know that stagnant water caused sickness. Prince Canh promised Jefferson he would send him some seeds of upland rice.
In 1788, Jefferson wrote: “I have considerable hope of receiving some rice from Cochin-china, the young prince of that country, lately gone from here having undertaken that it shall come to me. But it will be some time first." I believe this is the first contact between Vietnam and
the United States.
The Prince and Msg. Pigneau were informed that they would be given an audience by the King of France. They persuaded the King to give them the aid. The rest of the French administration was not so easy. Pigneau’s project was undermined from the beginning by the French Minister of Foreign affairs. He was apprehensive about the feasibility of a far away campaign. The French government was bankrupted from overspending and that included their support of the American Revolution.
So the Minister sent secret instructions to the Count of Conway, Marechal de Camp, Commander of French forces in India, and a veteran general of the American Revolution, which gave Conway power to decide on whether or not to go ahead with the expedition.
Conway was hostile to the plan and said: “Pigneau’s plans were “dreams of an exalted mind.””
Pigneau was not to be stopped. He told Conway: “If this is the way it goes, I will make the revolution by myself.” Pigneau was determined to not let his friend Nguyen Anh down.
Pigneau spend 18 months in Pondichery (French colony in India) raising money and building an army and navy. He raised most of the
money from French businessmen. Finally he was ready to set sail. He entered Vietnam near present day Vung Tau and joined with the forces of Nguyen Anh. With their modern weapons and tactics they were able to clear Vietnam of the Tay Son Rebels and unify Vietnam.
Msg Pigneau did not live to see his goals achieved. He died in 1799. He wanted to see a Catholic leader of Vietnam.
After Pigneau de Behaine died at the Siege of Quy Nhon in 1799, Prince Canh made a funerary oration to his former master:
"Alas! We had been so close for so many years, and we lived continuously amid war and troubles (...) You devoted yourself to recover the fortunes of Annam, and, as a consummate strategist, elaborated plans for the defeat of the enemy. The usages of our countries may be different, but our hearts weren't, united as they were in the strongest of friendships."
—Funerary oration of Prince Canh to Pigneau de Behaine, December 1799.
Prince Canh seems to have been baptized secretely towards the end of his life. According to Vietnamese annals:
"When he lived with Master Vero (Pigneau), he was good, pious and religious. After
the passing away of Master Vero, the Prince changed his character, involving himself more in sexual activities with women and drinking. He totally forsake religion. Only when he was near his death, he turned his thoughts to Jesus. He felt repentant and secretely asked a minor Mandarin to baptise him so as no one would ever know.
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