Guangzhou (AsiaNews) – Guangzhou’s historic Sacred Heart Cathedral, the only granite Gothic church in mainland China, is scheduled to reopen on February 9, after more than two years of renovation work, paid almost entirely from the coffers of the provincial Communist government.
The occasion will be marked by a liturgical celebration tomorrow morning, at 8:30 am, in the presence of numerous faithful as well as officials from the municipal and provincial governments.
The cathedral is located in downtown Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, and is commonly known as the Shishi or Stone House Church because its walls and pillars were built with large granite blocks. Over the years it has become a major point of interest for Chinese and foreign worshippers and tourists.
Full-scale renovation began in July 2004. It included replacing the roof, cleaning and repairing the granite walls, and reinstalling a mechanical clock and bronze bells in the two bell towers. The lighting, sound system and furniture were upgraded and more greenery was planted in the church compound. Its stained glass windows were replaced with new ones from the Philippines. They depict Bible stories and saints. Beside the altar are a pair of windowpanes portraying Italian Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Catholic Chinese imperial official Paul Xu Guangqi (1562-1633), Ricci’s first baptised Chinese.
A local Catholic points out however that the windows “have a major flaw. Their titles are in English and not in Chinese. It is a real pity.” Another worshipper is more philosophical. “It is actually nice to think that for these windows the Churches of China and the Philippines got in touch with one another.”
The Shishi is one of China’s most beautiful Catholic buildings. Earth from Rome and Jerusalem was used in the foundations as a symbol of the faith’s universality and its link to Rome.
A local clergyman told AsiaNews that the Cathedral’s new appearance will “help in evangelising because many people who saw the renovation on TV will be drawn to such an important historic place.”
The Church is also a focal point for the city’s expatriate community. Many foreigners have in fact settled in Guangdong province, China’s wealthiest region. Sunday masses will be in Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, English and Korean.
As a way to show its openness and generosity, the city government has contributed 21 million yuan (US$ 2.7 million), about 80 per cent of the total renovation cost of 26 million yuan. The diocese, despite a tight budget, contributed 3 million yuan and raised another 2 million from Catholics. As way to thank donors a commemorative plate in their honour will be unveiled inside the church.
In 1996, China's State Council listed the cathedral as a national historical monument. Construction began in 1863 and was completed in 1888, 25 years later. It was inspired by Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but the architects incorporated two additional 60-metre-tall bell towers on either side. With a floor area of 2,754 square metres, the Guangzhou cathedral is one of the largest Gothic churches in China.
The church suffered severe damage during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Civil War between Kuomintang (nationalist party) and Communist troops.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), some red guards destroyed stone pillars and all the fixtures in the cathedral such as altars, furniture and statues of saints. The church was then used as a warehouse. But it returned to its original vocation after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1979.
On the wall behind the main altar are traces of the Cultural Revolution, which are being preserved as a testament to China's history. After bricks had been removed and the wall washed, huge slogans in red paint were revealed such as “Long live Chairman Mao” and the “Working class must exercise leadership of everything.”