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Friday, 24 January 2014

Hallelujah Korea, Part III: Myeongdong Cathedral, Seoul Jung-gu - The Second Oldest Catholic Church in Seoul

The Cathedral Church of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception also known as Myeongdong Cathedral (Hanja: 明洞聖堂), is a prominent Latin-rite Roman Catholic church, located at 74 Myeongdong Drive/Myeongdong-gil, Myeongdong 2-ga 1-1 beonji, Seoul Jung-gu, South Korea. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Seoul (천주교 서울대교구/天主敎서울大敎區/Archidioecesis Seulum), Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, the highest Catholic prelate in the country.

The church was originally called the Jonghyeon Cathedral (종현성당, 鐘峴聖堂), and later as simply The Catholic Church (천주교회 天主敎會) during the Japanese occupation. After the Gwangbokjeol, the name was later changed to the Cathedral Church of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception and was colloquially referred to by its congregants as the Myeongdong Cathedral - which is bestowed from the Financial Precinct of Myeongdong.

Dedicated in honor of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the principal patroness of Korea and the Korean people, the cathedral is a community landmark and a notable symbol of Catholicism in Korea. The cathedral church is one of the earliest and most notable examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Korea.

The original church was constructed with twenty types of locally fired red and gray bricks. The main building rises to 23m high, while the steeple, which contains a clock, rises to 45m. It was designated korean Republic National Historic Site #258 on November 22nd, 1977.

The interior of the church is ornately decorated with religious artwork. Stained glass windows depict the Nativity of Jesus and Adoration of the Magi, Jesus with the Twelve Apostles, and the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary. The windows were restored to their original condition in 1982 by artist Lee Nam-gyu.

The crypt of the cathedral lies directly beneath the main altar. The crypt contains the relics of nine Korean Church martyrs. Two of the martyrs' identities are unknown. The remaining five are Bishop Laurent-Joseph-Marius Imbert (the second Bishop of the Church in Korea), Father Maubant, Father Chastan Anthony Kim Sung-woo, and Francis Choi Gunghwan. A special pilgrimage Holy Mass takes place every weekday morning in the Crypt Chapel.

On the 50th anniversary of the consecration of the church in 1948, a French statue of Our Lady of Lourdes bearing the title “the Immaculate Conception” was erected behind the church property. On August 27, 1960, Archbishop Paul Roh Ki-nam consecrated the grotto and dedicated it towards Korean national peace.

Christianity was heavily persecuted in Joseon-era Korea. Still, interest in it grew as an academic novelty, notably among members of the Silhak (실학; "practical learning") school, attracted to what they saw as its egalitarian values. Catholicism gained ground as a belief in the 19th century through the work of French missionaries, the persecutions of whom led to an 1866 French expedition.

After the Joseon dynasty concluded a commercial treaty with United States in 1882, Jean M. Blanc, Bishop of Korea, sought land to build a mission. Under the name Kim Gamilo, he acquired a vacant lot on Jonghyeon, meaning "Bell Hill"; due to its proximity to a temple, Koreans had declined to build there. An education center was constructed, and plans to build a church placed under the supervision of French priest Eugene Coste at the conclusion of a commercial treaty between Korea and France in 1887.

Emperor Gojong-Gwangmu held the ceremony of laying the first stone on August 5, 1892. Construction cost around US$60,000, supported by the Paris Foreign Missions Society. Because of the First Sino-Japanese War, however, and the subsequent death of Fr. Coste, the inauguration of the cathedral was postponed for several years. On May 29, 1898, it was finally dedicated and consecrated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. At its construction, it was the largest building in Seoul.

In 1900, the relics of the Korean Martyrs who died in the 1866 persecution were moved to its crypt from the seminary in Saenamteo Cathedral, Seoul Yongsan-gu.

The Roman Catholic clergy were among the leading critics of South Korea's military rule in the 1970s and 1980s, and Myeongdong Cathedral became a center of Minjung political and labor protest as well as a sanctuary for the protesters; indeed, it was nicknamed the "Mecca" of pro-democracy activists. Catholic and future President Kim Dae-jung held a rally at the cathedral in 1976 to demand the resignation of President Park Chung Hee, and some 600 student-led protesters staged a hunger strike inside in 1987 after the torture and death of university student Park Jong-chol.

The cathedral remains a popular spot for protesters, due to the government's previous disinclination to arrest protesters inside church property. In 2000, the cathedral attempted to officially ban protesters who did not have prior approval after a protest of telecommunications labor unions beat female churchgoers and vandalized church property.

Amidst Korean suspicion and persecution of Christianity at the time, Pope Gregory XVI established the first Apostolic Vicariate in Seoul, Korea in 1831. The community initially survived without the help of foreign Catholic priests, who were unable to come due to anti-Catholic persecutions earlier that year. According to Cardinal Nicolas Cheong Jin-suk, in 1841, Pope Gregory XVI solemnly dedicated the Catholic Church in Korea to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title Immaculate Virgin. Pope Gregory XVI officially declared the Immaculate Conception as the Patroness of Korea and the Korean people in 1864. The church became a planned structural building from this patronage invoked by the pontiff thirty years later in 1894.

On May 6, 1984, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the Blessed Virgin as the patroness of the Cathedral and the Republic of Korea. In his 1984 Apostolic Letter, Pope John Paul II noted that Bishop Imbert (Embert) Bum first consecrated Korea to the Immaculate Conception in 1837, followed by Bishop Jean Joseph Ferréol in 1846 along with Saint Joseph as its co-patron. According to the papal brief, a similar re-dedication of patronage to the Immaculate Conception was invoked on by the French Bishop Gustave Charles Mutel (1854–1933) on May 29, 1898.

This cathedral is accessible by using KORAIL-Seoul Metro Line 4 to Station 424: Myeongdong Station, KORAIL-Seoul Metro Line 3 to Station 330: Euljiro 3-ga Station or Seoul Metro Line 2 by stopping either Station 202: Euljiro 1-ga Station (Euljiroipgu-yeok/을지로입구역/乙支路入口驛 - Entrance to Eulji Avenue) or Station 203: Euljiro 3-ga Station (Transit to KORAIL-Seoul Metro Line 3).