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Friday, 21 February 2014

Hallelujah Korea, Part VI: Yakhyeon Cathedral, Seoul Jung-gu - The Oldest Catholic Cathedral in Seoul

Founded in 1892, Yakhyeon Cathedral (Hanja: 藥峴聖堂) was the first Catholic Church in Korea, built 6 years before Myeongdong Cathedral. Since its tragic destruction by fire in 1998, Yakhyeon Cathedral was refurbished and newly reopened to the public in September 2009. Seosomun Memorial Hall, which was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its foundation, is housed in the precinct of the church. Seosomun Park, where 44 Korean martyrs are buried, is sited close to Yakhyeon Cathedral. The cathedral is located at 447-1 Cheongpa Avenue/Cheongparo, Jungnim-dong 149-2 beonji, Seoul Jung-gu.

Yakhyeon Cathedral was elevated to a parish church under the Archdiocese of Seoul on 9th November 1892 and later changed its name to Jungnim-dong Catholic Church. The church was originally a school, set up in 1887 by Bishop Blanc, the 7th bishop of the Archdiocese of Seoul and priest with the Paris Foreign Missions Society, with the purpose of teaching the doctrine of Roman Christianity and planting the Catholic faith in Korea. On the strength of his expanding congregation and with the permission of Bishop Mutel (8th bishop of the Archdiocese of Seoul) he purchased land to build a church in what was then the Jungnim district. The laying of the foundation stone for this new consecrated parish church was held on October 1891. Construction was eventually completed in September 1892, and on the 23rd April 1893, Bishop Mutel conducted the very first ceremony of consecration of a church in Korea. This fine example of early Gothic style church suffered tragic destruction by fire on 11th February 1998. The main tower and the body of the church were irreparably damaged. After this tragic accident, the church underwent a series of restoration work until it eventually reached its current state. Once again, a ceremony of consecration was held, conducted by Bishop Nicolas Jeong Jinseok on 17th September 2000.

Myeongdong Cathedral is often mistaken as the first Catholic Church ever built in Korea. However, it is actually Yakhyeon Cathedral that is entitled to claim that honor, even though Myeongdong Cathedral was the first parish church under the Archdiocese of Seoul. Thus, Yakhyeon Cathedral is the second consecrated parish church, but was actually built in 1892, 6 years earlier than Myeongdong Cathedral.

Yakhyeon Cathedral was the first Catholic and western style church ever built in Korea. Designed by a priest (Fr. Coast, 1842-1896), this earliest example of Gothic architecture features a 12m wide and 32m long cruciform construction with low arched windows, including a pointed-arch entrance gate and side windows.

Yakhyeon Cathedral has many aspects of historical importance apart from its distinction of being Korea’s first western style Catholic Church. Beautifully constructed, the Gothic style brickwork is renowned for its own aesthetic value as well. The church overlooks Seosomun Plaza where many martyrs were buried, those who died for their faith of Roman Catholicism during religious persecution in Korea. Thus, the church has significance both for its architecture and for the history of the church in Korea.

Since its foundation, the whole structure of Yakhyeon Cathedral has steadily expanded. The spire and bell were set in place in 1905 and the original pillars of the interior were entirely changed in 1921. After renovation in 1974, the church was reduced to ashes by fire. However, it was rebuilt again in September 2000 closer to its 1982 original features.

Yakhyeon Cathedral was named after “a hill of medicinal herbs” in Korean, reflecting the wish that the church would give the benefit of cure to the poor soul. The entrance to the church is at the top of a small hill known as “a prayer hill”, and leading up to it is “the Way of the Cross”, a stone pathway made of 14 individual stones, each representing the symbolic path of Jesus carrying the cross on his shoulders to the crucifixion. The Gothic style of the church is rather modest but graceful and elegant, the sanctity and purity of the church reflected in its architectural characteristics. The interior of the church features a three-part division (nave and pathways on both sides) and three large portals with pointed arch or ribbed vault. In the past there was a screen dividing the naves to separate the genders but not nowadays. A series of renovations has modernized and transformed the church much closer to its original features.