(No.9, Vol.6,Nov-Dec 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
Photo: Nguyen Van Thuong
Photo: Nguyen Sy Dung
From the fires of persecution,
a venerated church arose
Around 1840, as the Nguyen Kings banned Christianity in Vietnam, the Western missionaries moved to the faraway highlands in Kon Tum Province on the Mid-Vietnam plateau.
From Hue Capital through lowland provinces to Kon Tum, they took the 120km long, so-called ‘salt, ceramics and gongs’ trading route. The stretch of road from Quang Ngai to Kon Tum at the time was very desolate, bumpy and perilous.
To evangelize the rustic highland tribes of Kon Tum, the first thing the missionaries did was build a primitive church from trees and leaves. Without knowledge of local languages and customs, they had a lot of troubles. However, with perseverance and patience, the Western missionaries have managed to introduce Christianity to the ethnic minorities here.
In 1913, as more people began turned Christian, Brother Joseph Décrouille, head of Kon Tum parish, decided to build a more robust church. He mobilized the parishioners and their elephants to gather necessary hardwood from the forest.
Having amassed a large amount of wood, he invited famous carpenters from the lowlands to work with local masters. In 1918, the 500-seat wooden church was completed.
Since then, the wooden church had survived two long bloody wars and the harsh Kon Tum weather. In 1995, the wooden church was expanded to double the old capacity. The old and new parts matched well, and the whole structure looks like a huge cross.
Photos: Nguyen Sy Dung
Today, Kon Tum wooden church stands on Nguyen Hue Street of Kon Tum city. Apart from the main building, it has also a 25m tall Cross Tower, a reception house, a showroom exhibiting ethnic and religious products, a typical local tribal communal house, an orphanage, a brocade weaving and sewing shop, and a carpentry workshop.
In the church’s garden, there is a statue of Virgin Maria holding newborn Jesus, made of a single log in the rustic style of Tay Nguyen ethnic tribes.
Culturologists say that Kon Tum wooden church was designed and built in Roman style combined with elements of Tay Nguyen stilted house architecture. The exterior and interior decoration is also a mixture of Western and local ethnic cultures.
The Website of Vietnam Tourism Authority asserts, ‘The Kon Tum wooden church is a masterpiece of architecture, where Romantic style mixes in harmony with Ba Na stilted house model.’
During Christmas, the minority parish artisans use timber, brocades and tree bark to decorate the wooden church in typical Tay Nguyen colours and motifs. In the outdoor space they plant many festive trees – a spiritual symbol of Tay Nguyen peoples’ life.
On High Masses, multitudes of people of Ba Na, Xe Dang, Gia Rai, Ro Mam, B’rau and tribes from deep mountains come to receive God’s grace and blessing. They fill up the church’s 7000m2 premises.
Not far away from the wooden church is the Kon Tum seminary constructed during 1935-1938 by the first bishop of Kon Tum episcopate. Built from precious wood and stones, the seminary has the same style as the church but is much bigger. The upper floor of the seminary has a showroom exhibiting the missionary history of Kon Tum since the mid-19th century, personal items and handwritten documents of priests and missionaries, and images and texts related to the establishment and development of Kon Tum episcopate. Meticulously carved in wood, items showcased at the seminary are very valuable. This can be considered as a small museum of life utensils, farming tools and cultural artefacts of the ethnic minorities living in this province.