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St Mary's gets centennial makeover

Celebrations for a much-loved cathedral

St Mary's gets centennial makeover
Mass is celebrated at the refurbished St Mary's Cathedral in Yangon to mark its centennial anniversary (photos by Christopher Davy)
Christopher Davy, Yangon

December 1, 2011

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Yangon’s Catholic community came together en masse on November 29 to celebrate the centenary of St Mary’s Cathedral and the conclusion of a three-year renovation project that has restored the building to its original condition. With her three sisters, Magaret Jozef has been a member of the church’s congregation for more than 20 years. She volunteered to assist in the collection of offerings and said that the various teams of volunteers began preparations for the opening ceremony, service and outdoor parade about three months ago. “We are very proud to be able to participate in this centenary because we will not be alive when it reaches to 200 years. It’s a grace of God to give us life in this period,” she said. Father George, a spokesman for the cathedral, said the centenary upgrades were extensive, including new stained glass, a repainted interior and exterior, replacement of the sound system and electric wiring, and the improvement of water facilities. Construction work on the cathedral began in 1895 when the first of hundreds of hardwood piles were sunk into the swampy earth at the site’s location on the corner of Bo Aung Kyaw and Bogyoke Aung San roads in Yangon’s Kyauktada Township. However, construction didn’t gather pace until Bishop Alex Cardot and Father Hendrick Janzen arrived in Yangon from Europe in 1898 bearing a revised plan for the cathedral drawn up by Dutch architect Joseph Cuypers. A difficult build ensued, given the lack of experience in the Burmese construction industry. Major concern was caused when the cathedral towers sank two feet after construction. The towers stabilised a year later, making possible the addition of the two 86-foot spires. Father George said that despite these early setbacks, the cathedral has remained remarkably resilient. It suffered only minor damage during an earthquake in 1930 but was “severely damaged by a bomb explosion during the [Second World] war, destroying much of the stained glass.” Although this was replaced by locally produced glass, further damage was inflicted in 2008 when “Cyclone Nargis blew off part of the roof and broke glass. We carried out emergency repairs at that time,” he said. The tarpaulin sheets covering the windows and tired appearance of the exterior made renovation work a major priority in the run-up to the centenary. The centrepiece of the three-year renovation is the restoration of stained glass windows throughout the cathedral. A total of 88 windows have been replaced, based on designs by Thai artists. The windows are in keeping with the cathedral’s neo-Gothic design and include, among others, pictures of the 12 Apostles, mysteries of the Rosary and vignettes from the life of Christ. Windows above the entrance of the cathedral also pay respect to the French missionary bishops that were instrumental in the cathedral’s planning and construction. Although the cathedral trustees have declined to reveal publicly how much money has been raised in donations or the total cost of the work carried out, the renovation appears to have satisfied most churchgoers. [caption id="attachment_36740" align="aligncenter" width="465" caption="Catholics taking part in a procession to mark the anniversary"][/caption] Having rushed to the celebration after work, Philip San Aung, one of the church’s youth members, said he was happy to see the Catholic community draw together for such a special occasion. “When I see so many people coming from other cities I feel happy,” he said, as members spilled out of the cathedral following the main service, which was followed by a candlelit parade of a statue of the Virgin Mary. “When we come to this place and see the decorations, I feel like I’m having an experience that I’ll never forget. Although we hold some festivals every year such as Christmas, we never decorate this much. ” One of the more unusual tweaks to the cathedral’s façade is the placement of an LED light behind the statue of the Virgin Mary, which stands above the center of the building. Such fixtures are more commonly seen behind statues of Buddha in the country. “I think the rays on the head of Mary’s statue can make us feel the power of her benevolence. Also, the rays make the statue more visibly distinct so I hope more people will notice it than before,” said Margaret, who tailored the costumes for the female ushers serving in the centenary celebration. “I’m so happy to be able to participate in this centenary by virtue of my skills, although I wasn’t able to offer a donation,” she said. Margaret added that the cathedral’s renovation was symbolic of a deeper need for change. “One thing I would like to say … is that we need to renovate not only the building but also our minds.”
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