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Anguished cries as Vietnam loses its Catholic antiques

The Church must do more to retain and conserve the country's rich Catholic cultural heritage

Father Joseph Nguyen Huu Triet

Father Joseph Nguyen Huu Triet

Updated: August 05, 2020 07:51 AM GMT
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Anguished cries as Vietnam loses its Catholic antiques

A vintage wooden statue of an angel carrying a candlestick at the sanctuary in Tan Sa Chau church. Father Joseph Nguyen Huu Triet bought it from a local dealer. (Photo: UCA News)

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Catholicism was introduced by foreign missionaries in northern Vietnam in the early 16th century. Local people creatively built churches blending Western and Eastern styles and produced objects of worship in traditional styles. They helped enrich the country’s architectural, artistic, cultural and historical heritage, which deserves great respect and preservation.

Many churches have ornate altars, tabernacles, ostensories, sculptures and statues. In recent decades, many of those fine objects have been abandoned and replaced with ones made of cement, plaster, aluminum or plastic.

Antique traders purchase such precious religious relics dirt cheap from churches and sell them at high prices. I bought a wooden sculpture with a gilded Latin inscription for US$1,000 from a dealer who had acquired it for only a dozen dollars from a church that had liquidated its old collections. Later I offered the rare sculpture to Bishop Joseph Vu Van Thien of Hai Phong Diocese, who pays much attention to preserving religious antiques.

I also gave him some vintage wooden wardrobes for hanging vestments I bought accidentally, each costing 10 million dong ($430). I could not bear to see old church objects being spirited away.

I also bought a 100-year-old palanquin for the Eucharist in good condition for 33 million dong to save it from antique dealers. The Eucharist palanquin was exhibited at a church museum and later moved to many places. Now I really do not know where it is. I tried to save it but other people disregarded it and let it be lost. Who cares for religious antiques?

Two years ago, dealers brought me a fine pair of three-meter wooden statues of angels carrying candlesticks. A parish did not want the statues and sold them. I had to buy them for 70 million dong and now they are housed at my parish church.

Quite frankly, local priests rather than bishops must take responsibility for losing objects of worship and failing to conserve the local Catholic cultural heritage since they disrespect cultural and religious values of ancient objects.

Very few parishes and dioceses throughout Vietnam run museums to display artistic, historical, cultural and religious objects made by local Catholics.

The country’s largest diocese, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), has a museum of religious artworks and antiques, but it failed to produce intended results. I used to display my collection of 1,000 old candles and lamps in the building. Foreign visitors were interested in the exhibition. Sadly, part of the building was later used for other purposes and consequently many antiques were broken or left lying around. I had to retrieve and store them.

A few Catholics are interested in collecting and conserving old books in Vietnam. The late Father Nguyen Hung, an expert in linguistics, devoted himself to archiving the local ancient bibliography, collecting old Christian books in old Chinese and Vietnamese characters from across the country and in France. His book collection, which is kept at the archdiocese’s museum, is studied by a few people.

Some church leaders are less than enthusiastic about inheriting private libraries from Catholic researchers and intellectuals.

Father Triet displays an old altar at his home in Tan Sa Chau Parish. (Photo: UCA News)

Historical links with ancestors

In 2017, Catholics in Tra Co Parish in Quang Ninh province demolished their old church, which dated back to the 1880s, to build a larger church to meet the needs of local faithful.

Bishop Joseph Vu Van Thien of Hai Phong told me the old church, which boasted wooden columns and sculpted reliefs, had been damaged in the war and repaired in 1995. It was in a bad condition and posed a danger to Massgoers.

Parishioners agreed to build a larger church. Church leaders had no choice but to pull down the old church, though they paid much attention to maintaining the building.

However, there are many other churches that have historical links with our ancestors who established our villages and parishes. Ideally parishes, if they have the wherewithal, should retain their old churches and build new ones nearby to serve their needs.

I remember restoring a church in the 1960s, when my family worked on a rubber plantation in Dong Nam province. The plantation had a church built by the French employers. When they heard of a Vietnamese priest’s plan to widen part of the church, the French employers intervened. They invited engineers from France to examine the building’s condition and to consult local people before making a complete plan to widen the church in accordance with the old building’s architecture and technical aspects, which Vietnamese people often ignore.

Sadly, some old churches that have been repaired or restored without expert advice have had their original architecture and design changed, creating an unsuitable overall impression.

Old cultural objects are persuasive and solid evidence to convey religious values to others. A Chinese Redemptorist brother visited me and admired my collection of antiques. He entreated me to sell him some old Catholic statues.

I asked him what he would use the statues for. “We have a place showing antiques which attracts many people including college students,” he replied.

He said they showed antiques and old statues and pictures and explained their meaning to visitors as an effective way to introduce Christian values to them.

In the cultural and social context of Vietnam, where Catholics only account for 7 percent of the total population of 97 million, doing evangelization work through preserving ancient objects is an effective approach.

Father Joseph Nguyen Huu Triet, head of Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese’s committee for cultural affairs, is a well-known collector of religious antiques. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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