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House of persecution reborn at revered Korean pilgrimage site

Gongseri Church is a state-recognized historical and heritage site and one of the most beautiful cathedrals in South Korea
A aerial view of Gongseri Catholic Church in Asan of South Korea.

A aerial view of Gongseri Catholic Church in Asan of South Korea. (Photo: Catholic Times)

Published: April 12, 2024 04:04 AM GMT
Updated: April 12, 2024 04:09 AM GMT

Under a cloudless blue sky, dozens of cherry trees line a driveway to Gongseri Church in Asan, the mother church of Daejoen diocese that stands upright with the legacy of Catholic martyrs who shed blood for their faith in the 19th century.

The Gothic-style red-brick church complex is a major pilgrimage site on a hilly landscape. It welcomes the highest number of pilgrims during spring when they flock to honor the martyrs and missionaries whose sacrifices strengthened the foundation of the Korean Church.

The complex houses the church, a large statue of the Virgin Mary, a museum preserving the church's history and heritage, a shrine dedicated to St. Benedict, the patron saint of the Church, and a memorial monument to 32 Catholics martyred between 1801 and 1873.

Pilgrims who visit the church complex are greeted by the Asan Bay seawall beneath low hills overshadowed by cherry blossom clouds.

The church stands in harmony with a 350-year-old hackberry tree and equally old giant trees. The cross on the bell tower looks even taller against the blue sky.

In addition to its natural beauty, Gongseri Church is a state-recognized historical and heritage site and is hailed as one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the country.

Offensive warehouse to Gospel warehouse

The site where the complex now stands was used a warehouse for storing grain collected as tax from 40 local villages for more than three hundred years during the rule of the Joseon dynasty, which ruled Korea for more than five centuries before Japan colonized the country in the early 20th century.

It was also a place where many Christians were persecuted during the Joseon era, when the rulers viewed fast-spreading Christianity as a threat to the traditional faith influenced by Confucian ethics and a vehicle for Western imperialism.

The museum preserves the memories of the 32 martyrs from Asan who were killed for refusing to recant their faith.

In 1890, Father Pierre Pasquier, a French priest from the Paris Foreign Mission Society (MEP) established the first church at the site with permission from the local authorities.

Gongseri Church was rebuilt on its current site when another MEP missionary priest, Father Émile Debize, arrived in 1895 and spent 39 years in the parish.

‘The Lord called me’

According to Church sources, Catholicism in Korea was rooted even before foreign missionaries evangelized in the country.

The crackdown on Christianity that spanned over one hundred years between the 18th and 19th centuries produced between 8,000 to 10,000 martyrs.

In Gongseri, one of the 32 martyrs, Park Won-seo, reportedly said his martyrdom fulfilled his life.

“All my life, I have not been able to truly honor God, but today the Lord has called me,” reads his testimony on a memorial monument.

The museum, which was renovated in a former rectory, displays the lives and works of martyrs through various exhibits.

The museum also showcases Debize's relics and the special salve he developed and handed down to a local Catholic, John Lee Myung-rae.

Debize developed the formula for the salve and distributed it to people free of charge. He handed down the formula to Lee, his assistant in the church.

The priest developed the formula as many Koreans visited him at the church for treatment for various ailments, including stomach aches, eye infections, and skin diseases. The black ointment became widely popular and was distributed nationwide for years.

Memories of the Korean War

The museum also evokes memories of the Korean War (1950-53) that left an estimated three million people dead and millions more displaced.

It preserves the testimony of Father Joseph Bulteau, the eighth pastor of the church, who refused to leave to escape atrocities by North Korean communist forces, defying the dissuasion of local Catholics.

“A shepherd cannot leave his flock behind,” the priest said. He was reportedly detained, tortured and taken to the North, where he was martyred.

A road to the left of the church leads to a retreat center for the pilgrims. Every day, a Mass is offered to pilgrims in the center.

May is the busiest month for the shrine when azaleas, a particular type of rhododendron, are in full bloom following the cherry blossoms.

During the month, the shrine holds a “Ritual Exhibition” and “Gongseri Eucharistic Procession,” usually presided over by Bishop Augustine Kim Jong-su of Daejeon.

Catholics hail Gongseri Church for playing a significant role in the growth of the Catholic Church in Korea.

Thanks to its spiritual and historical heritage, the church has become a part of popular culture in Korea and beyond.

Gongseri Church has been the setting for about 70 movies and TV dramas in recent decades.

This report is brought to you in partnership with the Catholic Times of Korea.

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