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Vietnam priest rekindles religious, cultural values via antiques

Father Joseph Nguyen Huu Triet seeks to preserve national culture for younger generations

UCA News reporter, Ho Chi Minh City

UCA News reporter, Ho Chi Minh City

Published: May 17, 2021 04:49 AM GMT

Updated: May 17, 2021 05:24 AM GMT

Vietnam priest rekindles religious, cultural values via antiques

Father Joseph Nguyen Huu Triet with his antique collection at his parish house in Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo: UCA News)

Father Joseph Nguyen Huu Triet spends his spare time hunting for genuine antiques at antique shops and flea markets. He also buys them from antique dealers and collectors of used items.

He collects various relics of bygone eras — from jewelry, bricks, tiles, carts, furniture, china, oil lamps, scales and books to religious statues, pictures, drawings and objects. All of them are at least 50 years old, while some go back thousands of years.

His parish house behind Tan Sa Chau Church on a busy street in Ho Chi Minh City is packed with antiques.

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The priest, who is always dressed casually, cherishes and treats old items covered with dust, especially various crosses made of bronze, silver and ivory, and wood altars dating back hundreds of years. He looks at them and studies their qualities on a regular basis.

“I do my utmost to imbue antiques with religious, cultural, historical and aesthetic values to provide them for younger generations as they show us lifestyles and technical skills of bygone ages and particular areas,” the head of Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese’s committee for culture ninistry said.

The 76-year-old priest, who admired his father for treasuring sets of Chinese ancient tea cups and hookahs, began collecting antiques in 1994 after an elderly priest left him some Catholic statues and pictures and glass lamps.

In 1982, King Bao Dai was given this cross by a Vietnamese French person after he was baptized and married Monique Baudot

The parish priest of Tan Sa Chau, home to 5,000 Catholics, said he interacts with other local antique dealers and collectors to learn from their experiences to spot fake antiques.

Father Triet said he has not bought new clothes for years and has to tighten his belt to buy antiques. “I could not afford many old items such as a pot of slaked lime dating back to the 13th century costing US$2,000, precious statues and pictures of saints made of ivory hundreds of years old.”

The priest, who was ordained when he was 27, has a valuable collection of 40 old crucifixes of various sizes, made of wood, ivory, bronze and silver. Among them is a cross inlaid with nacre which used to be owned by King Bao Dai (1913-97), the last king of Vietnam. The king lived in exile in France in the late 1950s until his death in 1997.

“In 1982, King Bao Dai was given this cross by a Vietnamese French person after he was baptized and married Monique Baudot. Later Monique offered it to Father Paul Nguyen Van Duong, and later he gave it to me,” he said.

The priest, who was born in Hai Duong province, said he has the oldest crucifix made from ivory in Europe. It dates back 200 years.

Father Triet owns a collection of lamps made between 50 and 2,500 years ago, amassed over decades. Lamps were lit with peanut oil, animal fat and kerosene. He set the national record lamp collection in 2005.

“My collection consists of over 1,500 lamps made from bronze, silver, glass, pig iron, antimony, aluminum, iron, porcelain, terracotta and wood. The oldest lamp was made of terracotta, 2,500 years old and from Vietnam. All of them from 17 countries have various forms and sizes,” he said.

He used to exhibit his lamp collection — named “Light of All Peoples” — at a church-run exhibition center in Ho Chi Minh City. His rare collection is recorded by Vietnam Records Books Center.

“Lamps are light. Fire always symbolizes the light of humankind in all ages. I intended to collect lamps which are close to human life. All people need lamps and light from lamps. Young people today do not know what shapes of oil lamps are, so they fail to experience the lives of bygone generations who used oil lamps. I keep old lamps for all people to come to contemplate,” he said.

The Antiques Society based in Ho Chi Minh City highly appreciated the priest’s oil lamp collection that contains all kinds of lamps of different ages and from various cultures. “We would know little about the cultural and social lives our ancestors experienced without those relics from the past,” it said.

Father Triet has also collected thousands of old books published from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Among them is a collection of 27 versions of Truyen Kieu or The Tale of Kieu in old Vietnamese characters, and many other versions translated into Vietnamese, French, English, German, Korean and Romanian. He has 1,700 books, newspapers and magazines on Truyen Kieu, which was written by Nguyen Du (1765−1820) and is regarded as the most significant poem in Vietnamese literature.

Among his prized possessions is an original copy of Divers Voyages et Missions by Jesuit Father Alexandre de Rhodes, published in Paris in 1653. “I had to sell some of my private possessions to get the book,” he said.

For me, collection is my joy and I get greater joy when I find old items I like

Father Triet said old books contain lively histories and should be treasured as a way to make valuable contributions to conserving national culture treasures which are gradually lost due to ignorance. Taking care of old books means showing deep gratitude to bygone generations.

The priest has other rare items such as bronzes, china objects, statues of famous people and oil paintings by well-known painters.

Sitting at an old wooden table, Father Triet said his favorite hobby aims to express gratitude to ancestors and to preserve the national culture for younger generations. “For me, collection is my joy and I get greater joy when I find old items I like,” he said.

He said he previously bought four pieces of a rare bronze statue of Petrus Truong Vinh Ky (1837-98), a Catholic scholar who was fluent in a dozen Asian and European languages and had considerable expertise in linguistics, history, geography, dictionaries, textbooks, art, culture and literature. He joined the pieces together and erected the 241-kilogram statue in the compound of the exhibition center near St. Joseph Major Seminary in Ho Chi Minh City.

“I hold Ky in deep respect as he is the pride of our nation. He tried his best to teach the national language and patriotism to the people, and he made great contributions to Vietnamese literature,” he said.

In 2010, Nguyen Hanh, deputy editor of Xua va Nay, a state-run history magazine, had a copy of it cast and offered it to a high school in Ky’s home province of Ben Tre.

Father Triet said he offers many of his antiquities to local dioceses to preserve and study.

“I will donate all my valuable collections of period pieces to the local Church so that all people can learn from them,” he said.

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