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Newly Renovated ´Stone House Church´ Reopens, Raising Catholics´ Hopes


February 13 2007

Local and foreign Catholics who recently witnessed the reopening of a fully renovated Gothic cathedral in southern China expressed hope it would boost evangelization in the area.

Guangzhou diocese´s Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral officially reopened on Feb. 9 after more than two years of renovation. Constructed with large granite blocks in 1888, it is commonly known as "Stone House Church."

More than 1,000 Catholics attended a Mass to mark the occasion, at which Father Joseph Gan Junqiu of Guangzhou diocese presided. Bishop Joseph Liao Hongqing of Meizhou, whose diocese also is in Guangdong province, and 11 priests from Guangzhou and neighboring dioceses concelebrated.

The cathedral, with a floor area of 2,754 square meters, is one of the largest Gothic churches in China. Guangzhou city, capital of Guangdong province, is 1,930 kilometers south of Beijing.

Han Weizhou, who took a day off work to attend the ceremony with his wife and baby, told UCA News on Feb. 9 that he feels the church is now a more comfortable place for worship. The Catholic man added that he feels amazed each time he looks around at the new altar, furniture, stained glass windows and other changes. Masses resumed at the cathedral in mid-December.

In Han´s view, coverage of the formal reopening by the local TV station and newspapers would make more people aware of the cathedral´s existence, which would in turn boost evangelization.

Edith Cahansa from the Philippines, a cathedral choir member who teaches English in the city, agrees, pointing out that the "big church can now accommodate more people." This is especially noticeable, she said, after Massgoers had to squeeze into a temporary 700-square-meter chapel during the past two years.

Cahansa told UCA News she admired the newly installed stained-glass windows that were designed and produced in the Philippines. They contain 98 glass panes portraying Bible stories and saints.

Overall, Church volunteer Li Zhewen told UCA News, the renovation has created "a much, much better environment for evangelization."

He recalled that in the past, the electric wiring inside the church was somewhat messy and some of the light bulbs did not work. The church now has large crystal chandeliers in place of dim light bulbs.

Father Joseph Huang Bingzhang of neighboring Shantou diocese was one of the Mass concelebrants. He recalled that when he was studying at the minor seminary in the cathedral compound in the 1980s, a window pane fell to the ground during Mass. Fortunately, no one was hurt, he said.

"A church is not only for worshiping God but also must be a safe place for the faithful," he told UCA News the day of the reopening.

The priest, who is chairman of the Guangdong Provincial Catholic Patriotic Association, believes the renovated cathedral could raise the profile of the Church in Chinese society. "It is a testimony to Church history," he said.

A Chinese Church worker told UCA News that Catholics are grateful for the government´s support of the renovation, since there are not many Catholics in Guangzhou. Without government funding, the project would not have materialized, she said.

Father Gan, 42, had earlier told UCA News that the municipal government contributed 21 million yuan (US$2.7 million), about 80 percent of the total renovation cost. The diocese contributed 3 million yuan and raised another 2 million from Catholics. Father Gan was recently approved by the Vatican as the bishop-elect of Guangzhou.

The cathedral reopening also attracted some visitors who are not Catholics. Among them was Wang, an elderly man from Shaoguan, in northern Guangdong province. He told UCA News that as a retiree, he had the time to accompany his wife, a Catholic, to travel several hours from Shaoguan to the cathedral, a landmark he had never visited.

The cathedral is open to the public during Mass hours on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. Sunday Masses in Cantonese, English, Korean and Mandarin, as well as weekday Masses, resumed beginning on Dec. 17.

Father Gan said Feb. 9 that besides allowing for pilgrimages, the cathedral might allow sightseeing tours if prior arrangements are made.

Addressing a ribbon-cutting ceremony after the Mass, Kong Shaoqiong, head of the United Front Work Department of Guangzhou, said the renovation project showed the government´s "implementation of its policy regarding freedom of religion and the protection of historical relics."

The government worked with the diocese to devise the comprehensive renovation plan, she said, helping to enlarge the church compound and improve its environment. Kong also said the renewed beauty of the cathedral reflects the government´s concern for the local Church, which adheres to the "independent, autonomous and self-management" principles of the China Church.

Leaders of other major religions also attended the ceremony. Muslim Imam Bao Yaozhong of Huaisheng Mosque in Guangzhou told UCA News that he agrees the renovation project demonstrates the government´s support of religions and the implementation of its religious policy. His mosque, which has a 1,300-year-old light tower, also is a national monument. The local government supports its maintenance.


(Accompanying photos available at here)