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Catholics On Volcanic Island Sow Seeds Of Faith Among Tourists


June 01 2007

Catholics on Weizhou Island in southern China are actively spreading the Gospel while working with the local tourist industry that promotes sightseeing to their historical church.

The Gothic-style church, which the Paris Foreign Missions Society began to build in 1853, is in a village called Shengtang (grand pond). The project, which took 10 years to complete, used coral stones and volcanic ash available on the island, 2,200 kilometers southwest of Beijing.

The 1,000-square-meter church stands on China´s largest volcanic island, about 20 nautical miles south of Beihai, a city in Guangxi province on the mainland. Three volcanic eruptions in the distant past formed the 24-square-kilometer island, which is part of Beihai Catholic diocese. Beihai city, a busy port during the 19th century, administers Weizhou.

Father Francis Wang Weidong, the diocesan administrator, told UCA News in early May that ever since Weizhou´s only tourist agency decided to include Shengtang as a scenic spot several years ago, Catholics have taken the opportunity to spread the Gospel to visitors.

"Tourists usually pray when they enter the church because many Chinese ask deities for favors in the worship places they visit, regardless of religion," said Father Wang, 43. "We just try our best to sow the seeds of faith, and let God make them bud," added the priest, an ethnic Jing.

Sister Chen Zhenxiang, a diocesan-based nun belonging to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception community, told UCA News that Weizhou´s famous volcanic rocks attract 100-200 visitors every day, and as many as 1,000 people a day during long holiday periods.

Five lay Catholics serve as tour guides at the church. They are not trained, so they sometimes use audio tapes to introduce the church and explain Church doctrine to visitors, said Father Wang, one of just two priests in the diocese.

Huang Xizhen, 73, a lay leader of the church in Shengtang, told UCA News that local Catholics have put on sale hymnbooks and pamphlets containing a simple Catholic catechism, and also broadcast hymns to the tourists.

According to a contract the local Church signed with the tourist agency a few years ago, 40,000 yuan (US$5,100) is given annually to maintain the church and the smaller, more remote Our Lady Church in another village on the island, Huang said. In 2001, China´s State Council listed both churches and some contemporary buildings in Beihai as protected historical or cultural sites.

Before signing the contract, the government gave permission to Weizhou´s Catholic community to collect entrance fees at the church in Shengtang.

Huang pointed out that about 3,000 Catholics live in several villages on the island but the Church has few leaders because young people have been leaving to work in Beihai city since the 1990s. A daily scheduled ferry links Weizhou with the city, a three-hour ride.

Given Weizhou´s remoteness and the small number of priests in the diocese, Masses are celebrated on the island only on feast days. Father Wang last did so in early April for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, Huang said.

Local people who frequent the church are mainly elderly. According to Father Wang, about 100 Catholics meet to read the Gospel together on Sundays and around 10 usually gather to pray at the church on weekdays. The priest added that Huang, who is a former seminarian, leads their sharing.


(Accompanying photos available at here)