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Shanghai´s Byzantine Church Reopens, Attracts Catholics And Others


June 24 2008

A newly reopened church in a Shanghai suburb, right next to some tiger cages, attracts hundreds of Catholics every week, who try to remember their ancestors and build a new Church community.


The newly reopened Byzantine Xiyan Church

The government returned Xiyan Church to Shanghai diocese this year, after confiscating it four decades ago. The church, built in 1931, formerly managed a Catholic cemetery in its yard, but the government did not return this.

Located in the western part of Shanghai, near the Hongqiao airport, the church is a 30-minute car ride from downtown.

About 300 Catholics attend Mass here every Saturday afternoon, the only Mass the church has offered since it reopened months ago.

Bonnie Gu comes to Mass with her mother. The young woman told UCA News in late May that since the church reopening her family no longer has to travel a long distance to church.

A retired layman, surnamed Bao, told UCA News the church not only caters to the religious needs of Catholics in the neighborhood, particularly the elderly, but also draws Catholics like him, who live downtown.

Bao, a catechist, said he wants to help build a new church community here. He explained that he and other Catholics whose ancestors were buried in the cemetery here feel like respecting those ancestors by coming regularly.

The concrete-reinforced Xiyan Church, formerly known as Assumption Church, was built in Byzantine style, a rare church architectural style in mainland China. With a round cupola but Gothic lancet windows, it has a capacity for 300 people. A tetragonal bell tower stands beside the church.

Most old mainland churches were built in Baroque or Gothic styles.

Opposite the church, a single-story house that once contained a mortuary and a chapel for funeral liturgies is now called the "Home of Laypeople" and provides rooms for gatherings and activities.

However, Bao noted, apart from the Saturday Mass and a catechism class, the Xiyan Church has no other activities, because it has no resident priest.

According to lay leader Zhao Dehua, Catholics in the vicinity used to live in Beigu, a Catholic village. After Beigu was relocated due to city development, these villagers moved further away and some no longer go to church on Sundays, he told UCA News.

Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai presided over the Mass to officially reopen Xiyan Church on April 5, the traditional Chinese Qingming Festival for which people visit and clean their ancestors´ graves. Sixteen priests concelebrated the liturgy, which drew nearly 1,000 Massgoers, some of whom came to pray for their ancestors, according to a report on Shanghai diocese´s website.

Shanghai lay leaders started the Catholic cemetery as the number of faithful increased along with Shanghai´s growth as a commercial center after the port opened to foreign powers in the late 19th century.

Eight black-and-white pictures of the church premises including the 4.2-hectare cemetery, taken in 1956, now hang inside the church. The cemetery was confiscated and all the graves were dug out during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).


Inside the newly reopened Byzantine Xiyan Church 

The Shanghai zoo has bordered the church since the 1970s.

The diocese has struggled for two decades to regain the church, but the former cemetery is unlikely to be returned, according to an elderly Shanghai priest whose relatives were buried there.

Li Fengyi, 56, doorkeeper of Xiyan Church, told UCA News that before the church was returned it was used as a zoo warehouse, right next to a tiger breeding ground, but the church architecture was preserved well.

Today, an enclosing wall separates the tiger cages and the church courtyard, but people can still see the tigers through narrow gaps between the wall and a side gate of the church.

The Shanghai municipal government classified the Xiyan Church as "Heritage Architecture" in 1994.

Even though the church is closed on weekdays, its unusual design has drawn many local and foreign visitors, including some architecture students and teachers. "When people knock at the church door, I show them around and tell them about the Catholic faith," Li said.