Renowned author Graham Greene once famously described Phát Diệm Cathedral as “more Buddhist than Christian”. The Cathedral is a stunning blend of East and West architecture, culture, art and religion located in the southern district of Kim Son in Ninh Binh province.
Local workers chiseled, transported, and shaped local mountain rock to build the core structure of the cathedral as a testament to the glory of God and human inventiveness. Although the official date of its consecration was 1892, in reality, it took some 24 years between 1875 and 1899 to complete its construction. The cathedral, known locally as “the Stone Church,” is entirely made of limestone.
The Cathedral complex covers 22ha and includes several grottoes, an impressive 4 ha lake, immaculately maintained gardens and a multitude of statues, carvings and relief work. The work was designed and driven by one Fr. Tran Luc (1825-1899) whose grave is found in the fore-court of the cathedral.
Father Tran Luc, originally known as Tran Van Huu, was from nearby Thanh Hoa province and went by many names during his life. Despite being neither an architect nor a builder, he successfully turned his dream into reality as one of the most beloved and admired Cathedrals in all of Vietnam. Parishioners of Phat Diem colloquially called him Cu Sau (Uncle Six). Some thought of him as a turncoat for his close alliance with the French Colonial forces. However, he overcame all odds to achieve his vision.
The Cathedral’s most notable feature is its construction solely from stone and wood. However, it also distinguishes itself by adhering to traditional Vietnamese architecture for temples, pagodas, and palaces. Inside the Cathedral, the ornate altar, adorned with gold, is reminiscent of the style of a Roman basilica, but with a distinctly Vietnamese flavor.
Currently, the Ninh Binh provincial government is working with Japanese researchers to complete an application for UNESCO, proposing the unique architecture of Phat Diem and its remarkable history as deserving of listing as a world cultural heritage site. In the meantime, it is rated as one of the most beautiful churches in the country and often referred to as the “Catholic capital of Vietnam”.
A Troubled Beginning
Located around 120km south of Hanoi and perhaps 30km from Ninh Binh City center, Father Peter Tran Luc practiced during a time of heavy repression of the Catholic Church by local rulers. Indeed, in 1857, four consecutive decrees prohibiting the religion were issued by King Tu Duc after incursions by French forces at Da Nang. The Vinh Tri minor seminary where Fr Tran Luc studied was razed to the ground as were several other Catholic institutions and many Catholic Vietnamese were martyred.
Fr. Tran Luc and his brother were exiled for a time in Lang Son but on his return in 1865, he was appointed by Bishop Jeantet Khiem as the parish priest of the three small districts to the south of Hanoi and several years later, in 1871, he organized his parishioners to build a small church in Trung Dong village, in what is now known as Yen Mo district of Ninh Binh Province.
In 1873, Francis Garnier a French Naval Officer and Explorer, attacked Hanoi and occupied Nam Dinh, Ninh Binh, Hai Duong and Hai Phong, precipitating the Tonkin Incident where French forces attacked and conquered the Hanoi Citadel. Fr Tran Luc was part of the negotiating party which saw France withdraw, the Citadel reclaimed and Garnier to lose his life.
Finally finding favour with the Vietnamese court, Fr Tran Luc moved the parish headquarters to Phat Diem and, receiving funding from both Hanoi and the French, began construction of what would eventually become the Phat Diem Cathedral. In 1901, Phat Diem Cathedral was named as the Bishopric of Thanh Diocese, which later changed to the Phat Diem Diocese.
To realize the construction, wood needed to be obtained from Nghe An, Thanh Hoa and Son Tay provinces. The base stonework is from rock taken from Thien Duong Mountain some 30km distant from Phat Diem while the more unusual decorative stone was transported from Nhoi mountain in Thanh Hoa province, a further 60km away. The majority of the raw wood and stone was loaded onto local rafts and barges then transported down river where they waited for the tide to rise before unloading them at the wharf.
It is said that this massive undertaking to god and country was an attempt by Fr Tran Luc to garner harmony between Catholicism and the nation’s architecture and to show the solidarity of Catholicism with Vietnam culture and history. A remarkable achievement by a remarkable man.
The Cathedral complex consists of several important features. Approaching the church from Phat Diem town, you would be hard pressed to miss the 4ha rectangular lake surrounded by stone embankments and in the middle, a man-made island which houses a large stone statue of Jesus.
Continuing on is the Phuong Dinh Bell Tower, also known as the “Square House”, a three storey building 25 meters high, 17 meters wide and 24 meters long completed in 1899. Often considered a masterpiece of the complex, Phuong Dinh was constructed using heavy stone and wood, carted from some 40km distant at a time when motorized transport was unknown.
With four “turrets” and a central tower topped with the high pointed tiled “boat” roofs typical of Vietnamese pagodas, together with the stylized statues of four saints in each of the turrets and the iconic “triple gate” arches of traditional Vietnamese architecture, Phuong Dinh can easily be mistaken at first glance for a Vietnamese stupa or pagoda.
The lower floor is paved in large green stone slabs, with a man-made grotto as its center piece and the walls adorned with masterful stone reliefs of the journey of Jesus into Jerusalem. The second floor of Phuong Dinh hangs a large drum, the Vietnamese equivalent of a bell which sounds in times of trouble, jubilation or warning.
The Phat Diem Bell
The third floor hangs the building’s eponymous bell – 1.4m high, 1.1m in diameter and weighing nearly 2000kg. Cast to order in 1890 it is rung twice daily, at 5am and 5pm, to call the faithful to prayer. Phuong Dinh is also famously tied to the author of “the Quiet American”, Graham Green who used the tower to survey the infamous and bloody battle between the French colonial forces and the Viet-Minh resistance at Phat Diem in December 1951.
The Cathedral itself, a massive 74m long wood and stone structure, was originally consecrated in 1891 as the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. With four roofs and five entrances under carved stone arches, inside there are 6 rows of solid ironwood columns (48 in total). The center two rows are some 11m high and 2.35m in circumference, each milled from a single tree and estimated to weigh about around 7 tons.
The main focus of the cathedral is a large altar made of a single piece of ironwood, approximately 3m long, 1m wide, 1m high, weighing in at around 20 tons and carved with flowers representing the four seasons – a spectacular achievement of logistics, artistry and beauty in itself.
On either side of the church there are four more, smaller chapels independent of the main building but using similar materials and style. The Church of the Immaculate Heart was the first church built on the site, commenced in 1883 and completed in 1889. Situated to the North East of the cathedral, it was constructed entirely from local stone and so gained the local name of the “Stone Church”.
Further chapels were built as time went on – Saint Roco’s Church (1895) is at the southeast, Saint Joseph’s Church (1896) in the Southwest and Saint Peter’s Church (1896) to the northwest. All are constructed with local stone and, bar the “Stone Church”, from massive ironwood beams and carved fittings.
Three artificial caves (grottoes) were constructed some 100m apart to the north of the church, with careful attention to maintain a “natural” aspect. In keeping with the Vietnamese tradition of “water in front, mountains behind”, each are encased in artificial “mountains”.
The oldest of the three is Burial Mountain (later the name changed to Birthday Mountain) which was built in 1875. The second and reportedly the most popular is Mount Lourdes. Originally named the Garden of Gethsemane, it was constructed in 1896 and renamed in 1925. Skull Mountain is the final edifice, built in 1898 and originally called the cave of Bethlehem. In 1957, a statue of the Crucifixion was erected and it gained the name Skull Mountain.
Over the past 130 years, Phat Diem Cathedral has survived many wars and natural disasters to remain a place of worship for local and foreign Catholics, preserving a unique and beautiful meld of Western Religion and Eastern Architecture. Visitors are free to visit and take photos however, like any place of worship, should take note of the following:
- Dress modestly, appropriate for the sacred place.
- Do not gather in large numbers, laugh and talk loudly, affecting the solemn and nostalgic atmosphere of the church.
- If you take pictures, check that they are in accordance with local customs and traditions, without infringing on the relics.
It is also recommended to wear sports shoes to be able to walk around the large grounds of the Cathedral complex and to carry accessories like hats, sunglasses and umbrellas to protect against the sometimes willful climate.
The usual assortment of tours, taxis, buses and Grab rides are available but it is a considerable distance from Ninh Binh city so prices will reflect that. Self-drive by motorbike or car is easy along a busy main road. There are a number of cafe and restaurant in the nearby bustling town of Phat Diem and several souvenir and small good shops within the cathedral grounds. Be aware that the Cathedral is very much still a place of religion and the main chapels are not open to tourists although entry is possible for the faithful during the posted signs for mas and other religious services.