Church Is Nestled In Neighborhood Of Bygone Times

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Church Is Nestled In Neighborhood Of Bygone Times

Behind Seoul Station, toward Ahyun-dong and across the Yeomcheonkyo bridge, there is a small neighborhood that hasn't changed much since the 1970s. On the streets of Jungrim-dong, you can still see old ladies selling vegetables or merchants warming up around a bonfire.

The oldest cathedral in Korea is located in this neighborhood, on top of a hill near the Seosomun gate. Yakhyun Cathedral was built in 1892 by the French priest who later went on to design the Myongdong Cathedral. In fact, Yakhyun Cathedral was the model for Myongdong Cathedral, and its structure, which stands 32 meter high and 2 meter wide and includes a 22 meter-high bell tower, is a miniature version of Myongdong Cathedral.

Although designed by a French missionary John Coste, Yakhyun Cathedral reflected aspects of traditional Korean society. For example, until 1912, when the original brick pillars inside the building were replaced with stone, there was a partition along the center of the cathedral to separate the women from the men. The partition had a hole in the middle, to be used when a couple exchanged rings during a wedding ceremony.

The cathedral was specifically built on the hillside in order to look down at Chamteo, the area where more than 100 Catholics perished during the fourth religious oppression of 1801. The area now stands as a memorial site for the martyrs.

In 1977, Yakhyun Cathedral became the first Catholic church to be designated a national heritage site. The cathedral has been undergoing renovations for the last two years. The bell tower, which was completely destroyed by fire in 1998, has been rebuilt, and the interior of the building, including the pillars and the confessionals, has been reconstructed to replicate the original interior. However, it is hard to feel the church's century-long history when viewing the newly layered bricks of the entrance and bell tower.

Many of the cathedral's original activities have been eliminated as well. The bell tower called "Joseph Gustav Jeanne," which was imported from France and weighs 424 kg, has not been in use since 1893. The cathedral has also limited public use of the main building to Mass or other religious ceremonies.

According to the cathedral's chief priest, Kim Ju-young, the church plans to construct a new road connecting its main building to the street, as well as a "prayer hill" next to the cathedral for worshippers. Yakhyun Cathedral's ultimate goal is to become a well-known pilgrimage site for Korean Catholics.

by Park So-young

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