The Catholic Church of Chanthaburi

The Catholic Church of Chanthaburi

The Catholic Church on Chanthanimit Road on the river bank is the largest Catholic edifice in Thailand. Built in 1909, it is of Gothic architectural style. The original tall roof was taken down during World War II to make it less conspicuous as a possible target.

Views of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception statue in the Chanthaburi Roman Catholic Cathedral

The statue is special as it is a gift to the church from the Chanthaburi Christian gems dealers and goldsmiths community. It is one of the older communities in Chanthaburi composed mostly of people Vietnamese origin. Their ancestors were coming from Vietnam in several waves: The first one was about 200 years ago when Vietnamese Catholics were trying to escape the religious persecutions of the Vietnamese emperors. The second was during the French colonial times when Vietnamese people fled the French controlled Indochina and came to settle in Thailand and finally after 1975 and the Communist victory in Vietnam.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is the largest church in Thailand. It was built in Chanthaburi during the nearly 10 years of French occupation of Chanthabun (now Chanthaburi) from 1893 to 1904. It was completed in 1909 after Chanthaburi to have been returned to Siam (1904) by the French III republic.

The statue of the Virgin Mary is nearly completely covered with gold, gemstones and enamels… The blue of her cloak is composed of several thousand blue sapphires originating from Thailand (Chanthaburi and Kanchanaburi). Her white dress is made of hundreds of white sapphires from Sri Lanka. Here of there her clothes are also decorated with several rubies from Thailand, gold and green enamels.

She is standing on a green globe where the oceans are again a mosaic of blue sapphires from Thailand while the land masses are composed of hundreds of yellow and orange (probably beryllium treated…) sapphires from Songea (Tanzania) and few yellow and orange sapphires from Chanthaburi highly appreciated here as “butsarakam”.

If you stand on Niramon Bridge, which connects the communities on the east and west banks of the Chanthaburi River, you’ll soon spot a remarkably elegant Gothic-style building that’s one of the principal landmarks in Chanthaburi province.

Standing amid traditional wooden Thai houses, the European-style building’s rich history dates back almost 300 years, which was when Chanthaburi’s Catherdral of the Immaculate Conception, the largest church in Thailand, was originally established in a rather more modest form.

A Safe Haven
The history of Roman Catholicism in Chanthaburi province began in 1707 when 130 Vietnamese Christians migrated and settled in the area during the reign of King Sanphet VIII (1703-1709) after facing religious persecution in southern Vietnam.

The newly-established Catholic community began construction of its first Roman Catholic place of worship on the western side of the river in 1712 during the reign of King Sanphet IX (1709-1733) under the watchful eye of Father Nicolas Tolentino, a Filipino, who became the first abbot of the abbey.

Following an internal conflict, the community was ordered to relocate to Ayutthaya. After 20 years active service, the cathedral was abandoned for 20 years (1732-1752), during the reign of King Baromakot (1732-1758).

Following the appointment of Father De Cauna as abbot in 1752, the chapel underwent a renovation. This was fairly basic in terms of the construction work, featuring the use of bamboo, along with dried palm leaves on the roof structure.

Firm Foundations
The next major changes took place during a period when Father Mathias Do and Father Clemanso were responsible for the well-being of the Catholic community.

At some point during the period 1834-1855, the community’s place of worship was relocated and reconstructed on the eastern bank of the river. The remains of previous abbots, including Father Nicolas Tolentino, Father Gabriel and Father De Cauna were subsequently relocated and reburied at the site of the new building.

Since the Catholic community in the area now numbered more than 1,000, the new chapel was much larger and the materials used were more permanent, switching from a wooden – to a cement-based structure during the period 1855-1876. Nevertheless, the beautiful Gothic structure you will see today – the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception – is the result of the most recent construction effort, which took place in 1905.

Classical Features
Built in a Gothic architectural style, the building includes ogive (arches with a pointed apex), a popular feature that adds to the perception of height and is a notable feature of Gothic cathedrals.

Measuring 60 meters in length by 20 m (width), the cathedral features two towers, one on each side of the building’s façade. If you climb to the top of the towers, you’ll enjoy an impressive vista of the town of Chanthaburi and its immediate surroundings.

The left tower includes a large clock that was added to the building in 1909. In 1926, three bells were installed within the same tower, the largest weighing in at 650 kilograms. The gables above the towers were removed in 1940 due to the Franco-Thai war (October 1940-May 1941).

2008: The Diocese of Chanthaburi has an area of 34 thousand km2 and covers eight provinces*. Out of a population of over four million people, Catholics are more than 38 thousand. There are 87 diocesan priests, 15 priests, 21 men and 202 women religious.

*Chanthaburi, Chonburi, Prachinburi, Rayong, Sa Kaeo and Trat, as well as the parts east of the Bang Pa Kong River in Chachoengsao, and Nakhon Nayok except the district Ban Na.

A community of Thai Catholics in the province is organising activities to keep in touch with their cultural roots dating back three centuries.

A study chronicling events in the Catholic community shows most Thai Catholics in Chanthaburi are descended from Vietnamese immigrants who came to the province during the Ayutthaya period about three centuries ago. The study was carried out by a team of researchers led by Chaiyon Praditsilp of Burapha University in Chon Buri.

It was discovered that the original founders of the community were Vietnamese Catholics who escaped religious persecution in Vietnam.

The study found they migrated to Chanthaburi during the reign of King Narai of the late Ayutthaya period, who opened up the kingdom to boost trade relations with foreigners.

During the period, both Thais and foreigners enjoyed religious freedom given by King Narai, which attracted the Vietnamese immigrants.

Most of the immigrants came from Vietnam’s Annam, Tonkin and Cochinchina regions.

Over time, many more continued to migrate and their communities expanded with a Catholic church and living quarters for priests built.

Most communities were built along river banks and gradually spread to other areas in Ayutthaya. Fishing was their major livelihood.

When Ayutthaya, the capital of old Siam, fell to Burmese armies for a second time in 1767, Chanthaburi, far from Ayutthaya, remained intact.

The province served as a base for King Taksin to build up his army to make preparations to liberate Siam from Burmese occupation.

The study said Catholic priests and sisters in the province played a major role in taking care of sick or injured soldiers.

After King Taksin repelled the Burmese and established Thon Buri as the new capital, Catholics in Chanthaburi were rewarded for their assistance. Their community grew with more churches established while a clergy was set up.

The study said King Chulalongkorn also wrote of the economic and social state of the Catholic community in Chanthaburi during his visits to the province.

In his writing about Chanthaburi, King Rama V mentioned the weaving of a mat known as Chathabun mat introduced by Catholic Vietnamese.

Pareena Homsiri, 55, a descendant of Vietnamese Christians, recalled that older people in the community usually wore a traditional Vietnamese costume called the ao dai and regularly wove mats.

“Many people in the community are now reviving the tradition of wearing the costume and the Vietnamese language is now being taught to new generations,” she said.

A woman known as Aunt Sorn, 70, said Vietnamese immigrants began to apply for registration of Thai surnames during the reign of King Rama VI.

Those wih surnames beginning with “Anam” such as Anamnart, Anamwat, Anampong are descendants of immigrants from Vietnam’s Annam region. Today, there are about 8,000 residents in the community.

Father Chalerm Kitmongkol has initiated a project to foster ties between Christians in Chanthaburi and in Vietnam. He also plays a major role in reviving the tradition of saying church prayers in Vietnamese.

Father Chalerm said plans include teaching the history of their Vietnamese ancestors as part of the learning curriculum to remind youngsters of their roots and to boost tourism cooperation between Thailand and Vietnam.

The study said the Vietnamese in the community later turned to the gemstone business, setting up gem-cutting factories, which led to a boom in the gemstone trade and made the province one of the country’s most important gemstone-trading centres.

The community is also poised to celebrate the centenary of their church and promote it as a centre of historical study and cultural tourism.

The Gothic Mary Immaculate Conception Cathedral has stood in the heart of the eastern province for over a century. Built in 1906, it is the fifth church of the local community built in the past three hundred years.

The first and original church was built on the right bank of the Chanthaburi river when Vietnamese first migrated to Thailand between 1672 and 1732.

Activities are getting under way to mark its centennial from Dec 7 to 12.

As Chanthaburi is well-known as a source of gemstones, local Catholics managed to build a statue of Mary decorated with precious stones weighing more than 20,000 carats.

Father Yod Senarak, the abbot of the cathedral, said the cathedral was a source of great pride for being an important pillar of the long-standing faith of local Catholics and for its majestic architecture. It features typical Gothic bell towers, beautiful stained glass windows picturing saints and dating back to the Ayutthaya era, ancient artistic patterns, an ancient pulpit and century-old floor tiles.

Prior to the celebration, the cathedral was renovated with the support of the Fine Arts Department, Christians and local people. The two spires of the church were rebuilt to replace the original ones that were dismantled in 1940 to avoid air raids during the First Indochina War.