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Phat Diem stone church to draw thousands for Christmas

Phat Diem Church in the northern province of Ninh Binh will attract thousands of local Christians and tourists to celebrate Christmas with its special Christmas service, unique architecture and peaceful surroundings.

The church dates back to the 1870s and is the centre of Catholicism in the northern region.

The church was built between 1875 and 1898 in the province’s Kim Son District by the Vietnamese priest Tran Luc known as Father Sau, who designed the church without any training in architecture or painting. The most remarkable feature of the Cathedral is that it is made with marble and granite. Therefore, it is also known as the Stone Church. The church also includes a complex including several artificial lakes, churches, and artificial caves.

The church design has made it famous, because it is different from other Roman Catholic cathedrals across the world. The design is a harmonious combination of traditional pagoda architecture of Viet Nam mixed with the Gothic style of Christian architecture. The unique building also shows the skilful techniques of Vietnamese artisans since the 19th century.

In front of the church, overlooking a huge pond, where a larger than life-sized marble statue of the Sacred Heart stands upon a man-made island, the upturned tiled roofs of the bell tower’s three belvederes soar even higher than the church.

The 25m-high bell tower is an imposing stone structure made from large marble blocks with a -bas-relief representing Jesus and his followers. In the middle floor, there is a huge drum, while on the top floor there is a two-tonne bronze bell, which was cast in 1890s. According to local people, the bell’s echo can be heard across three neighbouring regions. The remains of Father Sau, who died in the same year as the complex was finished in 1898, lie under an inscribed slab at the base of the tower.

The Grand Cathedral is designed as a grandiose Communal House with four roofs and six sets of pillars formed from whole iron trees and sophisticated multi-level rafters. All the church buildings are decorated with lotus, birds, and tropical tree designs – the overall effect is more Vietnamese pagoda than Roman Catholic Cathedral.

The English novelist Graham Greene even mentioned the Phat Diem Cathedral in his 1955 classic The Quiet American with its "gigantic pillars formed out of single trees and the scarlet lacquer work of the altar, more Buddhist than Christian."

Traditional Vietnamese architecture is also recognised in other sections located around the cathedral - the Belfry has curly tiled roof-tops with decorations of Vietnamese temples and the shrine of Jesus’s Heart is made of jackwood.

Stone Church is divided into two sections: the church and the clergy house. Everything was built gradually over the years. In 1875, the first Cavern was built to test the strength of the foundation. In 1889, the church of Saint Mary’s Heart was erected. Then in 1891, the grand Cathedral and the Belfry were completed. And finally, the Saints’ shrines were finished around 1898. These three stone caves are in the extreme north of the complex, of which Lo Duc is the most beautiful.

The best day to visit the site is on a Sunday, when most area residents walk, cycle or drive toward the cathedral or one of the neighbouring churches.

Certainly to be recommended is going to celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve in the Cathedral. According to the priest for the Phat Diem parish, Father Nguyen Hong Phuc, the Cathedral welcomes a large number of Christians and tourists during Christmas. Thousands will gather to celebrate one of the most remarkable religious events.

"We have been preparing for Christmas since last month. The whole complex will be decorated with 600 Morning Stars or Symbols of Christ. A 10m-high Christmas tree will be placed in front of the Phuong Dinh bell tower," he said.

Father Phuc is also the director of an art programme focusing on the theme "Jesus Christ exists in the life of his followers," he said.

"The art performance, which will take place on Christmas Eve, will gather more than 100 amateur actors from the local parish. Local citizens will join the Jesus procession moving around the complex at midnight."

During the procession, 200 sky lanterns will be released to brighten the sky on the night.

A Ha Noi resident, Tran Duc Xuan, who experienced a Christmas Eve in Phat Diem church few years ago, said, "I have planned to take my girlfriend to visit the Phat Diem Cathedral on Christmas Eve. The cold weather won’t stop my plan."

Some Ha Noi-based tourist agents also offer visitors a chance to experience an unforgettable Christmas Eve by offering tours to the site next Wednesday.
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