New Church Nears Completion in China

Mar 16, 2023

With a population of 200,000 people, Tianmen seems an appropriate place for the construction of a new church as the name literally means ‘Gate of Heaven’, writes Columban missionary Fr Dan Troy.

As Fr Joseph Wang pointed to the bell towers of the new church, it was noted that they are lower compared to the height indicated in the colourful architectural drawings that were prepared a year earlier.

He also clarified for those of us who were visiting that the shorter bell towers were not an effort by anyone to save on the cost of concrete. Rather, the decreased height was the result of delicate informal negotiations with the local authorities who have their offices in a neighbouring property.

In constructing the new church, it was seen as important to avoid causing upset to others in this expanding area of Tianmen city, about 100km north of Wuhan. In this part of China, the height of a structure conveys a message about its relative importance in comparison to nearby buildings.

Irrespective of what an architect’s design might indicate, prudence decides that it is best to avoid claiming the height advantage, especially in a setting where official permission to build a church is already seen as a great concession.

When the site for Sacred Heart Church was given to the Diocese of Hanyang two years ago, it brought to completion a set of discussions that had taken place over a few years. The land was understood by both sides as compensation for properties that had moved from Church ownership into the control of the local authorities several decades earlier.

When the site for the new church was approved two years ago, there was a need to enclose it with a boundary wall at the earliest opportunity, part of claiming the space in case the winds of officialdom might blow from a different direction.

Fr Joseph Wang in front of the new church in Tianmen.

Having secured the site, the focus then moved swiftly to getting definite plans in place for the construction of the church. Failure to use the land for its assigned purpose within five years can risk losing out on the opportunity completely.

The help of an architect and discussions with a builder eventually led to a plan for construction. In a setting where it is not easy for a diocese to receive a bank loan, providing secure finances for a sizeable construction project demands considerable thought. Local experience on these issues has its own wisdom.

Catholic communities do not respond with much enthusiasm if they are looking at an empty building site. Those with experience believe that if 20 percent of a project’s cost has been gathered, a start can be made. In the case of Sacred Heart Church, this threshold was reached a year ago and the builder was then instructed to move in.

As had been hoped for, Catholics in the diocese began to donate more easily as the church structure took shape. The benefits of social media were also skillfully used in this regard.

Short videos accompanied by appropriate music are circulated to online prayer groups and others. These visual reports of the good things that are happening also provide viewers with the option of easily making a donation by clicking their way forward to the relevant section.

With a population of about 200,000 people, Tianmen seems to be an appropriate place for the construction of a new church, the name of the city literally meaning ‘Gate of Heaven’. Progress in the construction of this latest church in the Diocese of Hanyang is a reflection of how things happen in China.

In their own particular ways, local officials and local Church leaders find ways to balance what happened in the past with creating space for something new to emerge in these times.

The recent completion of the bell towers at Sacred Heart Church will allow the Church leaders to avail of another opportunity to move the project forward. Linked to the construction of a new church in this part of China is a popular ceremony for the official setting in place of a cross on the church.

News of such a ceremony is likely to be circulated in the next few weeks, a fresh reminder for all that things are going well and that the community is entering the final lap of its efforts to complete the construction of its new place of worship.

Towards the end of this year, it is likely that the church will be completed. When that day approaches, invitations will be sent out by Fr Joseph for the colourful official opening of Sacred Heart Church.

The personal attention that will be given to those who attend the ceremony will be understood by all as pointing to the fact that a project like this can only be achieved through a sustained community effort.

On that important day of celebration for the local Church, it is possible that local officials in the nearby office buildings will also begin to notice that something new is beginning in their area, perhaps leading them to ponder a little more on the deeper meaning of the city’s name.

Fr Dan Troy is a Columban missionary. He lives and works in Wuhan, China.

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