Gothic cathedral stands as testament to community spirit and architectural pride

Yang Jian
Xujiahui Cathedral remains an iconic blend of East-West faith and architecture, a metaphorical tribute to life's unpredictable journey.
Yang Jian

Editor’s note:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Shanghai. Once dubbed "the Paris of the East,” the city has evolved into a fusion of multiculturalism. Along the way, Shanghai has accumulated a repository of stories about the people and events that have shaped its history. Five areas of the city occupy pride of place in that journey: People’s Square, Jing’an Temple, Xujiahui, Lujiazui and Xintiandi. This series, a collaboration with Shanghai Local Chronicles Library, visits them all to follow in the footsteps of time.

Gothic cathedral stands as testament to community spirit and architectural pride
Zheng Xianzhang

The exterior of Xujiahui Cathedral is adorned with red bricks and granite trim.

Xujiahui Cathedral is both an architectural marvel and a cultural legacy of Shanghai.

The home of the Catholic Diocese of Shanghai pierces the sky with its towering Gothic spires.

Before 1851, Xujiahui was home to only a modest chapel built by believers, inadequate for the grand ceremonies of major festivals. Recognizing the need for a more substantial place of worship, the Jesuits began building a formal church that year.

The completed edifice, later known as Old Xujiahui Church, was dedicated to St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. It could accommodate more than 200 worshippers.

The church was structurally sound and esthetically unique, blending some Greek ornamentation with Chinese lanterns, creating a harmonious East-West style.

The church was a significant landmark in Shanghai, its Chinese-style rear wall, courtyard and gate embodying traditional Chinese architecture.

In its early days, Xujiahui’s Catholic community was small, numbering only about 40. However, the tumult of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) sent many believers seeking refuge in the area.

By the 1880s, with the community flourishing, the French Jesuits envisioned a grander structure to accommodate the growing flock. Fundraising for the new cathedral began in 1886, with British architect W.M. Dowdall undertaking its design in 1904.

Construction, which started two years later, was completed in September 1910, resulting in a brick and wood structure reminiscent of the grand cathedrals of medieval France. It was said to be able to accommodate more than 2,000 worshippers.

The grand opening and blessing of the Xujiahui Cathedral took place on October 22, 1910, followed by its first Mass the next day.

The cathedral’s religious artifacts, including most statues, sacred vessels and stained glass windows, were made by workshops at the Jesuit-run Tushanwan Orphanage. They were not free; the church had to purchase the items. Some of the cathedral’s interior elements were crafted in Paris and shipped to Shanghai.

Building the cathedral was a community effort: wealthy local believers donated materials, while the less fortunate contributed their labor.

The construction, led by the foreign-owned Shanghai Construction Co, employed Chinese child labor. These “little builders,” largely unmentioned today, played a crucial role in the cathedral’s construction, as documented in a 1908 letter from Father P.G. Maujay.

In the letter, the father recalled how “children, roughly 50 in number, wearing worn-out clothes with many patches and holes, began to shout in a language only they understood, displaying a sense of joy. One child of about 12 then loudly instructed the group to quiet down, repeating the phrase ‘veh yao’ — which means ‘don’t’ in Shanghai dialect. After he repeated it multiple times to ensure compliance, the group fell silent.”

Due to reliance on the manual labor of impoverished boys using rudimentary tools in an environment lacking any safety measures, the construction process involved some tragedies.

One day, a boy died after falling from scaffolding, while another survived a fall, much to the amazement of onlookers. The injured child was rushed to the church’s new hospital, where he underwent successful emergency surgery by a foreign doctor to repair his liver.

Gothic cathedral stands as testament to community spirit and architectural pride
Zheng Xianzhang

The cathedral features a Gothic ribbed vault.

The cathedral, a five-story structure with a Gothic facade, features twin spires and a central cross, which is like a roulette wheel — metaphorically representing life’s unpredictable journey.

Its exterior, adorned with red bricks and granite trim, along with numerous sculptures of saints and deities, exudes purity and tranquility.

Inside, 64 stone pillars carved from stone brought from the city of Suzhou support the structure. The floor is laid with square bricks and decorative tiles. The cathedral houses 19 altars. The main altar spans 44 meters in width and was transported from Paris in 1919.

The cathedral features a ribbed vault that incorporates aerodynamic principles, allowing the vast, three-story-high nave to forego the need for manual cleaning of high windows. The design also ensures that speech, at a normal volume, can be heard clearly from any corner of the church.

The church was damaged during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) and was used as a storehouse for more than 10 years.

In the early 1980s, the spires were restored. The building’s restoration continued into the 21st century. In 2002, a five-year project began to replace the cathedral’s stained glass windows in a design incorporating Chinese elements.

The original old church and Jesuit residence were eventually demolished and replaced in 1994 by a new Shanghai Diocese structure, now known as the Charity Building.

In 2013, the cathedral was designated a national cultural site, and in 2016, it was named in the first group of China’s 20th Century Architectural Heritage, a testament to its enduring legacy and the spirit of the community that built it.

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