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Stone Church to Be Restored to Its Gothic Glory

Oscar Barcenas goes to church every Sunday morning to pray and meet fellow Catholics. But it is not just the spiritual aspect that draws him in.

He is also fascinated by the Gothic church itself the Stone Church built with pure granite and also known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

"The first time I saw the church, I was amazed by its grand beauty and have never stopped coming here," said the Filipino man, who used to pray at home when he moved to Guangzhou 13 years ago.

"Though the church looked worn out, its mysterious and serene air captured me instantly," recalled Barcenas, the financial manager of Guangzhou Nanland Air Catering Co Ltd of China Southern Airlines.

But for more than a year, Barcenas and his friends have been praying in a simple temporary chapel located nearby while the church undergoes an extensive renovation project.

Long history

Work started in March and is due for completion in July next year, when the former glory of the place of worship will return.

The construction has not affected the daily life of the church too much, as it continues to play a pivotal role in the local Catholic community.

There are 5,000 Catholics in Guangzhou, of which 500 are from abroad.

"We perform daily masses in Mandarin and Cantonese," said Gan Junqiu, a priest from the Stone Church, explaining that the majority of residents speak Cantonese in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province.

The church also welcomes expatriates. "We celebrate the English Mass on Sunday morning," Gan said. "And recently we have opened a Korean Mass every Saturday afternoon for 500 believers from South Korea who now work in Guangzhou."

Located on Yide Road in downtown Guangzhou, the church was designed and established in 1863 by the French, with construction completed in 1888.

"The building has attracted many architects, with its Western characteristics and valuable construction materials," Gan said. "Most of the materials were imported directly from France."

It is easy to discern the Gothic revival features from the skeletal stone structure of the building.

The church is 58 meters tall, with sharply pointed spires and arches.

The 2,754-square-meter church has a bright gathering hall that overlooks a small, tranquil square, creating an uplifting atmosphere.

In addition to its architectural prowess, the story of how the church survived gunfire and robbery has been passed on many times.

The church escaped the aerial bombardment by Japanese invaders in 1942. It was lucky to avoid damage when the nearby Haizhu Bridge was bombed by Kuomintang troops shortly before the founding of New China in 1949.

The church suffered again during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

"The facilities were almost destroyed and religious activities were suspended," Gan said.

"All the stained glass windows from France, pictured with religious characters and covering about 600 square meters, were broken by bombs or torn down by the Red Guards.

"Two large stone crosses were broken," he said, pointing to the corner of the roof.

It was not until 1979 that the church was reopened. But peacetime has not guaranteed safety.

On May 26, 2003, the church's iron gate, which weighs more than 250 kilograms and is 4 meters high and 2.4 meters wide, was stolen.

The theft remains a mystery after more than a year of police investigation.

A leaky roof also made holding services on rainy days rather difficult.

Renovating the church has long concerned local religious organizations, the government and churchgoers.

But financial problems put off plans until July 2002 when the then Mayor of Guangzhou Lin Shusen visited the church.

"Lin at once decided to reallocate money in the name of protecting cultural relics," recalled Luo Zhijun, an official from the Religion Office of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Guangzhou Committee, a political advisory body.

Costly project

The renovation work requires more than 21 million yuan (US$2.59 million), of which 3 million yuan (US$370,000) was given by the church, with the remainder raised by the municipal government.

Affected by the sacred atmosphere of the church, workers at the construction site have been operating in a quiet and orderly way.

They have been busy moving imported stained glass windows, restoring fragmented stone crosses and painting the outside walls.

According to Luo, who took part in drawing up a CPPCC proposal for the remodeling of the church, the project includes the reconstruction of the leaky roof, replacement of all 98 stained glass windows, restringing of every light inside the church, rebuilding corridors, stairs and exterior walls.

The new windows, all from abroad, cost more than 4.13 million yuan (US$509,200).

A brand new mechanical clock will also be produced to replace the old one on the roof of the church.

Buildings within 60 meters of the church will be limited in height and required to be consistent with a standard construction style.

Crowds of unlicensed vendors used to gather around the church, annoying worshippers and visitors. They have been asked to curtail business.

The original garden has been replaced by a small square, providing a larger space for believers and tourists visiting the church.

The project has won the approval of many Catholics in the southern metropolis.

"It is adding some make-up to the church," Barcenas said. "People will feel excited to come here for activities. We see more churchgoers joining us."

(China Daily November 1, 2005)

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