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Myeong-dong Cathedral — has just about been completed, and to celebrate, I’m going to give the cathedral — perhaps Seoul’s most beautiful piece of contemporary architecture — the photo essay it so richly deserves.
The Myeong-dong Cathedral area, the heart of Korea’s Roman Catholic community and a symbol of the democratization struggle, is rich in early modern history. In addition to the cathedral itself, the church grounds is also home to the historic Former Archbishop’s Residence (now the Archdiocese Building), Archdiocese Annex, Coste Hall and Seoul Convent of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres.

Even before the construction of the cathedral, the Myeong-dong area — called Myeongnyebang in Joseon days — had a special significance for Korean Catholics. It was here in 1784 that Korea’s first church was set up in the home of Thomas Kim Beom-u, the son of a local translator. Running the show was Peter Yi Seung-hun, formerly a member of the royal tribute mission to China who, having been pointed in that direction by his Catholic brother-in-law Yi Byeok, was baptised by French Jesuit missionary and musician Jean-Joseph de Grammont in Beijing, becoming the first Korean ever baptized. Returning from China with Catholic writings, religious objects and convert’s zeal, Yi established a “lay clergy” system, with himself as priest. Yi held weekly mass in Kim’s home, performed baptisms and proselytized the faith.

The Myeongnyebang church gathered an impressive congregation that included some of Korea’s best and brightest, including famed silhak scholar “Dasan” John Jeong Yak-yong, his two brothers, Yi Byeok, Kwon Il-sin and other literati associated with the Namin faction. In the spring of 1785, however, the authorities — quite accidentally — happened upon the meeting and arrested the flock. With the exception of Kim, the rest of the churchgoers were yangban elite from major families, so were let go. Poor Mr. Kim, on the other hand, was from the middle jungin class, so he was tortured and sent in exile to Danyang (not a bad place to get exiled to, actually), where he died from his wounds within a year, becoming the first Korean to die as a result of his Catholic faith.

Catholic Fun Fact: Technically speaking, Peter Yi Seung-hun was not the first Korean to be baptized. During the Imjin War, the Japanese Catholic daimyo and general Augustine Konishi Yukinaga brought back with him to Japan an orphaned three-year-old Korean girl, who was given the Japanese name of Ota-a. Raised in Konishi’s household, she was baptized Julia. When Konishi was executed following the Battle of Sekigahara, Julia ended up in the household of the new shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. When the shogun banned Christianity, he demanded Julia renounce her faith, something she refused to do. She was banished, eventually ending up on the small island of Kouzushima, where she spent the rest of her life doing good works and praying a lot. The island apparently holds an annual festival to commemorate her. Julia was probably only one of many Korean prisoners to have adopted the Catholic faith after the war — see for instance, the tale of Antonio Corea.

From the 1830s, the Myeongnyebang area was a center of secret proselytizing activities — St. Andrew Kim Dae-geon, Korea’s first ordained priest, was active there immediately upon his return from China in 1845.

In 1883, French Catholics acquired the land where Myeong-dong Cathedral currently stands. Mind you, this was not exactly legal — while the priests made their move after Korea had signed a trade and relations treaty with the United States in 1882, France wouldn’t conclude a treaty until 1886, and French negotiators were having a tough time of it precisely over the issues of religious freedom for Catholics. The land, atop a hill next to the royal music and dance academy (the predecessor of the National Center for the Korean Traditional Performing Arts), was formerly the home of a recently departed royal minister. At first, the Catholics used the existing home as a church, but in 1887, work began to prepare the grounds for a proper cathedral.

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Additional Photos by Murat Duzyol (muratd) Silver Star Critiquer/Silver Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 34 W: 13 N: 150] (5034)
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