For 125 years, Saigon's Notre-Dame Basilica, officially known as the immaculate conception Cathedral Basilica, has survived as stunning and splendid in its sacred atmosphere. The cathedral was originally built as a spiritual and cultural representation of the French presence in the orient. It is a place for catholic congregations to perform services and celebrate ceremonies. As the biggest catholic masterpiece in Vietnam, the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, together with the Central Post Office, municipal theatre, and hospital of pediatricts 2, are today recognized as the distinctive icons of the Saigonese.
Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica - One of the first Catholic Cathedrals in Saigon
The church together with Catholicism first appeared in Vietnam in the 16th century. Not until the 19th century, however, did it flourish nationwide. Following the French conquest of Cochinchina and Saigon, the Roman Catholic Church established a community and religious services for French colonialists. The first church was built on today’s Ngo Duc Ke Street. On the site there had originally been a Vietnamese pagoda, abandoned during the war. Bishop Lefevre decided to make this pagoda site into a church.
The first church was fairly small. Thus, in 1863, Admiral Bonard decided to build a larger wooden church on the bank of the Charner canal. Lefevre placed the first stone during the construction of the church on 28 March 1863. The construction was completed two years later and was called “Saigon Church”. At one point, when the wooden church was damaged by termites, all church services were held in the guest-chamber of the French Governor’s Palace
In August 1876, the Governor of Cochinchina, M. Duperre’, held a design contest for a new cathedral. Aside from creating a religious building for the Catholics, the cathedral was also meant to display the might of Christianity and the greatness of French civilization. The chosen design of architect J. Bourad defeated 17 others. It was a revised Roman style mixed with Gothic elements, and the design would make the church the most beautiful of all churches in French colonies at that time. After design competition, bids were accepted for construction. Again J. Bourad was the successful bidder and became supervisor of the construction. Originally, there were three proposed sites for construction: on the site of the former test school (today, this is at the corner of Le Duan Boulevard and Hai Ba Trung Street), at Kinh Lon (current Nguyen Hue Boulevard), and at the present site (on Paris Square in centre of District 1) where the cathedral is situated.
On 7th October 1877, Bishop Isidore Colombert laid the first stone in an inaugural ceremony. The construction of the cathedral took three years. On Easter Day, 2nd April 1880, a blessing ceremony and ceremony of completion were solemnly organized in the presence of the Governor of Cohinchina, Charles Le Myre de Vilers.
The total cost of 2,500,000 French francs (the price at that time) was covered by the Governor of Cochinchina. Therefore, at the beginning, the cathedral was called “State Cathedral” as a reflection of the source of the construction funds.
Changes over time
In 1895, two bell towers were added to the cathedral, each 57.6 m high with six bronze bells with a total weight of 28.85 metric tons. The crosses installed on the top of each tower were 3.5 m high, 2 m wide and weighed 600 kg. the total height of the cathedral to the top of the Cross is 60.5 m.
In the flower garden in front of the cathedral, there was a bronze statue of Pigneau de Behaine (also called Bishop of Adran) leading the Prince Canh, the son of Emperor Gia Long, by his right hand. The statue was made in France.
In 1945, the statue was, but the foundation remains. In 1959, Bishop Joseph Pham Van Thien, whose jurisdiction included the Saigon parish, attended the Holy Mother Congress held in the Vatican and ordered a Peaceful Notre Dame to be made of granite in Rome. When the statue arrived in Saigon on 16 February 1959, Bishop Pham Van Thien held a ceremony to install the statue on the empty base and presented it with the title of “Regina Pacis”. It was the same bishop who wrote the prayer “Notre-Dame – bless the peace in Vietnam”. The next day, Cardinal Aganianian came from Rome to chair the closing ceremony of the Holy Mother Congress and solemnly chaired the ceremony for the statue, thus the cathedral was from then-on called Notre-Dame Cathedral.
In 1960, the Vatican founded the Roman Catholic dioceses in Vietnam and assigned archbishops to Hanoi, Hue and Saigon. The cathedral was titled the Saigon Chief Cathedral. In 1962, the Vatican anointed the Saigon Chief Cathedral and conferred it with the additional name basilica. From this time on the cathedral was called Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. This honor is saved for cathedrals or holy lands that have age, historical influence, and spiritual significance for the Roman Catholic diocese.