When writing an article on the Myeongdong Cathedral, it’s important not only to mention the history of the building itself but the physical ground it rests on and the people it was made for.
Catholics in Korea have experienced bloody repressions including the persecution of ten clergymen and nearly 10,000 followers during the introduction of Catholicism to Korea in 1784. The place where the first Catholic gathering was held? Exactly where Myeongdong Cathedral stands today. The sorrow and pain of discrimination have been replaced with thousands of loyal church-goers. The best part of Myeongdong Cathedral? It doesn’t take someone religious to feel the magic of this place.
The History of Korean Catholicism
Korea has the fourth-largest number of Catholic saints in the world. How did it come to be this way? Much of its short history takes place in the neighborhood of Myeongdong.
The area of Myeongdong (명동) was originally known as Myeongnaebang (명례방) until missionary work was permitted in Joseon in 1886. This likely had something to do with the opening of Incheon Open Port and the Korea-France Friendship Pact, which saw the first real floods of foreigners entering Korea apart from China and Japan.
The first Korean Catholic Martyr also resided on the grounds where the cathedral stands today. He was additionally an interpreter who created numerous Catholic communities in Korea. His home was used for secret congregation meetings. In 1887, just one year after the Korea-France pact, the French Overseas Missionary Church purchased the land and began the construction of the church. Construction officially began in 1892 and the cathedral was finished in 1898.
Although the building seems rather modest, there were great obstacles in its construction. Construction was halted on numerous occasions due to a lack of funding, as well as discomfort from the government on the basis of geomancy. Additionally, Chinese workers with underdeveloped construction skills had to be hired, as most Koreans were unfamiliar with Western architecture. During the Sino-Japanese War that lasted from 1894 to 1895, many of these workers were deported to fight for their home country. To make matters worse, there were numerous accidents from the start such as the death of four groundbreaking workers. The lack of basic skills and the unfamiliarity of this type of building played a part in these accidents. The steeple of the church also fell several times, so its height was reduced and the walls thickened out. Korean Catholics had little choice but to ask for support from the Russian Legation, and it was with the help of architect Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin (who designed the Independence Arch in Seoul among many other landmark buildings) that the job was completed in 1898.
This construction was overseen by Father Coste (Eugene-Jean Georges Coste; Koran name Go Ui Son). He was born near Montpellier, France in 1842 and came to Korea at the age of 43 with the Paris Overseas Missionary Church (he was not a native Korean, despite being given a Korean name). Although he designed Myeongdong Cathedral, as well as Yakhyeon Cathedral and the Yongsan Divinity School, he had no formal education in architecture. Unfortunately, he passed at the age of 54 before the church was completed.
Although the church is undoubtedly beautiful, many readers may be wondering why there are zero Korean design elements to be seen. Especially because… well, you know… it rests in the heart of Seoul. There are many reasons for this, but the obvious answer is that Western missionaries did not find Korean design to be representative of a religion that they considered Western. And while many wished for a truly Gothic cathedral, this could not be possible due to a difference in building materials and expertise on the peninsula. Myeongdong Cathedral may not be as tall and breath-taking as the Gothic cathedrals one sees in the West, but we must compare Myeongdong’s 6-year construction period to the hundreds of years it took to build these religious icons.
Much of the Western architecture that one finds in Seoul was built during the colonization period; Myeongdong Cathedral is unique in that it has no link to Japan and was directly commissioned by Westerners. It takes away from of the pain that seems to linger in all colonial buildings, no matter how much beauty they radiate. In my opinion, Myeongdong Cathedral is all the more beautiful for its simplicity.
Myeongdong Cathedral Today
What would you see if you were to visit the Cathedral today? Visitors can find the remains of foreign bishops and saints preserved in the Mausoleum. You can come here for one of the many Catholic holidays, although you may have to make your way through large flocks of devotees. That being said, there’s a magical air to the place when a holiday is just around the corner, no matter how tightly packed the pews may be.
There is always a question between architects, historians and laypeople of how often the church should be used. Do we take every step necessary to ensure that the church holds for another hundred years? Should we only open its doors on special holidays? Or is this something that needs to be open all-year-round to ease the souls of thousands seeking refuge, comfort and advice? Is the risk of damage too great or is it part of what makes praying in a historical church all the more sacred? The conversation continues.
There is much more to see in this area than the actual church. Myeongdong is known by most for its inexpensive shopping opportunities and street food, which doesn’t match the simplicity of the church whatsoever. That being said, the church itself has succumbed to capitalism through its underground shopping center. Just beneath the church, on the main road of Myeongdong, are stairs leading down to a large basement complex. Guests can find a bookstore, church shop, dining options, and a cafe. It’s a great place to get away from the crowds of Myeongdong and to enjoy a more serene atmosphere in one of the trendiest parts of Seoul. Check out the information below for detailed opening hours, addresses, and menus.
We hope your trip to Myeongdong Cathedral is as inspiring as the stories its red-brick walls whisper back to you.
Myeongdong Cathedral Information
Address: 74 Myeongdong-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
Opening Hours: N/A
Entrance Fee: Free
Website: Click here
On the grounds:
1898+ Shopping Complex
Catholic Human Rights Committee (천주교 인권위원회)
Beomu Hall (범우관)
Catholic Community Center (가톨릭 사회복지회)
Papillia Chapel (파밀리아채플)
Archdiocese Office (서울대교구청)
Kkoseuteu Hall (꼬스트홀)
Priests Office (사제관)
St. Paul Nunnery (성바오로수녀원)
History Museum of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres (샬트르성바오로수녀회 역사박물관)
1898 Plus Shopping Center
Address: 74 Myeongdong-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
Opening Hours: Daily 10AM – 9PM
1898 Book Park
Le Pain Bakery
Jeon Kwang-Su Coffee
1898+ Souvenier Shop
Want more amazing content? Why not LISTEN to it on our podcast: What’s Han Your Mind? You can find us anywhere you listen to podcasts, or check us out through our anchor link here.