St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai

Though facing busy roads, with a subway junction beneath it and standing right next to Xujiahui commercial center, the St. Ignatius Cathedral (Xujiahui Catholic Church), the most reassuring place there at Xujiahui, still remains tranquil and undisturbed. It might be the green lawn in front of the church that buffers it from the clamor of the world. Or, to be more exact, the unique quality of the architecture endowed by the religious spirit. The St. Ignatius Cathedral has stood there over a hundred years. Even the surrounding high-rises cannot block the view of the two spires of the red clock towers.

St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai-2

Xujiahui was one of the earliest sties where Catholicism was spread in Shanghai. It could be traced back to Xu Guangqi, the senior official and famous natural scientist of Ming Dynasty. He might also be the first Catholic in China. After contacting the first western missionary to China, he was converted to Catholicism. He then invited a foreign priest Guo to start preaching in his hometown Xujiahui. Afterwards, the Society of Jesus established headquarters of Jiangnan (South of Yangtze River) parish, and built a Catholic church named St. Ignatius Cathedral which could hold over 200 people. This cathedral is the first one built in western architectural style in Shanghai and even in China’s modern history. With ever-increasing number of believers, the missionaries decided to build another Catholic on the southern side of the original one. Designed by the English architect W.M. Dowdall of Dowdall Co., the construction started in 1906. In 1910, the highest church in then Shanghai was inaugurated.

St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai

Although the construction lasted for 4 years, part of the interior decorations had not been finished. There were altogether 19 daises in the church, while the main dais in the middle was even a makeshift at the inauguration. It was not shipped to Shanghai until Easter of 1919. Some of the interior facilities were damaged to some degree in 1960s and the religious activities were also suspended for a period of time. All was resumed in 1979 and the damages were repaired and restored as well. The movie Empire of the Sun directed by Steven Spielberg was filmed here just after its clock tower spires were restored.

The St. Ignatius Cathedral is a typical French Gothic building of masonry structure with twin-spires. The 5-story church, 83.3 meters long and 30 meters wide, faces the east. The central dais is 44 meters wide. The interior structure is cross-shaped, and is divided lengthwise into front hall, middle hall and rear hall. The choir is set in the rear hall. The upper parts of the round pillars are exquisitely enchased. The parts over the colonnades are pointed arcs – a half oval with a pointed corner on top. These pointed arcs are found on all the door frames and window frames in the church, also commonly found on the ornament lines and enchasing on the exteriors. The pointed arcs present a visual impact of pressing upward and add to the straightness of the building. Being one of the features of Gothic churches, the design contains and expresses a religious strength of desire for tacit agreement with the Creator.

St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai-4

On the two sides of the church are the corridors. The painted glass windows on one side of the corridor are worth a close look. Classic stories in the Bible were painted on the larger piece of glass in the middle of the window. It is interesting that typical Chinese patterns such as abacus and rockeries were painted on top of the window, while below the window were the Chinese illustrations of the stories painted above. The combination of Chinese and Western decorations is the most impressive. On the remaining rose windows are abstract patterns, which are also appealing, especially when the sun rays penetrate the glass and project moving colorful shadows on the terrazzo floor, wooden benches and the kneeling prayers, creating wonderful light effects. This moment undoubtedly renders the church more sacred.

The church, facing the east, greets every day’s morning sun. Standing at the entrance and looking upward, you will see the two arms of the holy icon stretching into a cross. Over a hundred years, the icon has overlooked all mortal beings with this posture. Maybe for the sake of the sunshine, or the warmth brought by the red bricks, Xujiahui Catholic Church does not convey the least atmosphere of gloominess usually found in Gothic churches, but only a firm uprightness.

St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai-3

Travel Tips:

Apart from the Catholic Church, in Xujiahui there are also cultural buildings such as Chongsi Building in Xuhui High School, Xujiahui Bibiotheca, Xujiahui Observatory, Guangqi Park and Tushanwan Museum. These architectural structures make the area the cradle of history and culture with strong centripetal and radiation forces.

Shanghai Old Station” is a restaurant located just opposite the church. The site of it originally was the seat of Xujiahui Holy Mother’s Chapel, the largest institute of female Catholics in Shanghai’s modern history. The menu of “Shanghai Old Station” includes Braised Crab Roe with Bean Curd, Sauteed River Shrimps and Chinese Rice Pudding, etc., which are all authentic local dishes. If you are lucky, you may dine in the old-style train compartment, the private collection of the restaurant owner.

This area is also the most famous base of digital products. With the fashion products updated firsthand there, you will never be out of step with the latest trends. After comparing all the stores, you will always get the bargain.

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