Giant Christmas trees in front of shopping malls, tinsel and strings of fairy lights everywhere, the sound of Christmas carols and seasonal jinglesemanating from many stores… in a country where only 1% of the population considers themselves Christian, Christmas here is a pretty big deal and just as ‘in your face’ as it other parts of the world.
But the real spirit of Christmas can also be found in Bangkok, if you look for it. The city has at least three dozen churches recalling the colourful story of the Kingdom and Christianity, and many of these places of worship have great historical value. They tell of the long and sometimes complicated cohabitation between Thais and the first missionaries to reach the shores of Siam over 450 years ago.
The Christian community in Thailand was established back in the middle of the 16th century with the arrival of European merchants. Christian missionaries probably came with the first ships sent by Portugal to establish trade relations with Siam in 1516. The first record of such arrivals pertain to two Dominicans, Friar Jeronimo da Cruz and Friar Sebastiao da Canto, who settled at the Siamese court in Ayutthaya in 1567. They were rapidly followed by Jesuits and Franciscan missionaries. With the decline of Portuguese influence during the 17th and 18th centuries, the spread of the Catholic faith turned increasingly French, particularly under the rule of King Narai. It was he who allowed the Mission of Siam to establish activities and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, missionaries not only founded churches but also schools, seminaries, convents and hospitals.
The oldest church in the greater Bangkok area is the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Samsen. It dates back to the late 1600s and remains a lively meetingplace for many Vietnamese Christians descended from settlers who arrived in Siam 200 years ago.
Following the destruction of Ayutthaya by Burmese troops, the capital moved to Thonburi where Kudi Jeen – a community of Siamese, Portuguese and Chinese origins – settled around the newly built Santa Cruz Church. In 1835 around 1,500 Annamite Christians fleeing persecution also settled in the Samsen area, where another recently established church, St Francis Xavier, became a centre for the Catholic faith in the capital.
With an eye to becoming westernized so as to compete with surrounding colonial territories, Siamese rulers, particularly King Rama V and King Rama VI, called on European architects to develop Bangkok. Hence dozens of Italian architects and artists settled here between 1880 and 1920, expanding and rebuilding many of the existing churches. They generally chose the neo-Gothic style, a movement very much in favour at the end of the 19th century. Santa Cruz Church in Thonburi, Holy Rosary Church in Talad Noi district, and Chanthaburi Cathedral – considered Thailand’s most impressive Christian church – were all rebuilt in a romanticized Gothic revival style with vaulted arches and stained glass windows.
Italian architects Mario Tamagno and Annibale Rigotti were behind the 1916 reconstruction of Santa Cruz Church. Although there are no records on the architect of Kalawar Church, it is likely to have been the work of Mario Tamagno (who also designed the nearby Siam Commercial Bank headquarters in Talad Noi). It is possibly the most exquisite church in Bangkok with its colourful stained glass and delicate wood carving. It also hosts one of the holiest relics of the Catholic community in Thailand; a wooden statue of Jesus on the Cross, saved by the Portuguese when they left Ayutthaya following the capital’s sacking by the Burmese. The poignant image of Jesus is only shown to the public once a year during a procession.
Another spectacular church is Assumption Cathedral, the city’s largest Catholic institution. Built originally in 1821 by a French priest, it was reconstructed in 1909, emulating the pattern of Ho Chi Minh City Cathedral with its red brick walls. While the external facade is a curious mix of Gothic and Classical styles, the interior follows the neo-Roman school with golden arches and painted ceilings and frescoes which probably took their inspiration from late 19th century French basilicas such as the Montmartre Sacré-Coeur Church and Marseille’s Notre Dame de la Garde.
Different again is Christ Church on the corner ofSoi Convent and Sathorn. This American church for Protestants also serves the Anglican community in Thailand. Built in the Victorian Gothic style, the sober decoration – dark wooden panels and plain white walls – exudes a tranquillity that contrasts sharply with the hustle and bustle of nearby Silom and Sathorn.
Some of the country’s most spectacular churches involve a drive out of Bangkok. One of the finest upcountry is St Joseph in Ayutthaya, the masterwork of the Austrian-
Italian architect Joachim Grassi who gave a baroque twist to the structure. Situated along the canal surrounding Ayutthaya old town, the structure seems to arise from nothing, the bell tower looming over the surrounding paddy fields. At the border of Samut Songkram and Ratchaburi provinces, there are two beautiful churches in the Gothic revival style built by French missionary Father Paulo Salmon to serve a large Indo-Chinese community. But the jewel of the crown is Chanthaburi Cathedral. Built four years after the French returned Chanthaburi to Siam following 12 years of occupation, the superb structure pays homage to the French Gothic style. Colourful stained glass windows, ornate statues and a Gothic altar and pulpit give this church a sense of grandeur that creates the perfect atmosphere for a traditional Christmas mass.
Immaculate Conception Church
Expelled from Ayutthaya in the late 17th century, a Portuguese community was granted by King Narai the right to settle near to the Chao Phraya River. In 1673, they built the first Immaculate Conception Church, which became Bangkok’s oldest Catholic church. It was reconstructed in simple gothic style in 1834 by French priest Msgr. Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix and was further expanded around 1847.
Holy Rasary Church (Kalawar Church)
Portuguese residents from Kudi Chin in Thonburi settled on the Bangkok side of the Chao Phraya River in 1786. The area became known as Calvario (Kalawar in Thai). A year later, King Rama I granted land for the construction of a church. The current structure is in pure neo-Gothic style and was built in 1898, replacing the original structure.
Bangkok’s grandest church was founded in 1809. It was inspired by French missionary Father Pascal, designed by a French architect and completed in 1821 with red bricks imported from France and Italy. The current building is a reconstruction from 1909. While its exterior is a mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles, the interior is clearly based on a re-interpreted version of the Romanesque style.
Opened in 1905 by American missionaries for a Protestant congregation, the neo-Gothic church also hosts Anglican worshippers. The stained glass windows were manufactured in Glasgow in typical Art Nouveau style. In February 1972 Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne, attended a religious service in the church.
Santa Cruz Church Thonburi
The third reconstruction of a wooden church originally erected in 1770 for the Portuguese community. Today’s church was built in 1916 in a mostly neo-Baroque style with Gothic inspired interiors. The church is only opened on request.
First Presbyterian Church, Samray Thonburi
This charming small church was constructed in 1910 by American missionaries who acquired the plot of land in Samray district in Thonburi back in 1857. A separate belfry was added in 1912. Inside the structure is relatively simple, with plain wood panels on the walls.
Chanthaburi Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Founded by French missionaries in the early 18th century to cater to a growing Vietnamese Christian community who settle in the area to escape persecution in Southern Vietnam. The original small wooden church was replaced during the time of the French occupation. The construction of the current edifice started in 1905 and was completed in 1909, four years
after France returned the province to Siam. This is Thailand’s largest Catholic church. During renovations in 2008, the stain glass windows were repaired in Eastern France.
Bangnok Khwaek Ratchaburi Diocese
The Nativity of Our Lady Cathedral is the main religious monument of Ratchaburi Diocese despite the fact that it is actually located in neighbouring Samut Songkram. The first Christian communities arrived here from China around 1840 and built a wooden church in 1847. This was later replaced by a larger neo-Gothic church conceived by French missionary Father Paulo Salmon. The church was elevated to cathedral status when the Ratchaburi diocese was created in 1965.
Wat Pleng Sacred Heart Church Ratchaburi
Located close to Wat Pleng canal in the Khu Bua district, this church is only 10 minutes drive from Bang Nok Khwaek Cathedral. It was also built by Father Paulo Salmon and features a blend of Gothic and Thai-Chinese styles, particularly the main façade which has similarities to Thai temples.
St Joseph Church Ayutthaya
St Joseph’s church was destroyed in 1767 but rebuilt in 1831 by French Priest Jean Baptiste Pallegoix and further expanded in neo-Roman style by Italian Joachim Grassi during the reign of King Rama V.