The Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was the first Catholic church in Taiwan. It is also the oldest existing church in Taiwan. The building’s architecture and decoration are an integration of Minnan (Southern Chinese) and Western styles, conveying a message that religion can be absorbed into a local milieu. Although the church is primarily Gothic in style with a few classical elements, it was constructed using local techniques and materials. The church dates to the reign of Qing Emperor Xianfeng in the mid-1800s. Over the years, it worked to improve the livelihoods of the local Pingpu indigenous people and helped to assimilate them into society. The existence of a community of church members who established their daily routines in accordance with church rules was an unusual phenomenon in Taiwan. The church also played a significant role in the development of Catholicism in Taiwan. The time-honored Procession of the Immaculate Conception combines Western religious traditions with local folk customs. It is the largest Catholic celebration in Taiwan, and an example of the multiethnic integration that took place in Pingtung County’s Wanjin area.
In 1861, Spanish Dominican missionary Father Fernando Sainz, O.P. (1832 – 1895) began making trips on foot from Kaohsiung’s Cianjin area to Pingtung’s Wanjin area to minister to the local people. In 1863, he purchased a plot of land in Wanjin and constructed a simple church, which was unfortunately destroyed by an earthquake in 1865. In 1869, due to the rapid growth of his congregation, Father Francisco Herce (unknown – 1894) purchased the land on which the basilica now stands to construct a new church. The Catholic Church of Wanjin was consecrated one year later on December 8, the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In 1874, the Tongzhi Emperor placed the church under imperial protection. Qing dynasty official Shen Bao-zhen (1820 – 1879) personally presented the church with two tablets bearing the inscriptions “On Imperial Orders” and “Catholic Church” granted by the emperor. The tablets were inlaid in the church’s façade. From that point on, every imperial soldier passing by the church had to dismount from his horse as a sign of respect. In 1984, Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) conferred the title of Basilica on Wanjin church. Since then, the church has been called the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The church underwent a two-year renovation in 1999. It was named a third-class historic landmark in November 1985, a designation that was later upgraded to Pingtung County historic landmark. The church is known for its Procession of the Immaculate Conception. In the church’s early years, as there were only few church members, the procession consisted of carrying a simple palanquin holding the Blessed Virgin Mary around the exterior of the church. The palanquin that currently sits inside the basilica wasn’t completed and put into use until 1876. Today, the procession takes place on the second Sunday of December to mark the patronal feast day. It has become a major celebration. In 1991 and 2009 (the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Catholicism in Taiwan), the Blessed Virgin Mary was carried in procession all around Taiwan.
1The Spanish Fortress-Style Architecture
Construction of the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception began in 1869 after Father Francisco Herce purchased the plot of land it now stands on. It was decided that the church would be built in the style of a Spanish fortress, with two towers in the front. The church is composed of three sections, among which are the nave and a circular hall on the eastern side. The front façade is also composed of three sections—the main entrance and its two flanking towers. The architectural and decorative styles are of great religious significance. Local elements were also incorporated into the design of the building to help introduce a foreign religion to local residents. The exterior not only showcases Gothic and classical Spanish elements, but also a traditional Chinese horseback gable façade and two granite tablets inscribed with the words “On Imperial Orders” and “Catholic Church.” Couplets are written on the interior pillars and the ceiling is decorated with classical Chinese motifs, both signs of local influence. As building materials were scarce during the construction of the church, the building was constructed from crushed stone, lime, brown sugar, honey, kapok and bricks instead of modern-day steel rebar. One of the church’s distinguishing features is its thick, white walls.
2The Belfry and The Antique Bronze Bell
A Renaissance-style belfry tops the church’s northern tower. This was an architectural element often used by the Dominican Order in its construction of churches in Asia. The original belfry collapsed during the Japanese period, and was rebuilt after 1945 in the Gothic style. It was then torn down during the 1960 renovations. The current belfry dates to 1982, while the bronze bell inside it dates to 1892. The bell was cast in Spain and shipped to Kaohsiung via the Philippines. It bears the inscription “MR JULIUS MANN-IOH ALAY DEB K.CH 1892.”
3The Imperial Order and Catholic Church Tablets
In 1874, Qing Minister of the Navy Shen Bao-zhen (1820 – 1879) arrived in Taiwan on a construction inspection tour. He passed through Wanjin Village and saw a majestic church. He also observed how conversant Father Herce was with local customs, and how content and happy his parishioners were. Shen believed that the church would be able to assist him in his policy of pacifying the indigenous Taiwanese. He therefore requested the Tongzhi Emperor (1856 –1875) to grant the church imperial protection. After the emperor agreed to the request, two granite tablets bearing the inscriptions “On Imperial Orders” and “Catholic Church” were presented to the church. The vertical “On Imperial Orders” tablet was inlaid in the façade of the church under the gable between two cornices, while the horizontal “Catholic Church” tablet was inlaid above the entrance. Every imperial soldier passing by the church was required to dismount from his horse as a sign of respect.
4The Procession of the Immaculate Conception
The Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception has the patronage of the Immaculate Conception, which is to say that its patron saint is the Blessed Virgin Mary. The church celebrates the anniversary of its establishment and its patron saint feast day on either the first or second Sunday of December. The parishioners pay homage to Saint Mary and give thanks to God during this special celebration. There is also a procession, which transpires as follows:
1. Veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary: The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is placed at the entrance of the church on the morning of the procession and adorned with lilies, a symbol of purity, for worshippers to venerate.
2. The procession: The palanquin carrying the Blessed Virgin Mary departs the church at 1:30 p.m. on the shoulders of church members. The palanquin is preceded by a crucifix and accompanied by Catholic church members from all around the country. They sing hymns as they walk alongside the palanquin.
3. The procession route: The Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception → Chishan Village → Wanjin Village → Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
The Wanjin Christmas Festival: In 2011, the Pingtung County Government added several activities to the Procession of the Immaculate Conception to create the Wanjin Christmas Festival. The activities include parent-child activities, prayer meetings, and evening concerts.
5The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Palanquins
A palanquin for the Blessed Virgin Mary sits in the church’s north corridor. It is one of the minor basilica’s most significant historical relics. The church acquired the palanquin from Spain in 1876. An Immaculate Conception statue stands on the palanquin. The Gothic palanquin is ornamented with refined carving. It is topped by the insignia of the Spanish royal family. The palanquin in the south corridor was also carved in the Gothic style, and is much newer than the palanquin in the north corridor. The palanquins play the leading role during the annual Procession of the Immaculate Conception. They carry a deep significance for parishioners, and are considered church treasures.
The Procession of the Immaculate Conception takes place every year on the second Sunday of December.