This article was published previously in Saigoneer http://saigoneer.com
Hidden behind the Department of Foreign Affairs building at 4-6 Alexandre de Rhodes is the last surviving relic of that neighbourhood’s long association with the Roman Catholic Church – an abandoned chapel of the Paris Foreign Missions Society.
The street known today as Alexandre de Rhodes first came into being in 1870, during the construction of the first Bishop’s Palace. Not surprisingly, its earliest name was rue de l’Évêché (Bishopric street).
Built between 1869 and 1877 at 6 rue de l’Évêché, that first Bishop’s Palace is said to have replaced a “confiscated Annamite mandarin’s house” on rue Lefèbvre (modern Nguyễn Công Trứ street), which had served as a temporary episcopal residence since the time of the French conquest.
On 28 January 1897, the rue de l’Évêché was renamed rue Colombert, after Monsignor Isidore Colombert, who served as Apostolic Vicar of Western Cochinchina from 1873 to 1894.
However, for reasons which remain a mystery, it was subsequently decided to relocate the Bishop’s Palace to what is now District 3. In 1911, a new episcopal residence – the current Archbishop’s Palace – was inaugurated at 180 rue Richaud (modern Nguyễn Đình Chiểu). As soon as the old building at 6 rue Colombert had been vacated, it was taken over by the Cochinchina government’s Political and Administrative Affairs Inspectorate (Inspection des Affaires politiques et administratives).
At around the same time as the diocesan administration vacated 6 rue Colombert, the Paris Foreign Missions Society (Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris, MEP) built a representative office (Procure des Missions Étrangères) right next door at 4 rue Colombert. The MEP would remain there for the rest of the colonial period.
It’s said that on the morning of 23 September 1945, the Provisional Executive Committee of the South under Trần Văn Giàu (1911-2010) met in its offices to plan a campaign of armed resistance against General Gracey’s British troops and the French prisoners of war they had released and rearmed.
Following the departure of the MEP from Saigon in 1954, its former headquarters building was taken over by the government of the Republic of Việt Nam and transformed into the National School of Public Administration (Trường Quốc gia Hành chánh), while the old episcopal residence next door became the ROV Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Bộ Ngoại giao).
Five years later, the School was relocated to 10 Trần Quốc Toản (now 3 Tháng 2), permitting the ROV Ministry of Foreign Affairs also to take possession of the old MEP building. Then in 1961, both of the old church buildings at 4 and 6 Alexandre de Rhodes were demolished and replaced by a single large modern one. Since 1975, this has served as the offices of the Hồ Chí Minh City Foreign Affairs Department (Sở Ngoại vụ Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh).
Remarkably, one relic survived the demolition of the old MEP building, and this still stands today in the rear yard of the Foreign Affairs Department compound.
Used for many years as a storeroom, the former MEP chapel at 4-6 Alexandre de Rhodes is similar in style to the chapel which stands in the compound of the Children’s (former Grall) Hospital. Although it has not yet been formally dated, it is believed to have been built during the construction of the MEP compound in 1912.
Despite its diminutive size, the chapel incorporates two transepts and a small rear balcony area, the latter accessed by a spiral staircase. Sadly, the original floor of the chapel has been lost and its stained glass windows have sustained some damage, but other interior decorative work remains intact.
It’s understood that the future of the chapel hinges on a decision regarding its ownership.
Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.
A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.
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