BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WANCHIN BASILICA
OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
The history of the Catholic Church of Wanchin is intertwined with the history of the evangelization of Taiwan.
In 1858 the Qing government signed an agreement with England and France allowing Foreign missionaries to do mission work in special ports and regions in China. The Holy See asked the Dominican Fathers of the Holy Rosary Province to restore the Catholic missions in Taiwan. The task of restoring the Catholic missions in Taiwan fell in the hands of Fr. Fernando Sainz and Fr. Angel Bofurul. The first Catholic mission was established in Takao (Kaohsiung) and a church in honor of the Queen of the Rosary was built near the banks of the Love river. The mission in Takao began to thrive with a good number of catechumens and converts.
Some of the new converts were from Wanchin. Seeing their deep religiosity and good naturalness as well as a means to extend the mission work further in the hinterlands, Fr. Sainz decided to go to their village and to preach the Gospel to them. On March, 1861, he thus took along a cathequist and another Christian to this remote settlement at the foot of the mountains, 60 Kms. down south Takao. This is how the evangelization of Wanchin came about.
There were many reasons why the people of Wanchin received the Faith. One important fact is due to the missionary's proficiency of the Min-nan dialect whose accent is similar to that dialect spoken in Wanchin. Secondly is the strategic location of the village settlement wich is between the impenetrable Hakkas and the Paiwan aborigines who where known at that time as fierce head hunters. Their precarious existence among these people enkindled in them a need for a divine protection, a real experience of a Providential God who cares for them as a Father to his children.
The people of Wanchin sincerely accepted the faith abandoning their former practices. This infuriated the surrounding Hakka settlers. In due course, the mission as well as the Christians suffered persecutions, discrimination, looting, violent harassment from these people.
Although no records are extant among the historical annals of any religious persecutions or religious wars, the unwritten history of the Catholic mission is replete with many touching stories of the sufferings of the early evangelizers who have to offer their blood for the glory of God and his Church.
The building of the Church
With a good group of Christians in the Village, Fr. Sainz decided to build a simple Church. In May 1863, he spent 60 yuan to purchase the land in order to build the simple mud church for the mission. Two years later, on October 13, 1865, the church was destroyed by an earthquake. Since the original church was also too small of the growing number of Christians, Fr.Sainz and the people decided to build a bigger and stronger Church.
With financial help from the Dominican Fathers and generous contributions from the faithful, enough money was collected to build a new church . The property was too small for this purpose and by the end of October,1869, Fr Francisco Herce purchased some hectares of land to amplify the Church grounds and for the use of the Christians. Fr. Herce, who was living in Kaohsiung, sent Liu Ah Chang, a trusted and able catechist to supervise the construction of the mission church.
Due to the past experiences with the neighboring settlers, it was decided that the Church adopt the style of a Spanish fortress-castle. This can be seen in the church's new dimensions: 45 feet wide, 116 feet long, 25 feet high and with walls 5 feet thick, using the best materials for the construction used at the time, such as honey, lime and eggs. This enabled the Church building to be used as a refuge and shelter to the Christians in times of natural calamities or from attacks by enemies. This special feature of the church edifice makes it as one of the special architectural and historical monuments of Pintung county.
Other materials used in building the church were imported from Mainland China. The beams of hardwood and fire bricks were tied togheter in rafts and carried along the sea to piers of Tung Kang and from there, by oxcart, transported to Wanchin.
Most of the masons, carpenters and artisans were also from Fozhou and some from Xiamen. They left their subtle artistry in the church structure and the intricate altars and palnquins of the church. The total cost of the church was about 299 yuan for the lime, 200 yuan fro the wood and 300 yuan for the brisk. Religious vessels, vestments for church use as well as religious image which adorned the main altar were ordered by the missionaries either from Manila, and from Europe.
On 8 December, 1870, the church was finally inaugurated and placed under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Sometime later, the house of the missionaries and the cathequists was built. In 1872, Fr. Herce bought some more lands to provide a decent means of livehood for the mission and the Christians. This property was to became the nucleus of the village of Wanchin.
During the tour of duty of the Qing Court official Shen Pao Chen to southern Taiwan he passed by Wanchin and began to be interested with the work of the Catholic Church in this village. He was deeply moved by the peoples' simple and happy lives and how the missionary, Fr. Francisco Herce, OP wearing a Chinese apparel and fluent in the Fukien dialect taking care of these people with enthusiasm. He was informed of the constant harassment made by the neighboring hakkas against them and thus, he personally wrote a report to the Qing Court asking the imperial protection to the people of Wanchin in the mission.
In 1874, the Qing Imperial Goverment promulgated an edict thereby placing the Catholic Church of Wanchin under imperial protection. Two granite tablets each bearing the inscriptions: "On Imperial Orders" and "Catholic Church" were sent to the Catholic mission. On January 12, 1875, these tablets were inlaid in the facade of the church. This was a singular privilege and honor for the christians. From then on, every imperial soldier passing by Wanchin church had to dismount from his horse as a sing of respect.
In spite of Imperial orders, the hostility of the Hakkas towards the Christians did not change. Numerous clashes between the two village dwellers continued sporadically for many years.
In August 17, 1985, the same year when Taiwan was transferred to Japanese Rule, the most violent skirmish occurred between the Hakkas and the Wanchin Christians. The Wanchin villagers were at the losing side, beset with difficulties with depleting food supply. Many were desperate and were waiting to be massacred. Fortunately the Japanese army arrived and drove the enemies away. The conflict between the Hakkas and the Christians then ceased to exist.
Under the Japanese Rule
During the Japanese colonial rule, the mission remained calm and grew steadily. In 1942, at the height of the Pacific War, Japanese troops occupied the church and used it as military headquarters. Foxholes, defense trenches, ammunition depots and granaries were built around the church property. The missionary was only able to have limited freedom to move around and minister to the needs of the Christians. At the end of the Pacific War, Wanchin was heavily bombed by the Allied troops, but miraculously the church was not damaged.
Restorations were made on the church in the 50's and the 60's by different missionaries who worked in Wanchin due to the repairs needed by the old building and by the guidelines set by the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council. The latest restoration was made in the 80's to bring back the simple architectural lines of the church was made in consonance to the functionality and solemnity of the Christian worship. On May, 1999 is planed to make a new restoration sponsored and paid by the Pingtung government.
On December 9, 1984, Pope John Paul II bestowed on the Wanchin church, the title of Basilica. It is the first church in Taiwan to be given this singular privilege. According to the tradition of the Catholic Church, the term "Basilica" is an honorary title given to a church for its religious, historic and artistic significance in the locality. It enjoys the privilege of bearing the Papal coat of arms at the facade of the church and special blessings are given to those who visit it.
In recognition of his historical value, the Ministry of Interior declared this church a national monument with a third class rank, making it a cultural legacy of Pingtung County.
In 1985, the late Bishop of Kaohsiung, Msgr. Joseph Cheng Tien Hsiang designated Wanchin as a pilgrimage shrine and the National Bishops' Conference promulgated it as a national shrine. It has become a favorite place of Marian devotion and spiritual renewal in the Taiwan Church. Pilgrinages are organized especially the months of May and October. On the first or second Sunday nearest to the feast of the Immaculate Conception (December,8), Catholics all over the island converge at the Basilica to pay homage to the Blessed Virgin, celebrating the patron feast with the Catholics of the village.
Residence and Activity Centre
In 1991, the Immaculate Conception Dominican Residence was inaugurated. This beautiful building designed according to Spanish colonial architectural lines, is the residence of the Dominican community serving the Wanchin Basilica as well the Dominican mission stations among the Paiwan aborigines in the hinterlands.
The two story Activity Center, also following the aesthetic lines of the Dominican Residence in front of it, was blessed and inaugurated in 1994. This building not only houses the parochial offices but also serves as a pilgrimage house, a center formation of lay apostles, meeting place for various religious organizations. It also has five conference rooms and a dinning hall.
Recently a nice Chinese stile garden was added with a grotto in the middle, as well a new basketball court amd a new and big altar for the open air celebrations, especially on the feast of the Immaculate Conception when more than ten thousand pilgrims arrive to participate in the celebrations.
This historic church, the two buildings, the Chinese garden with the Grotto, the sprawling grass covered grounds of palms and fruit trees around the property, make up the beautiful complex of the Wanchin Basilica.
Today, about 80% of the residents of both Wanchin and Chihshan are Catholics, the highest density of Catholics at a given area in the Island. Despite high percentage of the youth migrate to the cities and industrial centers , they still consider Wanchin their home and the Church, a part of their lives. Many Catholic families in the island can trace their roots to Wanchin. It has also produced many religious and priestly vocations for the Church.
The Basilica of Wanchin stands today not only a living monument of faith of the Catholic Church in Taiwan, but also as a reminder of the rich cultural and historic heritage of southern part of the island.