One doesn’t normally associate war with church building. Indeed, many of Korea’s historic churches were destroyed or badly damaged during the Korean War. The resulting need for new churches to replace the ones lost in the war, however, sparked a wave of church construction in the mid-to-late 1950s, particularly in the areas close to the DMZ. Many were built with the help of local military units, both South Korean and American.
Many of the post-war churches are now protected cultural heritage sites. These “fortresses of God,” as they were regarded after the war, were abodes of peace and stability in a time of violence and chaos and an early manifestation of Korea’s rise from the ruins of war. Especially beautiful examples are three Catholic churches located just north of Seoul — Uijeongbu 2-dong Catholic Church (1953), Pocheon Catholic Church (1955) and Galgok-ri Mission Church in Paju (1955). The Uijeongbu and Galgok-ri churches were built with assistance from the US Army and US Marine Corps, respectively, also making them monuments to the friendship between Korea and the United States, a friendship forged in the crucible of war.
Uijeongbu 2-dong Catholic Church
A short walk from Uijeongbu Station, Line 1 is Uijeongbu 2-dong Catholic Church, on the grounds of what is now Uijeongbu Cathedral. This simple stone Gothic church was erected in 1953 to replace an earlier church that was destroyed in the Korean War. It was designed by Father John Yi Gye-gwang, the resident priest, with much assistance from a Father Rojeski, a Polish-American chaplain with US I Corps, which was based in Uijeongbu at the time. Catholics in I Corps donated money for the construction, while local stonemasons fashioned the granite, which was taken from a nearby quarry.
Due to its historical and architectural value, the church has been designated a provincial cultural property. The interior was recently restored (see this post for how it used to look). The old plaque at the entrance of the church, marking the consecration of the church and the contribution of the Catholics of I Corps, is particularly moving (at least if you’re an American).
It’s a short walk from the west exit of Uijeongbu Station, Line 1. Just head towards Uijeongbu 2-dong Office — the church is next to it.
Budae JJigae (Army Base Stew)
Uijeongbu’s contribution to Korean cuisine is budae jjigae. A major transportation hub at a strategic location guarding a major invasion route to Seoul, the city was until very recently home to several large US military bases. US soldiers brought with them their unique culinary traditions, such as steak, sausages, beans and Spam. In the hard years after the Korean War, Koreans residing near US bases took to these foreign foodstuffs, preparing them in a stew with cabbage and noodles and seasoned with red pepper paste to suit the Korean palate. And so was born budae jjigae.
In downtown Uijeongbu, not far from Uijeongbu Police Station, is an alleyway of restaurants specializing in budae jjigae. The sample above was consumed at Odeng Sikdang (031-842-0423), a restaurant has been around since the early 1960s. Interestingly, the budae jjigae masters reportedly still prefer US-made ingredients like Corn King and Hormel luncheon meats.
You’re going to want to take a cab from Uijeongbu Station, Line 1. Just ask for the Budae Jjigae Street (부대찌개 거리) — everyone knows it. If you feel like stretching your legs, here’s a map.
Pocheon Catholic Church
Pocheon is a small town to the northeast of Seoul, a pretty region of high mountains, deep valleys and green forests. Not far from the DMZ, it is home to many South Korean military bases, including the headquarters of VI ROK Corps: young soldiers can be seen everywhere. It is known nationwide for its makgeolli rice beer and galbi (BBQ ribs).
On a peaceful hill overlooking downtown Pocheon is Pocheon Catholic Church. It’s a lovely little place with a new church, a rectory and, at the very top of the hill, the ruins of the old church, which you can see above. Pocheon Catholic Church was founded in 1955 by Gen. Lee Han-lim, then commander of VI ROK Corps. A devout Catholic, Gen. Lee searched then-churchless Pocheon for a good place to build a place of worship, and came to favor the hilltop, from which he could see all of Pocheon. A community leader donated the plot, and the general set his engineering units to work. It took just five months to erect the church, which was completed in November 1955. Its official name, St. Gabriel Catholic Church, was taken from Gen. Lee’s baptismal name.
A simple, sturdy structure of granite built in Gothic style, it was rather typical of churches built in the 1950s. For decades, it served as one of the most important churches in the region. In 1990, however, a former cop who had failed in a business venture fell asleep after lighting some candles in the church vestry: the resulting fire gutted the church and destroyed the roof. All that remained were the granite walls and the bell tower. A new church was built, and there was some debate over whether to tear down the surviving walls, but the church’s priests, scholars and then-Bishop of Chuncheon Jang Ik persisted and the ruins were registered as a cultural property in 2006.
Take Bus 138 from Uijeongbu Station (actually, from in front of the Daehan Life Insurance building) and get off at Pocheon City Hall (trip takes about an hour). From there, it’s a 10 minute walk past Pocheon Elementary School to the church.
Galgok-ri Mission Church
Drive some 12km east of Munsan and you’ll come to the small village of Galgok-ri, which means “Village of Kudzu,” the village being so named because it has, well, lots of kudzu. It’s a lovely little place hidden away in the green, hilly country on the road to Dongducheon. The village was founded in 1896 by three families who had moved from another nearby valley, which in turn was founded five years earlier by Catholics fleeing persecution in Hongcheon and Pungsuwon. It is a rather typical gyo’uchon, Catholic villages formed during the persecutions of the 19th century, usually in rough, isolated areas far from the strong arm of the law. Residents traditionally made their living baking ongi (clay jars), a common profession in gyo’uchon, where clay and wood were typically plentiful. In fact, Galgok-ri was selected for settlement due to the large deposits of clay nearby.
The impression one gets is that Galgok-ri is still a gyo’uchon. I took a taxi to the village from the nearby town of Beopwon-eup; along the way, we asked some locals for directions. A woman told us, “Oh, the Catholic village is just over that mountain.” As you approach the village, the first building you see is the old stone church in the middle of town. Across from the church is a recently restored old hanok that once served as the community church; in front of it, a few villagers are sharing a drink and having a grand old time. “You here to see the church?” one asks. “American soldiers built it.”
And indeed, they did. Like Uijeongbu 2-dong Catholic Church, the current Galgok-ri Mission Church was built soon after the Korean War with the assistance of the US military to replace the previous church, which was destroyed in the war. Here, the main mover was a US Marine Corps chaplain, Father Edward Martineau, working with a ROK Marine Corps chaplain, Father Thaddeus Kim. Work was completed in 1955. Architecturally, it closely resembles Uijeongbu 2-dong Catholic Church: it’s a sturdy Gothic church built of granite, blessed with a simple elegance. Interestingly, it has no pews: churchgoers sit on cushions on the floor in Korean style. Also very Korean are the Stations of the Cross on the walls.
Take bus 32 or 32-1 from Uijeongbu Intercity Bus Terminal: it’ll drop you off in front of the church. The trip takes about 50 minutes.
NOTE: Information on these churches will be included in my upcoming book on Korean War-related historical sites.
Map: Churches of the Korean War Era
View Korean War Churches in a larger map