Yongsan Seminary in 1914. Photo courtesy of Catholic University of Korea.
The phrase “hidden gem” gets bandied around a lot, but sometimes, you find places that really do match that description. Seemingly lost amidst the urban grime of one of Seoul’s grittiest neighborhoods, Old Yongsan Seminary and Wonhyoro Catholic Church are an unexpected oasis of beauty and tranquillity. I instantly fell in love with the place when I first visited in 2007, and make it a point to stop by whenever I can, which is often since I live not far away.
Old Yongsan Seminary
Korea’s first Catholic seminary was St. Joseph’s Seminary (also known as Baeron Seminary), founded in 1855 in Jecheon, Chungcheongbuk-do. With a curriculum of Latin, rhetoric, philosophy and theology taught by two French priests, St. Joseph’s Seminary was Korea’s first “modern” educational institution, but it was closed in 1866 with the start of the Byeongin Persecution (during which the two French priests, Fr. Michel-Alexandre Petitnicolas and Jean-Antoine Pourthie, were beheaded, along with thousands of Korean Catholics).
Almost 20 years later, a new Catholic seminary was opened in Yeoju, Gyeonggi-do in 1885. Like St. Joseph’s Seminary, this was illegal as Korea had yet to permit Catholic missionary activities, but the following year, Korea signed a diplomatic relations treaty with France, giving French missionaries the right to travel and purchase land in designated areas. The Paris Foreign Missions Society began buying up land connected with the persecutions of 19th century and building upon it churches and other religious facilities.
In 1884, the Korean government opened up the Yongsan area to foreign settlement. The Catholic Church, looking for a better place to train Korean priests, in 1887 moved its seminary to Yongsan, to a hill overlooking Saemanteo, where a number of French missionaries had been martyred. The original school consisted of several pre-existing hanok structures, but in 1891, work began on a new, Western-style seminary building, funded by a Western donor believed to be the wife of a French aristocrat.
The new building, which you see above, was completed in 1892. It was designed by French missionary priest Eugene Coste, whose other architectural accomplishments include Myeong-dong Cathedral and Yakhyeon Catholic Church, while construction was entrusted to a Chinese Catholic by the name of Peter Wang. The architectural info says it was built in Georgian style, although it doesn’t strike me as particularly Georgian*. Regardless, it’s a lovely building of red and grey brick (typical of Catholic missionary architecture in Korea) and one of Korea’s oldest Western-style structures**. In fact, I can think of only one that is older, the old Bishop’s Residence next to Myeong-dong Cathedral (completed in 1890; also designed by Coste).
* Now that I look at it again from the side, I suppose it does look Georgian, with tall windows topped by segmental arches.
** OK, at this point, I should also register my suspicion that there could be an mix-up going on. Judging from a rather detailed booklet on the site’s architecture kindly given to me by a nun who showed me around the place Saturday, the building built in 1892 might be this one (also seen here), which was much more classically Georgian and more closely resembles the Coste-designed Old Bishop’s Residence of Myeong-dong Cathedral, which you can see here. If that’s the case, then this building would be a newer schoolhouse added in 1911 when the seminary was expanded to handle the increase in students. The very same booklet, however, later contradicts itself and says the existing structure is the 1892 building, a line shared by both the Cultural Heritage Administration and Seoul Metropolitan Government.
In the 1940s, just prior to Liberation, the school was shut down by the Japanese, who requisitioned it for use as a barracks. It was also briefly used as a Catholic hospital. After Liberation, it was restored as a seminary, but this was shortly moved to Hyehwa-dong, where it remains to this day (as Catholic University). The old seminary became a middle school, but this, too, was moved to Hyehwa-dong in 1951 in a property exchange with the Paris Foreign Missions Society, which took over the Yongsan site as its Seoul headquarters. Finally, in 1956, the newly established Korea branch of the Society of the Sacred Heart acquired the property and converted it into Sacred Heart Girls Middle School and international school the following year. The middle school was upgraded into a high school in 1960, while the international school was closed in 1980. Today, the old seminary building is used as a small museum (not open on the weekends) and an office for the Society of the Sacred Heart.
American Bill Smothers, who attended Sacred Heart International School in the late 1950s, has posted a couple of photos of the school in 1959 here.
Wonhyoro Catholic Church
The real gem here, however, is the old seminary chapel, now called Wonhyoro Catholic Church. Completed in 1902, the small Gothic chapel was designed by Father Coste, although he died in 1896, two years prior to the start of construction, leading some to believe it was actually designed by Father Victor Louis Poisnel, who worked closely with Coste and in fact finished Coste’s work on Myeong-dong Cathedral. Simple but beautiful, in the old days, it must have had a commanding view of the Hangang River. Now, it overlooks downtown Yongsan, with the 63 Building looming in the distance.
Small in size, the chapel’s use of the sloping landscape makes it look larger than it really is. The vertical lines are further accentuated by the narthex-end buttresses that extend beyond the roof line. There is no steeple, either: the bell instead hangs above the west side entrance.
If you think the outside is beautiful, wait until you see the interior. Like the exterior, it is simple yet beautiful, and incredibly atmospheric — it just feels old. Restoration work, recently completed on the exterior, will now commence on the interior, but I don’t expect much will change. I particularly like the clamshell holy water fonts and the wooden Madonna and Child on the narthex wall. A relic from St. Andrew Kim Taegon, Korea’s first native priest, was kept here until 1960, when it was moved to Catholic University of Korea.
Station of the Cross
One of the neat things about Korea’s historic Catholic churches is that behind the church you can often find a small walking path with the Stations of the Cross. Even if you’re not offering devotions, these make for pleasant, quiet strolls during which you can contemplate life.
MAP: Old Yongsan Seminary and Wonhyoro Catholic Church
The old seminary and chapel are on the campus of Sacred Heart (Seongsim) Girls High School. You could walk there from Yongsan Electronics Market, or take a cab from Yongsan Station.
View Old Yongsan Seminary and Wonhyoro Catholic Church in a larger map