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Old Saigon Building Of The Week: St Joseph’s Seminary - Part 1

One of the first Roman Catholic institutions founded by Bishop Dominique Lefèbvre following the French conquest of 1859, the rarely-visited St Joseph’s Seminary offers a unique oasis of calm in a busy city.

Saigon’s first seminary for the training of Roman Catholic priests was established in around 1850 by Monsignor, later Bishop Dominique Lefèbvre of the Christian Brothers (Frères des écoles chrétiennes), next to the Thị Nghè creek at Phú Mỹ. However in July 1858, during the preliminary French campaign in Đà Nẵng, its director, Father Phaolô Lê Văn Lộc, was arrested by royal troops and beheaded on the Trường Thi examination field outside the Gia Định Citadel.

Lộc’s successor, Father Louis Théodore Wibaux (1820-1878), arrived in Saigon in January 1860. In addition to placing him in charge of the Phú Mỹ Seminary, Lefèbvre also appointed him as Provicar General of the Diocese. Once in Saigon, Wibaux is said to have “constantly busied himself training young students of the sanctuary, as he had done previously in France for nearly 15 years before devoting himself to the foreign missions.”

The founder of  St Joseph's Seminary, Father Louis Théodore Wibaux (1820-1878).

Two years later, during the final stages of the French conquest of Cochinchina, the old Phú Mỹ Seminary was burned to the ground, so Father Wibaux was sent out to find land on which to build a new one. Arriving at a large open field near the near the naval shipyard on boulevard de la Citadelle (Tôn Đức Thắng street), he is reported to have said: “Hie est Locus (This is the place).”

Bishop Dominique Lefèbvre subsequently decided to settle several different religious institutions on the site selected by Father Wibaux, and on 28 August 1862, the French authorities granted a 14,400m² plot of land to the Christian Brothers for construction of the new St Joseph’s Seminary and an adjacent 10,800m² plot to the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres for the construction of a Sainte-Enfance or “Holy Childhood” orphanage for local street children.

The foundation stone of the Seminary was laid in 1863 by Bishop Lefèbvre, and in 1863-1866 Father Wibaux oversaw the construction of the first Seminary building. Because “at this time the resources of the mission were not significant,” construction took several years. Measuring 45m long and 21m wide, with a wide verandah surrounding all four sides, the Seminary building was completed in 1866, “thanks to the zeal and generosity of Father Wibaux, who dedicated to this work the greater part of his personal fortune.” It was inaugurated in 1866 by Lefèbvre’s successor, Bishop Miche.

In the early days of the new Seminary, a large inner hall was used for worship, but in 1867, Father Wibaux began work on a dedicated new chapel. Located immediately behind the Seminary and measuring “30m long by 10m wide, with a vault height of 10m,” the Seminary Chapel was inaugurated by Bishop Miche on 19 April 1871.

An engraving of the St Joseph's Seminary Chapel of 1871.

When Father Wibaux died on 7 October 1877, "leaving the seminar in a very satisfactory state of prosperity,” he was interred behind the Seminary Chapel. In 1913, a mausoleum was raised around his tomb.

At the time of its inauguration in 1866, the Seminary (pictured at the top of the article) had just seven teachers and 60 students, but in subsequent years the intake and number of teaching staff increased steadily. By the 1920s, its activities had outgrown its facilities, so in 1928-1932, two new wings were added, permitting the Seminary to be divided into a Grand Seminaire for senior students and a Petit Seminaire for junior students.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 to read about the centuries old religious artifacts that lay inside the complex's Heritage Center. 

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Tim Doling is the author of the walking tours book Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts 4-hour Heritage Tours of Historic Saigon and Cholon. For more information about Saigon history and Tim's tours visit his website, www.historicvietnam.com.

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