Wanjin's Madonna Procession

An Integrated Religious-Cultural Event

2019 / May

Chen Hsin-yi /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Scott Williams

Celebrations and processions honoring the birth of the goddess Mazu sweep across Taiwan during the third lunar month of every year. But Mazu is not the only divine figure feted in Taiwan. In fact, local Catholics also hold an annual deity procession in honor of the Virgin Mary, a custom that origin­ated more than a century ago at the Basilica of the Immacu­late Conception in Wan­jin Village, Wan­luan Township, Ping­tung County.

The basilica has organized two processions around the whole of Taiwan in recent years, and last year went so far as to arrange an event in con­junction with Mazu celebrations at a nearby Tao­ist temple. That energetic “meeting of Western and Eastern divine mothers” was yet further evidence of the di­vers­ity and inclusiveness of Taiwanese society.


Taiwan’s most Catholic village

Looking to experience the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception for myself, I visited it last December. Loc­a­ted in Ping­tung County’s Wan­luan Township, Wan­jin sits to the west of the Dawu Mountains, which overlook it like a reclining giant protecting the peaceful village. Sunlight splashes down, filling the air with the scent of harvested hay in spite of the lack of summer heat.

My first impression of the village is that it resembles a large Catholic diorama: each corner and alley is decor­ated with a large Biblically themed painting, sculpture or installation, some painted into the local landscape, others executed more in a comic-book style. In the evening, resid­ents hang lanterns from many of the installations.

According to the Wan­luan Township Office, Wan­jin is the most populous of the township’s 14 villages, with a registered population of more than 3,000 people and 2,000-some actual residents. The village’s population used to be 90% Catholic. Many of its children were baptized immediately after their birth, and grew up particip­ating in Sunday school and other church activities. In more recent years, social changes and outward migra­tion have lowered the proportion of Catholics in the village to 55%, though it remains Taiwan’s most densely Catholic community. 

A Spanish priest named Fernando Sainz built the church in 1870 and named the Virgin Mary as its patron saint. Since then, the church has celebrated the anni­vers­ary of its construction with an early December procession honoring the Virgin Mary, one which has turned it into a place of pilgrimage for Taiwanese Catholics, and tourists from around the world.

“Parishioners who have lived here for generations mark their calendars with church celebrations,” says Chen Yu-shin, a Wan­jin native who operates the village’s only hostel. December is packed with events, from the Nativity of Mary early in the month to Christmas at the end, that keep locals busy and fill them with gratitude. The village even has its own hymn to Mary, one originally adapted from a Chinese folk tune by Spanish Domin­ican missionaries working in Xia­men and other parts of Fu­jian more than 200 years ago. 

An annual gathering

European pilgrimage routes follow in the footsteps of saints and link churches. Pilgrims walking these paths elevate their spirituality through self-examination and sincere repentance. In Taiwan, Catholics come to Wan­jin’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception to particip­ate in church celebrations, reflect on their failings in the previous year, repent, and pray for blessings.

According to the church, roughly 8,000 people attended last year’s celebration of the Nativity of Mary, including 5,600 from outside the village. In some years, attendance has exceeded 10,000 people.

I experienced the whole of last year’s festivities. When the bell began to strike at 10 a.m., it sounded as if it were announcing the arrival of an angel. Instead, Archbishop Peter Cheng-­chung Liu, prelate of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kao­hsiung, entered the plaza at the head of a line of priests from various parishes. The celebrations included both the reading of the mass and musical performances by the Wan­chin Basilica Choir and the Kao­hsiung Holy Rosary Cathedral’s Western music ensemble that inspired feelings of veneration.

A carnivalesque procession

The afternoon Madonna procession starts at the church. An image of Christ on the cross leads the way, followed by groups from each of the parishes. The Wan­jin Basilica’s Madonna palanquin, clergy, and pa­rish­ioners bring up the rear, all of them praying and singing hymns as the procession wends through Wan­jin and the nearby Chi­shan Village. Crowds line the streets along the way, their cries of “God bless!” filling the air.

The most eye-catching part of the procession is the palan­quin itself. Five rotating teams of eight people carry it, advancing, retreating and turning in perfect synchrony. The march climaxes in the return to the basil­ica, with the bearers lifting the palanquin above their heads and rushing into the church as fireworks explode and the atmo­sphere rises to fever pitch.

One in a million

Wanjin’s status as a pilgrimage site for Taiwan’s Catholics stems from its place in the history of the Cath­olic mission in Taiwan.

Spanish Dominicans first came to Taiwan in 1622. They stayed briefly in the north, and built a church at Cape Santiago (since destroyed). The Dominicans came to Taiwan a second time in 1859, arriving in Ta­kao (present-­day Kao­hsiung) from Xia­men. They built an adobe church there the following year and began to missionize. In 1861, Fernando Sainz and a missionary named Yang Du (“Brother Du”) trekked the more than 60 kilometers from Ta­kao to Wan­jin, where they established a missionary outpost.

Why did they choose Wan­jin? Father Li Han­min says that Wan­jin had a vast hinterland, and the nearby Wu­gou River provided plenty of water with which to irrigate its fertile soil. In addition, the Aborigines who were already settled here provided the missionaries with a sizable population to convert. “Father Sainz had probably also received divine inspiration in his prayers, and therefore decided that this was the place.”

Father Sainz bought the land behind the present-day church in 1863, constructed a church of earth and stone, and quickly baptized more than 40 people. But the parish’s development was far from smooth over the next few years. Conflicts between ethnic Chinese and Aborigines generated ill feelings towards the church, which led to it being looted and burned. When the building was subsequently destroyed by an earthquake, the foreign missionaries soldiered on with their work in the parish. In 1869, Father Francisco Herce purchased the site of the present-day basil­ica to build a new church, as well as another tract of land that he then leased to pa­rish­ioners at a low cost. This enabled them to farm, build homes, and improve their lives.

Now a county-level designated historic site, the basilica is built in a Spanish style, rectangular and white-walled. It has a central chapel flanked by two towers on its west-­facing front, and an apse at the eastern end. Roughly eight meters tall, the basilica is about 15 meters wide and 39 meters long. Although the exterior has been renovated several times, the church’s basic structure remains unchanged.

Church records show the primary building material used was an amalgam of locally sourced crushed stone, lime, brown sugar, honey, kapok, and bricks. The builders also used wood and brick that was shipped from Fu­zhou to Dong­gang, then transported to Wan­jin by oxcart. Most of the skilled craftsmen who worked on it came from Fu­zhou, Xia­men, and ­Penghu. The pa­rish­ioners themselves provided additional volunteer labor. The church took one year to complete, and was formally put into use at the Nativity of Mary (December 18) in 1870.

Carrying on a tradition

The church’s fame as a pilgrimage site is well deserved.

In 1874, the Qing minister Shen Bao­zhen was ordered to review progress on opening up the mountainous parts of southern Taiwan. Passing through Wan­jin, he was amazed by its remarkable church. After making inquiries, he determined that the church had the potential to help assimilate the Aborigines and pass on the “right” customs, and recommended that the imperial court support the missionaries. The next year, he personally delivered two granite plaques gifted by Emperor Tong­zhi to the church, one engraved “Imperial Decree,” and the other “Catholic Church,” that were subsequently installed into the wall above the main entrance. Thereafter, military personnel passing the church were required to dismount to show their respect. The plaques are still visible in the wall today.

When the Japanese military used the church as a command center during World War II, the priest held services in parishioners’ homes. Fortunately, the church made it through the war intact.

In 1984, Pope John Paul II made the Wan­jin church a basilica, giving it precedence over other churches and attracting still greater numbers of pilgrims from abroad. In 2011, the Dominican Order transferred Wan­jin Parish to the General Vicariate of Taiwan.

In 2012, Wan­jin’s Madonna procession was designated a cultural asset under the Cultural Heritage Preserva­tion Act, in the religion subcategory of “Traditional Arts, Folk Customs and Related Cultural Artifacts.” The designation described the procession as “an activity that integrates Western religion and local folk customs and culture, one with historical, traditional, local, cultural, and exemplary characteristics.” It stated further, “It is the largest Catholic activity in Taiwan, and offers evidence of the historical development of the local community.”

Some 161 years after the introduction of Catholicism to Taiwan, Wan­jin’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception has become the spiritual home of Taiwan’s Catholics, an important pilgrimage destination, and a fascinating cultural experience even for non-Catholics.

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文‧陳歆怡 圖‧莊坤儒









1870年西班牙籍神父郭德剛(Fernando Sainz)在萬金村蓋了教堂,並奉「聖母瑪利亞」為教堂的「主保聖人」(意即守護者);此後每年12月上旬的建堂週年慶(或稱「主保堂慶」),都會舉行禮敬聖母的遊行,逐漸演變成全台灣天主教乃至外國觀光客的朝聖地。


































文・陳歆怡 写真・莊坤儒 翻訳・松本 幸子






































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