Build - A brief introduction of Hong Kong Church Building, HK Diocesan Liturgy Commission newsletter Volume 1 August 1991
Yeung Pui Wah

In the early Church, Christians often gathered in large houses where they prayed, shared the “agape feast,” broke bread and proclaimed the Word of God. These were places of assembly for the faithful – the Church’s home.

As more became believers, the Church needed ever larger assembly spaces, for prayer, listening to the Word of God and breaking bread. We customarily call these buildings “churches,” by the same name as the institutional Church is known (Ecclesia, in Greco-Latin).

Of the places of worship built by the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, since its founding in 1841, 38 churches and 38 Mass centres, belonging to 62 parishes, are still in use today. The oldest church dates back over a hundred years, still young compared with landmark churches in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, ecclesiastical architecture in Hong Kong has a distinct character of its own, and its design language is still evolving, with the ongoing renewal of liturgy.

St Joseph’s Chapel, in Yim Tin Tsai, completed c. 1866-67, is indisputably the oldest existing Catholic church in Hong Kong.

According to diocesan archives, Ting Kok (汀角), in Sai Kung district, was centre of the wider San On (新安) missionary district, and the area around Sai Kung was most probably the site of the earliest missionary activities in Hong Kong. It was also an established transit point used by missionaries on their way into mainland China. The mission was set up in 1866, and 19 residents were baptised as the first batch of local Catholics. At the same time, the priests developed close friendships with the villagers of Yim Tin Tsai and about 30 of them were prepared for baptism on Christmas Day that year. They all came from the island’s single Chan clan and, with other soon-to-be-baptised catechumens from the village, voluntarily offered their hilltop property for building a new church, with school and dormitory, which still functions as today’s St Joseph’s Chapel. Members of this clan include the late Fr Joachim Chan, Fr Dominic Chan, VG, and five female sisters who joined the Sisters of the Precious Blood and Daughters of St. Paul.


Periods in the development of churches

The development of churches in Hong Kong can be divided into three periods and dates of consecration of individual churches are recorded in the Catholic Directory, published annually by the Diocese of Hong Kong.

First period: from the first mission to end of World War II

During this period, a number of major churches were completed. These were all built on traditional Western models, whether in their external form or interior decoration. Thus, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (1888) and Rosary Church (1905) were built in the neo-Gothic style, while St Margaret’s Church (1925) and St Teresa’s Church (1932) shared common neo-Romanesque features. These churches are characterised by their imposing façades and elaborate interiors: their tall ceilings and thick walls are effective not only  in keeping cool in summer, but also impress visitors by their visual allegory of God’s splendour and human insignificance. Light penetrates softly through large stained-glass windows and from narrow clerestory openings above, rendering into the interior spaces an extraordinarily peaceful and sacred sense of ambience. The tall pillars and arches, in particular, help to lift worshippers’ hearts up above, promoting a prayerful atmosphere.

Those days, the Mass was celebrated in Latin, with the celebrant and congregation facing in the same direction, towards a high altar that was lavishly decorated in layers, decked with candelabrums, vases of flowers and sacred images, in which the tabernacle was installed as centrepiece.

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in the 1950’s
Christ the King Chapel, Convent of St Paul Chartres, Causeway Bay (date unknown) St Margaret’s Church, Happy Valley, late 1950’s

Second period: post-World War II up to Vatican Council II

From 1945-49, the Church was preoccupied with reconstruction. Lack of resources and a still staggering economy meant that building of new churches was out of the question. The change of regime in China, in 1949, led to an influx of refugees into Hong Kong, among them not a few Catholics and clergy from various provinces. In response to the increasing demand for pastoral care, the Diocese set up Mass centres and chapels in the refugee camps: they included Star of the Sea Chapel in Chai Wan, Church of the Nativity of Our Lady in Tung Tau Chuen and St Peter’s Chapel in Kowloon Tsai. These centres and chapels were erected to parishes on 31 May 1957. In addition, the Diocese also developed pastoral centres in New Territories and other remote areas, among them: St. Joseph’s Church, Fan Ling (1954), St. Francis Xavier’s Church, Ma On Shan (1955), Sacred Heart Church, Sha Tin (1956) and Church of Our Lady of Fatima, Cheung Chau (blessed 1961) and St. James’ Church, Yau Tong (1962). These Mass centres and chapels were largely of traditional layout, designed for simple and economic construction.

Sacred Heart Church, Sha Tin: the old church to the right is now part of Shing Mun River; the new church to the left has been demolished. Our Lady of the Rosary Church, Kennedy town. Renovated in 1982.

During the 1950’s Hong Kong went through its most difficult period. The rapidly rising population suffered from steep material and spiritual deprivation.  In response, the Church offered social services, based on material support, and built schools. This was the beginning of a symbiosis of school and parish, with a church supported on top of the school block or located adjacent to it, as a way of maximising the use of valuable land and other resources.  To this category belonged: Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Wan Chai (1950), Our Lady of Rosary Church, Kennedy Town (1957), and St. Mary Church, Hung Hom (1959). Restrained by their surroundings, these churches were seldom designed to impress; instead, they were generally indistinguishable from their associated school buildings. Still, some of these churches were designed with high ceilings and some were even fitted with stained glass windows. The altar was placed at one end of the church, towards which the congregation directed their attention from a distance, to “hear” and “observe,” as Mass was being celebrated.

Third period: Vatican II to present

In the 1960’s, as land supply became even tighter, it took much longer time to secure land and raise funds for building new churches. On the other hand, pastoral needs for the rapidly growing church membership had to be met, and this was achieved by setting up, since 1962, parishes without their own dedicated churches. Typically, the parish Mass centre was housed in a school hall, fitted out with movable furniture, as temporary measure, until a permanent site could be obtained for a new church, as happened in St James’ Parish during that period. Unfortunately, most of these parishes are still without their own church buildings: among them St. John the Baptist Church, Kwun Tong (1962), St. Vincent’s Church, Wong Tai Sin (1962), St. Bonaventure’s Church, Wang Tau Hom (1963), St. Edward’s Church, Lam Tin (1967) and Church of Christ the Worker, Jordan Valley (1967) – a unique feature of the Diocese of Hong Kong.

St. Edward's mass centre at St. Edward's Catholic Primary School Catholic Insititute for Religion & Society chapel.

The Second Vatican Council promoted indigenisation of liturgy, and taught that the faithful should not behave like silent spectators when attending Eucharistic celebration. Instead, they should sensibly, devoutly and actively participate in sacred liturgy, in order to deeply appreciate the mystery of Christ and of the Church, through liturgy and scripture, accept the instruction of God’s Word and receive nourishment of the Eucharist at the Lord’s Table. The Council also emphasised the role of the Liturgy of the Word, promoted Scripture reading, homilies and prayers of the faithful. As a result, the liturgical renewal of Vatican II had great influence on church design, and in churches built during and after this period, both the altar and the ambo became the centre of attention. The crucifix or statue of the Risen Christ replaced the Tabernacle and saint’s statue in a niche, as was in the old practice, to enhance interaction between celebrant and congregation. Even though they had their own, distinct characteristics, these churches were all built in the liturgical spirit of Vatican II, both in their interiors and exteriors.

In recent years more new churches were built and old ones renovated. With ever scarcer land supply and rising construction costs, the new churches of today have taken on a completely new look, both inside and out, with very distinctive architectural expressions.

External appearance

Recent churches, particularly those in the densely populated urban districts, are generally designed as multi-functional complexes to maximise land use: housing church, assembly hall, catechetical and activity rooms, offices and other facilities, such as kindergarten and car park, all under one roof.  These new, composite building forms have also provided architects with the opportunity for creative interpretation, making their appearances more striking and pregnant with symbolism, as if to convey a clearer message that they are dwellings of the Lord. Examples are St. Mary’s Church in Hung Hom, with its curtain-wall façade (right), Star of the Sea Church in Chai Wan, Church of the Annunciation in Tsuen Wan and St. Benedict’s Church in Sha Tin.

Church Layout

Traditionally, most churches adopted a rectangular plan, which increased the separation between celebrant and congregation, thus weakening the sense of participation and inadvertently leading to prayer in private and passiveness of attendance during the celebration of liturgy.

In new and refurbished churches, innovations leading to unconventional layouts, such as a fan-shaped or semicircular interior, have resulted in reducing the distance between celebrant and congregation, fostering a sense of concentricity and community. Worshippers are thus encouraged to participate with one heart and one mind, in turning to the Word and the Christ on the altar.  Examples are St. James’ Church in Yau Tong and Mother of Christ in Sheung Shui, with their fan-shaped layout.