The Only Catholic Church in Xizang

A picture of a cross in the setting sun
A picture of a cross in the setting sun
By Paul WuMarch 19th, 2024

Many people have the impression that Xizang (a recently established official name for Tibet, translator's note) is a region where Xizang Buddhism predominates, with temples of all sizes dispersed everywhere. However, what many people don’t know is that in the upper Yerkalo Village, Markam County, there stands a beautiful church, which has become an alternative religious building in Xizang.

As early as the period of the Guge Dynasty in the early 17th century, Catholicism entered Xizang but failed to establish itself there. Modern Catholicism was introduced to Yerkalo in 1865, when French Fathers Auguste Desgodins and Félix Biet arrived in Genla Village after a long journey. In 1865, they bought the land in the upper Yerkalo from the Gongge Lama and built a church with 15 accommodation rooms. Later, a magnificent Western-style church was built and named as "Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church". Since then, believers have gradually settled in the upper Yerkalo, and the church has gradually expanded. In addition, missionaries introduced various technologies to improve people’s livelihoods, resulting in a growing number of people joining the church.

At that time, there was a missionary area belonging to the Paris Foreign Missions Society in Ganzi, Sichuan Province. They supported the construction of the Yerkalo church and established a Xizang school to train missionaries entering Yerkalo. This played an important role in the development of the Yerkalo church.

The fourth parish priest of the Yerkalo Church was Nie Delong (his original Western name was not found, translator’s note). He not only translated a large number of Xizang scriptures but also established evening schools and hired local teachers to teach believers, allowing them to read and translate Xizang scriptures. Catholicism flourished in Yerkalo.

Certainly, the development of the Yerkalo church was not smooth. Due to differences in belief and culture, there were many conflicts with Xizang Buddhism. Lamas even organized armed forces to attack the church, resulting in the murder of seven priests. Gangda Temple (transliteration) illegally occupied the church in 1940, and armed monks were occupying the building.

In 1951, Catholic believers applied for the restoration of the church, and the church once again became a venue for Catholic activities. Afterward, the church was damaged during a special period and was officially restored after the reform and opening up. The current church was established in 1987.

The rebuilt Yerkalo church consists of four buildings. The largest building is the church hall, covering hundreds of square meters. With a high dome and a golden color scheme, it is relatively simple without complicated paintings or delicate sculptures.

Currently, 80% of local villagers believe in Catholicism. There is a local Xizang priest presiding over church affairs and chanting the Bible translated into Xizang. Believers are named by the priest, all with the names of holy martyrs of the church, and weddings and funerals are also conducted according to Catholic rituals. In addition, the church has gradually integrated with the local culture. In addition to celebrating Christmas, Easter, and other festivals, it also celebrates traditional Xizang festivals.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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