Historic Community Church still draws world’s Christians

Updated 2016-11-25 15:55:22 Shanghai Daily
The central hall and galleries are on the second floor.(Zhang Xuefei)

The central hall and galleries are on the second floor.(Zhang Xuefei)

Although it may not be particularly large or lavishly designed, the Community Church on Hengshan Road is one of Shanghai's most famous churches.

"It's easy to pass by this church, concealed behind lush trees," says local Christian architecture expert Zhou Jin. "But it has been visited by so many foreign government heads and religious leaders, including former US President Jimmy Carter, Harald V of Norway and George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"Their visits show its unparalleled international reputation among the city's hundreds of Christian churches," notes Zhou.

When the church was completed, it was called "another landmark for the American community in Shanghai" by the China Weekly Review on March 7, 1925.

"It is proposed to hold the dedicatory service on Sunday morning, at the usual hour of 11 o'clock. Heretofore the Community Church has held its services in the American School dining room," the report noted.

The Review added that an outstanding American religious leader, Dr Eleland McAfee of Chicago from the McCormick Theological Seminary, was holding a special Sunday service.

"The Community Church is the outgrowth of the old American Song Service, which was started in the Palace Hotel building many years ago. When the attendance became so large, the members decided to organize and inaugurate an American church in Shanghai and today they are proud to own their own home on Avenue Petain (today's Hengshan Road)," according to the report.

Zhou, author of the book "Shanghai Church," explains that American Christians in Shanghai organized a choir early last century. They built a small church on Route Doumer (today's Donghu Road) in 1920 as a place for the choir, but it was soon too small for the city's growing American Christian population.

For this reason, they launched a fundraising campaign in 1923 to erect a new church which purchased 11-mu (7,337 square meters) of land from the Shanghai American School at what is today 53 Hengshan Road.

Zhang Sheng, a PhD researcher from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, says the erection of several signature public buildings in the 1920s, particularly the community church, marked the shaping of Shanghai's American community.

Diverse community

"Unlike with the British, the American community was not formed immediately after Shanghai opened its port in 1843," Zhang says. "The Americans who spoke English lived a comfortable life in the British and later the international settlements. Some Americans were admitted as members to clubs of other nationals.

"But the intense war atmosphere pervaded all European clubs in Shanghai during World War I, when America was trying to preserve neutrality. That made Americans feel uneasy and created the need for places of their own," Zhang explains. "In addition, more American women were coming to Shanghai. They married American bachelors, formed families and then the American community began to take shape with the erection of the Community Church, the American Club, the Columbia Country Club and the American School."

Since there were no big churches in the former French concession, Christians from other countries also donated generously to the church, which cost US,000 at the time and was completed by the Mission Architects.

"It was the first time all Christians in Shanghai, regardless of nationality or denomination, jointly erected a church. That contributed to the fame of the Community Church, which used English for preaching until 1949," Zhou says.

The church is a 16-meter-high brick-and-wood structure initially designed with a Basilica floor plan. The interior features a central hall with a capacity for 700 people, side corridors, an altar in the center of the nave and galleries on the second floor. In 1936, a priests' residence, office and activity room were added to the central hall.

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