The Union Church on the Bund is neither tall nor grand, but it is the only surviving waterside church in downtown Shanghai.
“Waterside churches made it easy for Chinese Christians to travel from neighboring suburbs or provinces by boat. Otherwise a church was lifeless,” says Zhou Jin, a PhD expert on Shanghai Christian churches. “That’s why most 19th-century churches in Shanghai were built alongside rivers, quite different from European churches that usually fronted a street or a square.”
However, most churches in the city are no longer waterside as the rivers once crisscrossing the city have been filled in. Since Suzhou Creek, Shanghai’s “mother river,” still exists, Union Church has survived as a unique waterside church in central Shanghai.
Zhou believes the architect had the waterside location in mind while designing the church. The northern entrance made it easy for churchgoers arriving by boat. The façade was designed for great visual effect when viewed from a boat. And the 33-meter-high steeple, once the highest structure on Suzhou Creek, rose like a lighthouse for boat travelers.
Built for and by the community
The Union Church was initially built in 1864 on Shandong Road as a house of worship for Christians who did not belong to the Protestant Holy Trinity Cathedral on Jiujiang Road.
They had been meeting in the home of English Congregationalist missionary Walter Henry Medhurst, which was too small as more expatriates moved to Shanghai. In 1885, the church was moved and built on the present site close to the former British Consulate.
Zhou defines the Union Church as a “community church,” which provided more social functions for the neighborhood than the Holy Trinity Cathedral or the Catholic Xujiahui Cathedral. Without the backing of a large organization, the “community church” was constructed in a spontaneous way.
North China Daily News reported in 1886 that the congregation was “neither large nor wealthy, and with no nucleus of a building fund such as in most such cases results from the selling of old property, found themselves face to face with the task of building a new church ...”
However, “they have struggled bravely with their difficulties, doing their utmost themselves” to erect the new church on the Bund, thought it was neither tall nor grand.
Several bazaars were held to raise money in the 1880s. The children of the Union Church Sunday School contributed handmade articles “in place of the customary putting into the Church-plate of some coin entrusted to them by their parents.”
A successful bazaar held on the evening of March 29, 1886 raised more than US$500. The popular products included smoking caps, aprons, shoes, handkerchiefs, baby linens, fans, dolls and cushions. Those who attended were entertained with “a sumptuous refreshment stall and an art exhibition,” the paper reported.
An earlier bazaar in the Masonic Hall on the Bund in 1882 attracted many affiliated with the Holy Trinity Cathedral. They generously offered help by purchasing items and even presiding at the stalls, according to reports.
“In days when religious rivalry and jealousy are so much talked of, it is pleasing to find one church apparently deserving and another church ready to give Christian sympathy and help apart from ecclesiastical identity. We trust that this happy condition which marked the beginning may continue to the end, and that the Union Church may be ever able to realize its name,” the North China Daily News commented.
At last the church was designed and built by British architect WM Dowdall, who was one of the few Royal Institute of British Architects members in Shanghai in the 19th century. Since architects often were given a freer hand when designing a “community church,” the result was a creative blend of late Roman-style with Gothic features.
“He put the bell tower in between two aisles, which was the only one in this layout among the city’s hundreds of Christian churches,” says Zhou.
“And the two aisles could be used as one big space, or two separate spaces to suit different social functions in a flexible way. The smart design was highly acclaimed at that time,” he adds.
The church, with its utilitarian design, was an important social venue since its opening day. Even British philosopher Bertrand Russell gave a speech there in 1920. However, fate of this lovely wood-and-brick church took many twists and turns during its more than a century of existence.
In 1918, the church partially torn down due to its poor condition and rebuilt strictly according to the original design. The western aisle was destroyed in Japanese bombing in 1937 and was never restored.
The church was turned into the office for Shanghai No. 2 Illuminating Lamps Factory after 1949, and a new commercial façade covered part of the building, which had its steeple removed.
In 2005, the church saw a glimmer of hope as the Waitanyuan Project aming to restore the Bund area kicked off and Tongji University professor Chang Qing headed a team to revive the church’s past beauty.
“The brickwork of the church is reminiscent of a shikumen’s (stone-gate) brick walls,” Chang says, referring to the city’s traditional stone-gate houses.
“I remember every gray brick is gray in a different way and every red brick differs from each other. They all have subtle nuances in colors and that created such a beautiful tiny and delicate church,” Chang recalls.
A fire at 3am on January 24, 2007 engulfed the beautiful little church as the renovation still going on. The remaining eastern aisle was lost. Chang’s team had to spend two years recovering as much of the building’s materials as they could to restore the church.
Today the Union Church looks like a slim beauty quietly standing on the bustling Bund and glancing over the river. It is sometimes used for hosting exhibitions and events, but often remains empty.
The interior looks dark and mysterious. The large stained glass in the pattern of contemporary paintings give a modern touch to this church, which was built more than a century ago, demolished, rebuilt, demolished and revived again.
Yesterday: The Union Church
Today: The Union Church (open for events)
Address: 107 Suzhou Rd S.
Built: In 1885
Architectural style: Late Roman-style church with Gothic features
Architect: WM Dowdall
Tips: I suggest combining the Union Church, the neighboring Missionaries’ Residence, the Rowing Club and the former British Consulate in one tour. It’s a historical architectural group that vividly reflects the life and the work of the early British settlers of Shanghai.