The neighborhood deep in the countryside is filled with rice paddy after rice paddy, scattered intermittently with weathered, one-story brick homes that are still occupied.
The community is known for producing rice and guava, among other things. It is easy to notice that the age of people in the neighborhood fall in two extremes forming an “M” shape — either people are very young or quite old — as others are working in larger cities.
On a lazy Tuesday afternoon, a group of school children park their bicycles in front of a Catholic church after school, chattering as they head for the entrance. Follow them in and you are in a different world.
The building, the Cingliao Catholic Church (菁寮聖十字教堂), sports a cone-shaped, Western style roof, plated with aluminum and topped with a Holy Cross.
The church is a landmark in Houbi Township’s (後壁) Ting-an Village (頂安), as it was designed by renowned German architect and Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Gottfried Bohm, and built in 1960.
Under the windows embedded around the roof, through which you can see the sky, in the center of the church is a large incense burner in front of Jesus on the Cross; on the left is an ancestor plaque, and on the right a statue of the Holy Mary.
But perhaps what makes the church alive is French-native Pere (Father) Francois Verny (韋方濟), who lives in it, and who has been preaching to locals in Taiwanese (or Hoklo) for the past 18 years.
When asked what brought him to Taiwan, Verny said that he was answering a call from Jesus.
“I didn’t know a lot about Taiwan 18 years ago, other than having seen many inexpensive products stamped ‘Made in Taiwan,’ so my impression of the country was not that good,” Verny said.
At the time, Verny had been serving at a church in France for two years, he said.
“However, a priest had been working in Taiwan, and when my church asked us who would volunteer to go give him a helping hand, I was touched with a calling; the calling superseded my bad impression of Taiwan and told me to come — it was my first trip abroad,” he said.
Soon after coming to Taiwan, Verny said that he felt it was important to learn Taiwanese, adding that shortly after his arrival he began taking Taiwanese language lessons in Taichung to communicate to his congregation, who are mostly farmers.
“My mission in life is to serve Jesus and the church, I want to share my love for Jesus, a good friend of mine, with my good friends in Taiwan,” he said. “However, I could not tell people who Jesus was before I got to know my people first; I had to befriend them so that they would be interested in my friend Jesus.”
Asked whether this was one reason why his church had an incense burner, Verny said it was only partially correct.
“We have it there, but you cannot control how each person reacts to it, everyone has a different attitude,” he said. “[The incense burner is there because] you can worship with incense in Catholic churches, people do it in Europe too, just in a different way.”
The idea of holding incense does not conflict with Catholicism, Verny said, as, “the meaning behind holding incense to worship Jesus is to be near him, to be deeply connected to him ... The meaning is not just the gesture, but in the heart.”
With this acceptance, Verny offers Masses and Sunday school to locals each week, a group he said comprises about 20 people.