The occupation of the port of Saigon by the French Navy, on February 18th 1859, can be considered as the beginning of the colonization of Viet-Nam by France. Yet, the two countries have known each other well for two centuries and their relations were pretty cordial even though the Catholics had to suffer some persecutions in some parts of Tonkin. The first French Jesuit missionaries arrived on the peninsula at the beginning of the XVII century and the Catholic faith was well accepted at this time and by 1658 there were 300,000 Catholics.
On the eve of the French Revolution, Bishop Pigneaux de Béhaine, who was the Apostolic Vicar of Cochin China, obtained from King Louis XVI a treaty between France and Prince Nguyên Anh who would soon become the Emperor Gia Long. Bishop Pigneaux de Béhaine helped him develop his country. But the following Emperors were more leery toward what was coming from the West and began new persecutions against the Christians. In response to the massacre of Catholics, Napoleon III ordered a military intervention.
Cambodia, then Annam, Tonkin and Laos became French Protectorates, and finally the “Union Indochinese” was created in 1887. The French have never been numerous in this land – just a few thousand – but they fell in love with it and named it “la perle de l’Empire” – the pearl of the Empire. With passion, they began a work of modernization of the country to the extent that Indochina became a truly profitable colony while the purpose of its conquest was absolutely not motivated by economical reasons. The Annamit people and other people from Indochina also benefited by this progress.
The development of Indochina had to include the spiritual welfare of souls. The first church which was made of wood had been built in Saigon in 1865, but the termites which seemed to have a great appetite damaged it. The Governor then offered his palace for the celebration of Mass and finally decided upon the construction of a new cathedral. It took three years to build it.
Proposed to be one of France's most ambitious projects in Indochina at the time, Bishop Isidore Colombert laid the cornerstone for the cathedral on October 7, 1877. Three years later, in 1880, the cathedral was opened to the public. These two dates are inscribed on a marble placard in the cathedral. The bricks used to build the structure were shipped from Marseilles. Artisans from Lorin Company (Chartres, France) were commissioned to create the stained glass windows. The cost of construction was a whopping 2.5 million francs.
In his sermon for the Dedication, Bishop Colombert said: “By establishing her supremacy on these far-distant coasts, France could not be unfaithful to her vocation and forget her Christian traditions. She had showed the Annamit people the power of her arms and the greatness of her civilization. She still had to display with a manifest proof, the superiority of her religion by erecting for God a building worthy of her ancient faith and of the religious art of her fathers. (…) It must prevail over the temple of error and your patriotism can notice with joy that nowhere on the Asiatic Continent, from the shores of the Mediterranean sea to the extremity of China and Japan, a traveler can see a temple of Protestantism comparable to this Catholic church.”
In 1960 the Cathedral became the chief cathedral of Saigon and in 1962, the Vatican gave it the title of Basilica. In 1975 Saigon became Ho Chi Minh city but its habitants still speak about Saigon and the Cathedral is still in the heart of the Catholic Vietnamese, “Notre-Dame de Saigon”.