The original First Baptist Church in Mawlamyine, Mon State, was constructed in 1827 by Adoniram Judson, an American missionary who spent nearly 40 years in Myanmar (Burma) in the early nineteenth century. Well beyond the issues of religious conversion, the Judson experience in Burma nurtured an environment that has profound effects on Mawlamyine today. The hospitals, schools, and churches are a reflection of more than a century of cultural exchange. On a larger scale Judson’s translation of the Bible into Myanmar language and the country’s first Myanmar-English dictionary, still used today, are lasting impressions of his presence.
The current building, the third in the church’s history, is an English-influenced, Gothic Revival design started in 1907 and completed in 1924. Although visually the exterior is in the spirit of Mawlamyine’s colonial past, the exceptional use of teak wood in the construction of its outstanding truss and roof arrangement and customized furnishings link directly to regional traditions and crafts expertise.
Preserving a piece of Myanmar’s historic ties to the U.S.
We have assembled a team of skilled specialists in Myanmar and from abroad to collaborate on documentation, assessments of the condition of the church, conservation planning, and execution of remedial work over a two-year period beginning in 2016. The project will utilize the First Baptist Church as an educational opportunity to introduce a cadre of local tradespeople, students, and officials to cultural and architectural heritage conservation methods, building skills among Myanmar professionals that can be applied to similar sites in Mawlamyine, and throughout the country. Similarly, the project offers an opportunity for us to work directly with the local congregation, and together empower them to participate and build upon the experience in ways to better maintain the building in the future.
During on-site assessments in January 2016 we recorded the existing structure through condition studies, various forms of documentation, and interviews with the congregation. The process permitted a comprehensive understanding of the building’s original construction, modifications made since, and the causes for its current problems. In parallel, the team researched the current church as a Mawlamyine societal organization of which the building exists as corporeal testimony of the Judson lineage. A priority for intervention is the reconstructed teak roof, which had been destroyed in World War II, in addition to a number of other changes to the building that have compromised its physical appearance and functionality. Shortly after the start of the project, asbestos was discovered in the roof. Following this discovery, we enlisted international experts to help with the safe removal of the materials, and to organize a public educational workshop about the health hazards of asbestos.
Restoring the church—using funds received from the U.S. Embassy through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation—will preserve a special piece of this country's historical ties with the United States and an important entity as testimony of Myanmar’s unity through diversity.
Top photo: Tim Webster, 2016.