The original First Baptist Church in Mawlamyine was constructed in 1827 by Adoniram Judson, an American missionary who spent nearly 40 years in Myanmar in the early nineteenth century. The church is also referrred to as the Judson First Baptist Church.
Among Judson’s legacies is the first translation of the Bible into Burmese in 1834. From Mawlamyine, Chinese-Burmese printer Ah Vong was sent to the United States to learn printing and returned with a machine that helped print the first edition. Held in the church, this copy is from the second edition, printed in 1842. Judson's life story and evangelism is intimately linked with the development of the city of Mawlamyine.
A communion set gifted from an individual in New Jersey at the conclusion of the Second World War reflects the international reach the church grew to have.
The church continues to function as an active place of worship for local community members and families.
Congregant Thwe Thwe Aung first attended the Judson First Baptist Church when she was in high school. Hoping to participate and contribute to the community, she has volunteered every week for the past five years to make floral arrangements for the church. Thwe Thwe Aung collects many of her flowers from the church compound’s garden.
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.
Shortly after starting our project at the church, we discovered that much of the roof, which had been rebuilt after the original teak shingle roof was bombed during World War II, was made of concrete fiber with chrysotile asbestos. Also known as white asbestos, chrysotile is the most commonly-found type of asbestos.
Following this discovery, we enlisted international experts to help with the safe removal of the materials. Recognizing the discovery of the harmful building materials as an opportunity to educate the church's congregation and the local community, we also organized the Asbestos Building Materials Workshop, a public educational event held in November 2016, in order to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos. The workshop—the first of its kind in Myanmar—related not only to our project at Judson First Baptist Church, but also to the larger building inventory and general health issues in Myanmar; although thousands of buildings contain asbestos materials, there are no national laws or regulations regarding the removal of those materials.
Dr. Ken Takahashi, Professor and Director at the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute (ADRI) at the University of Sydney and the keynote speaker at the workshop, presented valuable information about asbestos-related diseases, including malignant mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer. The World Health Organization puts the number of annual deaths caused by asbestos-related diseases at 107,000.
Phil Bamford, the director of the Lidoran Group, one of Australia’s leading commercial asbestos removal firms, also presented at the workshop, contributing his time and expertise pro bono. "World Monuments Fund," says Bamford, "is taking what could be an obstacle and instead turning it into an opportunity to change business as usual. As a project advisor, the Lidoran Group will use the First Baptist Church as an exemplary case study, featuring training in removal methods for contractors, personal protective equipment, documenting the process through Burmese-language manuals, and supervising the disposal of asbestos . . .It will be a safe and thorough job."
At the Judson First Baptist Church, we have assembled a team of skilled specialists in Myanmar and from abroad to collaborate on documentation, conditions assessments, conservation planning, and execution of remedial work. The project, scheduled to conclude in 2018, 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 empower them to participate in and build upon the experience in ways to better maintain the building—helping ensure its survival for future generations.
Photography by Tim Webster, 2016.