Sunday, April 24, 2011

In and Around St. Anne's Shrine & New Church - Bukit Mertajam, Penang

I learned that the original church was built on top of the hill in 1846, so I can imagine the sacrifice people had to endure just to hear mass. As the population of Catholics grew, a new church was constructed at the foot of the hill. In 1888, this new structure was opened to the public, and it is this dramatic white structure that greets all visitors entering the gate of the whole shrine compound. This is officially called St. Anne's Shrine.

Every July 26, a feast day is celebrated by more than 100,000 pilgrims - Catholics from Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and the Philippines, although I have never heard of this shrine from any of the living 95 million Filipinos. Yes, not even a whisper, as much as it is mentioned like a footnote in my Lonely Planet. Miracles are believed to thrive during these pilgrimage, thus the grounds are considered "holy". And rightfully so. The area surrounding the shrine's compound is sparsely populated, and transportation (a public commuter bus) that ply the road is few.

Sometime in the 50's, a Malayan "emergency" - a term coined by the colonial government to describe the guerrilla war fought between the government and the communist's Liberation Army - designated the area as a "no-go". People stopped coming to the church. When this designation was lifted in the 60's, the church was virtually abandoned until 1977 when restoration began. A bell (one of the three) and the stained glass that is presently seen were recovered.

In 2002, a new church was constructed: St. Anne's Church (not "Shrine"). This incorporated Malay architecture, employing Minangkabau roof. This could accommodate 1,500 people, and is now the largest Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia. A park grounds was also constructed just in front of this new church, called Dataran St. Anne (St. Anne's Square) which was undergoing landscape refurbishment during my visit. Since the area is a Pilgrimage Center, two dorms have been built to accommodate pilgrims who wish to stay for a few days.

The Statues of Passion weren't constructed up until 2006, but the whole compound is a bastion of Catholic faith, an "oasis" in Muslimland where it is hard to find a Catholic Church even in its capital, KL. Just across the street is a parish center and a presbytery. Unfortunately, this "new church" (well, its 9 years old now) is mostly closed to public except during mass celebrations. But the better news is, the smaller and simpler, more intimate, and historically-rich St. Anne's Shrine is open most of the time. I like the "Shrine" better as it radiates character, and the atmosphere is pious.

The "statues" of the stations of the cross are scattered throughout the compound, but they are mostly located to the left side area of the shrine. If you head to the back, there is a flight of stairs with intermittent "white crosses" at specific areas. The effect is quite dramatic, and what's even better is the fact that it is a very easy climb up the hill.

As of October 2010, after the transfer of priests, the parish priests are Fr. Henry Rajoo and his assistant is Fr. Simon Ee.

Mass schedule: Daily mass in English from Tuesday to Friday at 7 AM. Sundays offer 4 masses: 8 AM - English, 10 AM - Mandarin, 11 AM - English (every 1st Sunday of the month), and 5 PM Tamil.

The feast day (July 26) stretches on for 10 days and includes a candlelight procession, a 9-day novena, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Now, I have visited so many Roman Catholic Churches all over Asia. It has been part of my itinerary, even in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Laos or India. I've observed that the people I eventually meet inside these churches have been warm and welcoming, which is a nice feeling when you are travel weary and worn out. It's the feeling of "brotherhood" and camaraderie. But St. Anne's Shrine was a different matter.

Since there were very few visitors (the area is too isolated to be frequented), your welcoming committee would be the security guards by the gate. And boy, they might as well mouth it out that "you are nothing but a nuisance". Which is odd! But if Christ endured crucifixion to save His people, what is a few snide facies or a hostile chortle just to offer a pray in a holy place, right? I wasn't there to befriend them, that's for sure. LOL

I liked the compound despite the charming welcoming committee. It's one of the places where you feel "God is present". And that is enough for me to invite you: Come and visit!

Next up: Transport to and from St. Anne's Shrine and the Hill!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

St. Anne's Shrine circa 1888

Recovered stained glass

These colorful garlands are the "hallmark" of Tamil Catholics, you see them in Hindu temples as well. I think it's a sweet gesture.

The 9 year old St. Anne's Church

Holy water from an angel.

St. Anne's Square right in front of St. Anne's Church


thepinaysolobackpacker said...

oh, this is beautiful! I'm using Rough Guides though for my Malaysia trip and this wasn;t mentioned. Though I was able to grab a couple of maps frm one of the heritage house there. I was in Penang a few weeks ago and I love it there. Surprisingly cheap!

eye in the sky said...

I love Penang too, especially its food! Penang has the "best" gastronomical offering in ALL of Malaysia. Inexpensive but mouth watering.