Friday, April 22, 2011

Statues of Passion at St. Anne's Shrine in Remote Bukit Mertajam, Penang

The Holy Week is a major holiday in the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s only predominantly Catholic nation. It’s our Ramadan, our Tet, our Songkran, our Diwali rolled into one. And in observance of this blessed days, particularly Good Friday which commemorates Jesus’ dying on the cross, I am posting a special trip related to the holy festivities.

Solitary traveling, I have to admit, can get lonely at times, and you get plenty of moments when you worry about the people back home, more than you worry about yourself. These moments of solitude and “uncertainty” find solace when I get to visit churches, Catholic churches particularly, because they give me a sense of peace and comfort. I am not the most devout Catholic in my country, but if there is one thing I know and believe, it is the fact that Someone listens when I close my eyes and pray. It is probably all psychological hogwash to the atheists, but I know in my heart that even the Big Bang that allegedly jump started the Universe is the masterful stroke of a Higher Being. Call Him God, the Father Almighty, Allah, the Maker, Buddha, Bathala, Zeus. I call him my God.

When I finally got the chance to visit Penang last year, there was a little footnote while I was reading up about the place; where the klieg lights shone so brightly in my mind. Near Butterworth, the western coastal town from where travelers take the ferry to Georgetown (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), was a township called Bukit Mertajam. Travels guides hardly shout praises about it, but from there, amidst a predominantly Muslim population, a Catholic Shrine rises at the foot of a hill. From this shrine, hundreds of thousands of devotees – properly called “pilgrims” – gather once a year (every July 26), a celebratory and devotional festivity that stretch for 10 days!


There was an earlier dilemma for this trip. My Air Asia plane which was supposed to arrive in Penang before midday was moved to midnight. I wasn’t thrilled by this change of schedule. I have learned to avoid midnight arrivals to avoid risks that come along with darkness. This prompted me to miss this Penang flight altogether (a habit that I have been “enjoying”, and is gradually shaping into throwing a good sum of money). I know I get flaky sometimes, and this is one of those moments. So I decided to take the bus from KL to Butterworth which covers a distance of 382 kilometers, or a 5 hour bus ride!

But this particular trip actually took me almost 7 hours! I don't know why!

Upon arriving in Butterworth’s main bus garage, which is conveniently located beside the Jetty (for your boat crossings to Georgetown), I realized I didn’t want to cross the seas, get to my hotel, then make another trip back to Butterworth to get to Bukit Mertajam for St. Anne’s Shrine! It's a tedious itinerary, and takes a lot of your time.

It was almost 3 PM, but there was time. So along with my 8 kg baggage, I hopped into a local bus unsure of a lot of things. You see, the LP details of getting to St. Anne’s were sketchy. So this was going to be an adventure of sorts. I will get into the nitty gritty of public commute to St. Anne’s next post, but for now, I shall focus on arriving into the pilgrim's compound.


From Butterworth, the trip took me 2 bus rides until I got to a town filled with greens and open spaces. The bus driver signaled where I had to alight, then he waved goodbye. I found myself beside a desolate road, and right across was a medium sized church, painted in white. It stood at the foot of a hill that was lush with foliage and giant trees. This was obviously not a usual tourist site as there was hardly anyone there. The whole surroundings were almost deserted, and the compound was isolated from the township of Bukit Mertajam.


The security guard sitting by the gate was stern faced. He looked unpleased to see me. I said “Hello” and he didn’t even bother a reply. Shivers. I never expect red carpets rolled before me; I didn’t want fanfares, but who likes the feeling of being a bother? Then again, who cares? I was there already. About 10 paces towards the shrine, I was called back! I was “ordered’ to leave my baggage inside the guard house, which was the first thought that crossed my mind upon arrival, but I didn’t want to bother him further from his amorous boredom or mental soliloquy. I did so, somehow worrying if I’d find it there when I get back. But what the heck!

I went inside the shrine. It felt comforting. I felt lucky to have set foot inside. Every July, about a hundred thousand people gather here for all this space which I now have all for myself. Like clockwork, I prayed for my intentions (we Filipino Catholics believe that any first time visit to a new church would allow us to pray for a special intention – one that would eventually come true).

Despite all the space around me, St. Anne’s Shrine felt “small”, but what it lacked in size or hospitality was overshadowed by so much history. It was founded in 1846. I was walking on blessed grounds where the Almighty has blessed for 165 years, and I felt humbled. More historical facts when we post photos of St. Anne’s Shrine in our next post.

For this “issue”, we will feature the “Statues of Passion”, installed by the church in 2006 to the tune of 600 ringgit ($199,650 or PhP8.6 million). The statues depict the Stations of the Cross. I heard that there is a new Stations of the Cross Park somewhere in Albay, in south Luzon but for now, this is a truly magical place in the heart of Muslimland where Catholic Churches are a rare entity even in big cities like KL.

To enumerate, we are listing down the stations here:

1. Jesus is condemned to death.

2. Jesus is given his cross.

3. Jesus falls the first time.

4. Jesus meets His mother Mary.

5. Simon of Cyrene offers to carry the cross.

6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

7. Jesus falls the second time.

8. Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem.

9. Jesus falls the third time.

10. Jesus is stripped off His garments.

11. Jesus is nailed to the cross.

12. Jesus dies in the cross.

13. Jesus is removed from the cross. (Deposition or Lamentation)

14. Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense.

15. Resurrection of Christ isn’t officially part of the “stations” but is sometimes included.


The whole compound covers St. Anne’s Shrine, the newer St. Anne’s Church (one of the country’s largest, and can accommodate 1,500 people), a dorm for those who want to stay for a few days, a pilgrim center, a parish office, a presbytery, and another station-line walk up the hills! All these we will feature in our next post. For now, here is the Statues of Passion. There is a representation of the Pieta as well.

If you are in the vicinity of Butterworth, especially if you are taking the road to Georgetown (Penang) instead of the plane, it is worth taking a pilgrimage to St. Anne’s Shrine. Through the road isn’t as easy (two bus rides from Butterworth, and another two back; and it took me almost an hour waiting by the deserted roadside just to wait for a bus back to Bukit Mertajam’s town center), the journey is good for the soul.

Have a blessed Holy Week, everyone. Don’t forget to offer a prayer or two.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The new St. Anne's Church

The way up the hill, just at the foot of the shrine. It's an easy climb.

165 year old St. Anne's Shrine, said to offer miracles to devotees. Why else would a maddening 100,000 troop to this compound every July?

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