Church of St. Anne, Bukit Mertajam (25 November, 2007)
The Church of St. Anne (GPS: 5.352454, 100.477285) in Cherok Tokun, Bukit Mertajam is quite likely the biggest church complex in the country. The present church building, completed in 2002, sits on sprawling grounds that includes the Old Church, the Stations of the Cross, the residential facility and other sites, collectively known as the Sanctuary of St Anne.
The St Anne Church of Bukit Mertajam traces its beginning to early Chinese and Indian Catholics from Batu Kawan who settled in the foothills of Bukit Mertajam. The early Catholics were peasants who first settled in Batu Kawan in 1833, but circumstances forced them to move on to various locations, among them Permatang Tinggi and Machang Bubok, in their search for suitable land for cultivation, before establishing themselves in Bukit Mertajam.
The interior of the Church of St Anne (25 November, 2007)
The Church of St. Anne was started by French missionaries from the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris, or simply M.E.P), an organisation of secular priests and lay persons who have been active in missionary work in the Far East since the 17th century. The missionaries visited the believers in Batu Kawan, and from there continued to Bukit Mertajam. Even in those early days, there were already Catholic converts among the Hakka and Indian farmers of the area.
St. Anne is regarded as the mother of Mary, the virgin who gave birth to Jesus Christ. Catholics observe her feast day on 26 July every year. St. Anne is believed to have been born around 50BC in either Nazareth or Bethlehem. The Catholics revere St. Anne as the patroness of cabinet makers and miners, as well as those engaged in the craft of spinning, weaving, embroidery, sewing and other such skills.
The ceiling design of the Church of St Anne (25 November, 2007)
The earliest Catholic chapel in Bukit Mertajam was erected on top of a hillock in 1846 by visiting priest Father Adolphe Couellan, considering the was no proper place for the parishioners to worship. The chapel was called the Chapel of St Anne, as St Anne is a popular saint among the French missionaries. This chapel is no longer standing today. Its site is marked by the 15th and final Station of the Cross which Catholic devotees make on their pilgrimage circuit.
The growth of Catholic believers in Bukit Mertajam eventually necessitated the building of a larger chapel, which was completed in 1865. This second chapel, also no longer extant, is just behind the present wall of taps of Saint Anne's Water, a flow of spring water that is naturally filtered by the soil, and can be taken by all. St. Anne's Water is said to be cleaner than tap water.
The Shrine of St Anne, popularly called the Old Church (25 November, 2007)
The landmark Old Church of St Anne, which is still standing today, was built in 1888, under the leadership of Father F.P. Sorin. He died in 1907, right on the day of the St. Anne Feast, and was buried at the entrance to the Old Church. Now called the "Shrine of St Anne", the Old Church remains the main focus of the annual Feast of St Anne. It has beautiful stained glass above its altar which dates back to 1896.
In the aftermath of the Second World War in 1948, communist activities threatened the political stability of the then Malaya. Due to Communist activities in the surrounding hills and forests, the grounds of the Church of St Anne became a prohibited area. Fearful that the Chinese community in Bukit Mertajam would be sympathetic to the Communist movement, the British Government relocated them to new villages.
The interior of the Shrine of St Anne (25 November, 2007)
Being in a "black area", the site of the Old Church was out-of-bounds. For a while, church services had to be conducted at the Convent a distance away. In 1957, Father Thomas Chin had an interim church building erected to serve the relocated congregation. This new church (the fourth St Anne's Church) is located next to Kim Sen School, and served out the Emergency years. For the next forty-eight years, it was regarded as the "new St Anne's church". Today the building is still standing, and is now regarded as the St Joachim Hall.
In 1977, Father Peter Pang became the priest of the Parish of St Anne. By then the prohibition over the Old Church site has been lifted. This enabled Father Peter to lay the ground work for the congregation to return to the grounds of the Old Church. To begin, he had an altar shed built in front of the Old Church. Restoration work was carried out on the Old Church. The stained glass windows which were dismantled when the congregation moved out, were reinstalled, as was the church bell - originally the church had two but, but lost one of them during the Japanese Occupation.
Grave of Father F.P. Sorin, at the entrance of the Old Church (25 November, 2007)
Gravestone of Father F.P. Sorin (25 November, 2007)
As the number of pilgrims attending the Feast of St Anne continued to grow, it soon became necessary to construct an even larger church complex. Construction of the new church complex began on May 2000. It was completed and ready for dedication on the St Anne's Feast Day of 26 July, 2002. This new church structure blends Minangkabau roof design with Gothic architecture, establishing itself as one of the most imposing structures in Penang. The church has a floor plan of a cross. The spacious interior has a seating capacity of 1800, easily making it the biggest church building in the northern region of Malaysia.
With the opening of the new church, which is henceforth called the Church of St. Anne, the Old Church is renamed the Shrine of St Anne. It continues to be the focus point of the celebration of St. Anne Feast today.
St Anne Square, with statue of St Anne and a young virgin Mary (25 November, 2007)
The St. Anne Feast of Bukit Mertajam remains one of the 20 biggest Catholic pilgrimages in the world. It draw between 40,000 to 60,000 devotees every year. Within its sprawling grounds is the site of the Cherok Tokun Relics, boulders carved with ancient Sanskrit inscriptions said to be 1500 years old.
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