Church of the Holy Name of Jesus – a historical church in a sleepy hollow
Old churches are fascinating buildings. Aside from their obvious roles as houses for worship and community gathering, old churches are also well known for their sublime architecture and illustrious histories. The Western continent has some of the finest and world-renowned churches, the mind immediately recalling structures like the early Gothic-styled Notre Dame in Paris (1163), St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican (349AD) and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City (19th century). Equally fascinating ones also include the Santa Maria Maggiore (430AD) and Santa Prassede (780AD) in Rome and the Saxon Brixworth and Escombe churches in England (around 670AD).
Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Balik Pulau
The sleepy hollow of Balik Pulau in Penang has a humble yet historical (by Penang standards) church called the Holy Name of Jesus. Built in 1854, the architecture is reminiscent of the Anglo-Indian style with fanlights above the tall wooden doors and louvres. The inner sanctum of the church is adorned with charming stained glass panels from Belgium which when lighted from behind, bathe the interior in jewel tones.
"It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and put in his own garden. It grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the sky lodged in its branches."
This genesis of the church dates back to 1845 when the first parish priest, Rev. Fr. Ducotey celebrated the inaugural Eucharist in January in an attap house. From those very humble beginnings, the church steadily grew as the Catholic population increased.
The permanent nave of the present church was constructed between 1871 and 1881 during the service of three innovative priests, Reverend Fathers J. Lo, Kremer and Galmel. This padre trio helped found the St. George's and Sacred Heart parish schools, which first began as religious classes for boys and girls under attap roofs.
In 1881, more changes were made to the church by resident priest Rev. Fr. Page, who added the sanctuary and the two wings, using granite from the nearby hills. He adorned this structure with an imposing granite altar and nine priceless stained glass panels made in Bruges (Belgium) according to the designs he submitted himself.
During the extension, Fr. Page took on the roles of the contractor, bricklayer and carpenter. In 1917, a bell tower was added to the church, and in it, a tenor bell cast in France by the famous bell foundry La Savoyarde at Annecy was hung.
In 1930, Rev. Fr. J. Lee paved the aisles in the church, the sanctuary and even the presbytery with tiles he had designed and made; he was assisted by a young teacher called Rose Loh Piang Keow. A grotto depicting the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes to St. Bernadette was also later added in the church compound.
The church today
When the late Rev. Fr. Peter Shyu took over the parish of the Holy Name of Jesus, in July 1999, he soon realised that this old church needed extensive repairs and renovation. Planning began auspiciously on Christmas 2000 with the formation of various committees and groups for the purpose.
The physical condition of the entire church was studied to determine the extent of damages and structural weaknesses. It was found that the foundation of its ceiling had to be replaced and reinforced with additional pillars. The necessary repairs took place, including fixing the cracks and broken stained glass panels which had weathered time.
Modern features were added including an electronic clock and church bell. The renovation was completed in March 2003, just in time for its 150th anniversary celebration.
In January 2004, the grand old church jubilantly celebrated its 150th anniversary with masses and a festive commemorative dinner. A souvenir programme filled with anecdotes, featured stories and a brief history of the church was put together to mark the occasion as well as to preserve its memories for posterity. I was honoured to be assigned the task to design the book and it was a wonderful experience working with Josephine Choo who wrote the script. She is from Balik Pulau and Rose Loh was her mother. I also did the floral arrangement for the decorations for the church.
The story of how a small band of priests in a foreign land helped shape a community will serve as a timeless inspiration to all Catholics. The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Balik Pulau may not be as opulent as the old churches in Europe but among churches in Malaysia, it occupies a prominent place in the country's history.
When the church was initially blessed, Bishop Gasnier declared it “one of the most beautiful churches in the diocese of Malacca”.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 7 November 2019