Tides of candlelight adoration at St. Anne's Feast
One of the largest and most extraordinary religious mass gatherings in Southeast Asia is the St Anne Novena and Feast in the town of Bukit Mertajam in Penang.
What makes it remarkable is not just that it is among the biggest Catholic festivals in Southeast Asia, perhaps second only to the famous Santo Nino and Black Nazarene festivals celebrated in the Philippines. The event is unique for its brilliant cosmopolitanism and charming inclusivity.
Besides the Christian pilgrims, droves of people of other religions, especially Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, converge here every year in what has become a proud annual obligation for locals and outsiders alike. Originally influenced by French missionaries, the central figure of St Anne – mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus – has for more than a century now become somewhat indigenised as a cherished spiritual icon for people of Penang and those from afar.
The celebrations last for 10 days, including the nine-day novena (the act of devotion often consisting of public and private prayers) and the actual feast day on July 26.
In her article published in a 1992 issue of the now defunct Pulau Pinang magazine, Christine Khor wrote that the crowd at the festival then amounted to about a quarter million or so.
“In Asia, St Anne’s unshakeable place in millions of hearts is safeguarded by the traditional role of the matriarch – caring, concerned, a power to be reckoned with in any a family,” she wrote.
For many people, it is indeed a family tradition to attend the festival every year.
Among them, one of the oldest and noteworthy adherents is Patricia Martin, born in Penang in 1934. What makes Patricia’s legacy particularly significant is that she is a local, and at the same time being of French descent.
Patricia’s grandfather, Louis Michael Martin Sr. was a sailor from France who had arrived in Penang in the 19th century. And it was from France that the traditional veneration for St Anne crossed the oceans into Bukit Mertajam, due to the influence of French Catholic missionaries during that period.
On 22 January 1880, Patricia's father, Louis Michael Martin Jr. was born, being the eldest child in the family to call Penang home away from France. In 1926, at age 46, he married 30-year old Emily Elizabeth Surin, a local Eurasian and future mother of Patricia in Penang (photo top left: Patricia and her late husband, Cheah Hin Leong on their wedding day).
Also, just as in France, the devotion for St Anne in Bukit Mertajam is steeped in a deep sense of maternal benevolence. This is probably related to the sense of comfort one gains in seeking a gift – or an intervention – from a loving doting grandmother. And so with St Anne.
The effusion of this childlike innocent faith towards the divine grandparent is seen at its height at the annual festival where a few hundred thousand people converge from near and far to pay respects to St Anne.
Like many others, Patricia and her late husband Cheah always made it a point to take their children to the event every year. The photo below was taken in 2006, the last time Cheah, 80, made it up the hill to pray for his family. He passed away that October.
One of the most poignant rites she remembers is the lighting of candles. Indeed, the sight of hundreds of tall candles illuminating the air with their gentle swaying flames is a charming iconic scene associated with the spiritual devotion of the festival. The lighting of the candle is both visually arresting and symbolically uplifting. It evokes a sense of warmth and visibility. In traditional Catholic lore, the lighting of the votive candle (from the Latin word "votum" meaning vow) signifies the divine hope for one's wish and aspiration to be heard and fulfilled.
As a family, Patricia’s husband and children made it a point to light candles at the altar of St Anne in the old church, while praying there together as a family.
“We just pray in our hearts. My husband would pray for the children to do well in their exams,” she remembers.
The family would then begin their ascent on the hill behind the old church.
In the earlier years, the path leading up would be carpeted with scores of lit candles. At the top, they would pay respects at an open space that housed the statue of St Anne with Mary. The statue still exists, having been installed in a newly built stone grotto.
They would then recite a rosary here. They would pray for blessings, for good fortunes, for the recovery of those who are sick, for the souls of relatives who have passed away.
Upon later descending from the hill, they proceeded to an ancient well whose groundwater was considered sacred. Here volunteers distributed cups of “holy” water to worshippers. But today, a wall of taps has been constructed to pipe out the "holy" water and could be filled into plastic bottles shaped in the statue of St Anne and her daughter.
“We then attended mass together before going to town to have a meal.”
Beyond the observance of spirituality at a personal level, individually or within the family, the festival also sees the deep religious experience being shared at a harmonious communal level.
A key highlight of the ten-day festival is the three-kilometre procession featuring a float bearing the revered statues St Anne and her daughter. Ahead and after, escorting the float beautifully illumined and decorated with flowers are thousands of devotees drifting amid a sea of candle flames.
The night procession passes through Bukit Mertajam town before returning to the church grounds where a mass is held.
The festival usually culminates on the Feast Day on July 26 with another candlelight procession just within the church grounds. This is followed by a grand mass to mark the Feast Day.
In her article, Khor had quoted then parish priest Father Augustine Wong as saying that thousands of letters begging the saint’s favour pour in around July, preceding the novena. Petitions for a good life partner, a child especially by infertile parents, and success in business and school exams are among the popular requests.
Wong said people of different faiths worshiped there according to their own understanding. “For example, non-Christian Chinese worship in their own way," he said. "They may not use joss-sticks but they hold candles or flowers in their upraised hands and move their hands in the same gesture as they ‘pai’ (a worshipful gesture of moving hands pressed together up and down) in a temple.”
“The amount of sacrifice and inconvenience (especially in travelling) to them indicate that this devotion to St Anne is something dear to their hearts.”
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs © Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved.
Updated: 24 July 2022