Minor Basilica of St. Anne: monument to faith and enduring legacy
The humble legacy of 19th century French missionaries have become among the greatest pilgrimage centres of the region.
One of the most alluring landmarks of Bukit Mertajam is a little white church perched conspicuously on the side of a small hill, above a flight of stone steps seen afar from the road.
This old church of St Anne, together with the lush sanctuary around it, is today home to Southeast Asia’s biggest and grandest Catholic gathering outside of the Philippines.
Every July, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and visitors from the region congregate during the colourful St Anne Feast Day celebrations at the sprawling site about two kilometres from Bukit Mertajam town.
To locals, the sacred site holds a special in their hearts as a spiritual ground in their very own hometown. To outsiders, it is among the highest auspicious destinations to fulfil their religious aspirations. For all the faithful, it provides a cradle of peace, solace and divine strength from the rigours of their daily mortal lives.
However, few today are aware that the origins of this now famous church, built in 1888, and its annual festival are rooted half a world away in the deeply religious hinterlands of France - where St Anne, the maternal grandmother of Jesus Christ, is highly venerated.
Sometime in the 1840s French missionaries had set up a chapel in a settlement near the mouth of the Sungai Junjung river, in an area known today as Batu Kawan, where there were farms and plantations operating under the British colonial administration.
With the Catholic community increasing in numbers in the surrounding areas, the missionaries soon began another chapel in Permatang Tinggi and followed by yet another on a small hill near Bukit Mertajam.
The remains of the latter, built in 1846, can still be seen in its foundation and cornerstones that remain embedded on the ground further up the hill behind the current Church of St Anne.
One can access the spot by making a short climb on a meandering line of steps at the rear of the church. A charming grotto, also dedicated to St Anne, was recently built at the pinnacle amidst verdant natural greenery and shaded by high rainforest cover.
Father Adolphe Couellan, the French priest based in Batu Kawan who oversaw the building of this chapel, may not have foreseen how popular and important the site would become one day as a pilgrimage centre of the world.
Couellan’s contribution, however, has been etched in the annals of the church. A signboard in front of the grotto reads: “The relic of the foundation of the first chapel, built in 1846 in honour of St Anne by the Rev. Fr. Adolphe Couellan MEP (1793 to 1866). Worked in BM for 13 years.”
In 1865, a bigger chapel was built slightly lower on the hill. Its foundation stones can be seen behind the water drinking fountain next to the church. This chapel was constructed under Father Ambrose Maistre who was based in Permatang Tinggi.
It was when Father FP Sorin took over for 15 years beginning in 1883 that the building of the current church began. Completed in 1888, it is now called the “old church” to differentiate it from a much bigger resplendent new church that opened in 2002 on the west side of the grounds.
As an honour, Sorin’s remains were buried under the main aisle of the church after he passed away on the feast of St Anne on July 26, 1907.
Unfortunately, the entire church grounds were restricted to the public under the Japanese occupation of the Second World War. In fact, the site itself was taken over by the Japanese forces during this period and the parish priest, Father Joachim Teng, was incarcerated for three weeks.
Teng left for Seremban upon his release and a Catholic Action Group helped with necessary church work until he returned some time later.
The situation did not improve after the Japanese surrender, as the returning British declared a state of emergency due to the threat of communist insurgents from 1948. In fact, the Cherok To'Kun hill behind the church was bombarded as the communists were believed to be hiding under forest cover there.
A nostalgic hallowed atmosphere
Today, the placid environment of the area belies the challenges the community encountered those many years ago. But the old church has remained standing as before as though in steadfast prayer in the face of all earthly travails.
Upon entering the church past the humble pleated façade embossed with its name in Chinese letters, one cannot help but be struck by the gentle hallowed atmosphere of the interior.
Past the main door, the vision is guided across a single aisle lined with nostalgic Peranakan-style floor tiles and surrounded on both sides by wooden pews, gentle white walls and tall cylindrical Roman pillars. At the far end, the graceful candle-lit altar is backed by a splendidly restored old stained glass window from France.
On normal days, worshippers can be observed milling in hushed steps to offer their respects or spend personal moments in quiet contemplation in this calm historic milieu.
Outside the church, a Gothic-styled flat-roof bell tower features three bronze bells, all made in France, and surrounded by a trail of "Stations of the Cross" biblical sculptures that dot the entire landscaped gardens.
And beyond the main square with an imposing statue of St Anne guiding daughter Mary is the magnificent giant new church.
Made of natural beige clay-faced bricks, it is designed in the shape of a Greek cross with almost equal sides, topped with a spectacular Minangkabau-style three-tiered roof and encased on all sides by Gothic arches, mosaic murals and airy winding corridors.
Of especial significance is a Celtic cross which was embossed on the main porch near the entrance in memory of the priests of the Paris Foreign Missions (Les Missions Etrangeres de Paris) which founded the local church in Bukit Mertajam.
And past the entrance’s wrought iron gates are the rows of timber pews and high earthen-hued ceilings letting in shafts of natural sunlight. At the heart of the giant edifice is the altar fronted by a solemn mosaic piece of the Last Supper. A relic in the form of a born fragment of the apostle St Thomas is said to be kept in a stone casing on the altar.
Perhaps the most wondrous and powerfully endearing item in the entire premise is a bone fragment said by the Vatican to be that of St Anne herself. The ancient relic, a gift from the Holy See, is carefully preserved in a vessel encased on the wall near the altar, inspiring pilgrims from near and far alike.
That the church in Bukit Mertajam was given the honour and privilege to house such a precious artefact is testament to the special position it holds today not only within the Catholic world but also among the great religious sites of Malaysia and the region.
With appreciation to Deacon Lazarus Jonathan of the Church of St Anne for his insights. Significant historical information derived from "St Anne's Sanctuary Bukit Mertajam" by Michael Cheah, 2004.
First published by butterworthguide.com.my
Written by Himanshu Bhatt, 2018
Photographs © Adrian Cheah. All rights reserved.