23 Feb Facts of the Oldest Church in Penang
Facts of the Oldest Church in Penang
The Church of the Assumption, located off Farquhar Street in George Town, is the third-oldest Catholic Church in Malaysia, and the oldest in the Northern Region. A popular church in Penang, it is frequently visited by religious and non-religious Penangites and tourists alike, due to its status as a historical landmark. There is always something ethereal about a Catholic church built over a century and a half ago, complete with traditional choir and pipe organs bellowing away the hymns during mass, as the old bells chime in to welcome the day (or night), so perhaps that’s why people keep coming back.
Shortly after setting up Fort Cornwallis, Captain Francis Light first established the Church in August 15, 1786 – the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, giving the Church its namesake – along with other escaping Catholic Eurasians from Ligor and Phuket that were facing religious persecution. In 1860, the church moved to its present location to accommodate an increasing population of Catholics on the island, with construction on the crucifix-shaped building completed in 1861. Two wings were further added in a major renovation and extension effort in 1928, giving it the appearance all Penangites know today.
The present church as it is known today consists of two bell towers in the front, and a huge altar. A 1914 Morton & Moody pipe organ was installed in 1916; it remains there to this day, having enjoyed a restoration effort in 2011, and plays in every Catholic festivity such as Easter and Christmas, and also on almost every Saturday mass.
When Imperial Japanese forces invaded Penang in 1941, the church remarkably remained one of the very few Penang buildings to have its structure nearly completely intact despite wartime attacks, and continued to hold masses throughout the occupation, albeit in a far more subdued manner. In comparison, the nearby St. Xaviers’ Institution was devastated by allied forced who bombed it as it was being used as an Imperial Japanese headquarters building at the time. An urban legend persists that, at one time, a Japanese soldier cut off the ropes of the church bells, proclaiming them to be “too noisy”.
The church was named as a World Heritage Church in 2008 when Malacca and George Town were classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Since August 2016 though, the church has been closed to the general public as it is currently undergoing a massive RM2.5 million-restoration project that aims to see the building restored back to its 1928 glory. Some new additions to the building include air-conditioning. Renovations are expected to end on October 31st, 2017. Until then, we can only wait patiently for the Assumption to return in full force, as imagined by Penangites over 150 years ago.