The Bastion of Early Catholicism in Penang Restored


As renovation works on the 156-year-old Church of the Assumption near completion, Penang Monthly takes a look at the journey the church has undergone to reclaim its past glory.

Like a lot of good stories, this one began in an unexpected place: the storeroom. It was March and the restoration of the Church of the Assumption was in full swing. Project architect Edmond Khoo found himself poking around the old storeroom of the church after having just tackled one of the most crucial parts of the RM2.5mil reconstruction – the altar. “I believe the original sanctuary was constructed in 1860 and survived past 1928, possibly until the 1980s. It was then replaced with a rather modern altar,” Khoo says.

The current restoration project centred on bringing the church back to the condition it was in 1928 – the date of the building’s last major extension works. Assumption Church proper was completed in 1861 by persecuted Eurasians who fled south to Penang from Ligor and Phuket. But since a complete overhaul of the roof structure was performed in 1928, as well as the addition of the church’s recognisable two-side wings, the later date was chosen as the pivotal reference point in the restoration.

“We intended rebuilding the original sanctuary in the same shape and size it first was. Everybody thought that nothing remained of the original altar, so I drew what I thought the altar had been, based on old photographs I managed to obtain, as well as those contributed by parishioners – some of whom had snapshots of themselves taking their marriage vows,” Khoo says.

However, unlike all the other intricate parts of the restoration project, the altar needed some guesswork as the church had undergone the Second Vatican Council (commonly known as Vatican II) in the 1960s that changed the approach of the church in connection with modern times. “Early on, there was only one altar – the back altar. The front altar was only introduced after Vatican II. So (for the front altar), I had to imagine a design that would complement what was originally there,” explains Khoo, a Catholic himself who has previously worked to restore and repair several other Catholic structures in the state including the Church of the Risen Christ in Air Itam and the College General seminary in Tanjung Bungah.

He pondered over it, drew up a design and presented it to the Bishop of Penang, Rt Rev Datuk Sebastian Francis, and the restoration committee for approval. It was given the nod and work began.

“I was looking around the church storeroom one day and discovered three of the original four decorative columns of the altar!” Khoo says. The uncovering of the three 84cm-high columns, made of brass and marble, was greeted with excitement and Khoo and his team quickly began efforts to replicate the missing one.

The original design for the altar was also significantly modified, with alterations to the materials used and intricate details of the new sanctuary. “Because of the things I had suddenly found, I discovered what the design was supposed to be. It all came in a timely manner, almost like providence,” Khoo says.

Bishop of Penang Rt Rev Datuk Bishop Sebastian Francis.

Edmond Khoo.

He explains that the three columns were polished and restored to their original glory and put back into the newly constructed back altar, along with one more replicated column. Twelve more matching columns – made of timber and fibreglass since the intricate methods for creating the initial brass carvings had been lost – were also contracted and now decorate the new front altar and lectern.

Divine Intervention?

As renovation works progressed, things seemed to fall into place. “When I was designing the altar, I stumbled upon the old columns. When I was drawing the doors to the side entrances, I suddenly found an old 1931 photograph of the choir taking a picture with the exact doors in the background. How I received information reflected how I made certain decisions at crucial moments,” Khoo says.

Among the most crucial elements of the renovation is the reinstallation of the timber shutter windows that line almost all the walls of the church. Khoo says the original ones were briefly replaced with wooden pivoting windows before the installation of adjustable glass louvre windows. “Grills were also installed on the outside. This posed problems as thieves would climb up the grills like a ladder, break the fanlight on top of the windows and come down into the church to steal petty cash (from the collection boxes),” Khoo says, adding that the timber shutter windows mimicking the originals had now been installed, along with removable clear acrylic on the inside to keep in the air-conditioning.

Two of the church’s original front doors, which had been turned into windows over the years, have also been reinstated as entrances. Aside from that, extensive repair works as well as new amenities have been tackled. Defective plaster was removed from the walls and redone with lime plaster. Under the watch of CS Woon Consultant, huge cracks were also “stitched” back together using mild steel bars to reinforce the load-bearing walls.

The church altar being rebuilt.

Changes have also been happening below ground and over the roof. Under Khoo’s guidance, a team from Kejuruteraan Asas Teguh Sejagat that won the open tender for the project dug underground trenches that now run near the walls of the church. “A lot of wiring was added to the church over the years – as and when they needed things like extra power points or lighting. They were encased in pipe and were running up and down the walls. At some points, there were five layers of pipe and was very unsightly. We wanted to conceal all the wiring and let people appreciate the actual structure,” Khoo explains, adding that the trenches encase wires for the new electrical system, airconditioning, sound system and CCTV.

Two of the church’s many iconic ceiling fans also needed to be replaced, along with much of the old wiring. That, however, was easier said than done as Assumption Church boasts a massive barrel vault ceiling that could not be hacked to conceal the wiring. “Previously, the church had an Indian tile roof, which was removed in 1928 and replaced with the current concrete barrel vault roof that spans from side to side. The whole barrel vault is only 75mm thick and because of structural reasons, we cannot hack the ceiling and hide wires within,” Khoo says.

In the end, the answer lay in a concrete spine constructed on top of the roof – a solution that Khoo says he cannot take any credit for. “I was cracking my head on what to do but in the end, the solution was provided by the previous architect who did the 1928 renovations. I don’t know who he was but he had thought about it all. He added a concrete spine on the top of the roof and ran the wires through it. The spine also provides cover for the beautiful ceiling roses that act as air vents and provides a passive cooling system to the building,” he says.

Every Little Bit Helps

For fundraising Committee Chairman John Lau, who previously spearheaded charity projects benefiting Mount Miriam Cancer Hospital and The Cerebral Palsy (Spastic) Children’s Association of Penang, this project has been somewhat special. “I was a parishioner of Assumption Church from about Form 1 to Form 6 and I continued to go to this church until I left for KL for work in the late 1970s,” says Lau, a chartered accountant and alumni of St Xavier’s Institution (SXI), which sits next to Assumption Church. Lau moved back to the state in the mid-1980s and attended several different Catholic churches depending on where his family resided, but always dropped into Assumption Church every now and then.

He says with only half a million coming from Assumption Church’s own funds, some RM2mil needed to be raised for the impressive restoration project. Two major events were organised: a food fair held on church grounds in December last year and a raffle draw in August this year. “The food fair raised about RM103,000 in net profit. It wasn’t an enormous amount, but the idea was to get all Catholics from the island and mainland to come back and visit Assumption Church. I think we achieved that objective; we had a turnout of easily 1,000 people and everyone had a good time,” Lau says.

The raffle draw – with a Mazda 2 donated by Bermaz Motor Trading as the grand prize – brought in RM640,000 for the project; raffle prize winner Phoon Sow Cheng generously gave back the car to the restoration committee for sale to further boost fundraising efforts. Aside from that, donations have played the biggest role in raising enough to complete the project, with the state government contributing RM150,000 and other private donors giving individual donations of up to RM100,000. By the end of September, a total of RM2.2mil had been raised, according to Lau.

A Foothold of Faith

Bishop Sebastian explains that Assumption Church was not only the cathedral for the Catholics of the Penang Diocese (which comprise Perlis, Kedah, Perak, Kelantan and Penang) from 1955 to 2003, but is also one of the oldest in the nation. “To my knowledge, this church is the second-oldest in the country, the first being St Peter’s Church in Melaka. It was from Assumption Church that the faith expanded in all directions in Penang,” Bishop Sebastian says, adding that currently, there are a total of nine Catholic churches on the island and five on the mainland.

Assumption Church also acted as a base for the establishment of other historical sites in George Town, including SXI and Convent Light Street – the oldest Lasallian school and oldest girls’ school in the country respectively. He adds that the church’s restoration was important not only to the congregation, but also to George Town’s Unesco World Heritage Site listing: “Assumption Church occupies a significant position in the heritage enclave and we are happy to play our part in bringing about the best of the area. I believe that the restoration of the church will contribute not only historically but also in terms of tourism and the economy with the number of visitors coming to the site,” he says.

Bishop Sebastian adds that the project went hand-in-hand with the building of the new Roman Catholic Museum, Diocese of Penang that will house artefacts and antiquities significant to the history of the church. The RM1mil museum will be housed in the old bishop’s office on the grounds of Assumption Church and will be unveiled in a soft launch on Christmas Eve – at the same time the church will reopen for what is commonly known as Midnight Mass held on the night before Christmas. “We are also restoring the tombs in the Roman Catholic Heritage Cemetery, which sits next to the Protestant Cemetery on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah,” he states, adding that this RM250,000 undertaking was projected to be completed by year-end.

Indeed, the close of the year promises much-anticipated events for Catholics state-wide, with Bishop Sebastian noting a growing sense of energy and expectancy. “I don’t get excited very easily but it is good to see all these things happening. We are acknowledging our past and history while at the same time moving forward as a community,” he says.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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