History of Saint Anne’s Parish

August 2018 October 2021 FEATURE
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The Early Days (1833-1914)

The origins of St. Anne’s Parish can be traced back to as early as 1833 when the Chinese and the Indians came to settle in Batu Kawan. At that time, Penang, Malacca and Singapore, collectively known as the Straits Settlements, were all under British colonial rule. A large number of the Chinese came to toil in the tin mines, and the Indians in the rubber and tea estates. Some worked on the roads and railways. Among these people were some Catholic families. From Batu Kawan, the Chinese and the Indian Catholics moved into Matang Tinggi, Machang Bubuk (formerly known as Pagar Teras) and Bukit Mertajam (BM). In 1840 the Chinese Catholics settled at the BM foothill and worked in the farms.

French missionaries from Batu Kawan soon came to BM to gather the people for worship. They numbered about 190 Catholics then. Fr. Adolphe Couellan, MEP, the first visiting priest, saw the need for a chapel and built one on top of a hill about two kilometres from BM town. From 1860 onwards, the visiting priests came from Matang Tinggi.

With the increase in the Catholic population, a bigger chapel was built in 1865 by Fr. Maistre. Four years later the first resident parish priest, Fr. Allard, was assigned to the Parish. Fr. F.P. Sorin took over the Parish and served for 15 years. He died on the Feast of St. Anne in July 1907 and was buried in the church he built.

Various Languages Used in Church

From the start, the Parishes in the Penang dioceses were personal in nature and English was the language of administration, participation and communication. In those days, the problem of integration of language groups was non-existent because Latin was used during the Liturgy and most of the people went to Church only for the Liturgy.

The different language groups were given their respective parish churches: Church of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows was for the Chinese-speakers; Church of St. Francis Xavier for the Tamil-speakers and Church of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption Church for the English-speakers. All these churches were, and are, on Penang Island.

Father Joachim Teng.
Father Michael Seet.

St. Anne’s Parish has always been composed predominantly, though not exclusively, of Chinese Catholics. Until 1978, it was considered a Chinese-speaking Parish (personal parish), and a sort of “pastoral service centre”. From here, the parish priest used to go out to serve the needs of Chinese Catholics in the neighbouring towns and as far as Alor Setar and Changlun in Kedah State.

The priests who were assigned to the Parish were always either French or English-educated Chinese. The Chinese-speaking parishioners were a bit neglected. Tamilspeaking

parishioners were served by priests of the nearby parishes. In the 1950s, Fr. G. Belleville used to visit for a monthly Tamil Mass and home visitation.

War Years (1914-1945)

In 1914 the first local priest was assigned to the Parish; he was Fr. Michael Seet. He served as a pastor for 24 years. It was during his time that the Feast of St. Anne grew in popularity. In 1918 he invited the Bishop and the priests and the people of neighbouring parishes to join in the feast of the Patroness of the Parish, and they obliged. Gradually, this event attracted the attention of people far and wide. Thus, a tradition that survives to this day was born.

Just before the war, Fr. Joachim Teng took over the Parish. He remembers that his Chinese parishioners were mostly Hakka speaking and there were the few Eurasians and Indians. He bought some land for the Church, and today, the Kim Sen School and the new Parish church stand on that site. In 1938 St. Marguerite’s Convent School was transferred to its present site. It was founded in 1934 by Reverend Mother St. Tarcisus, a French nun of the Holy Infant Jesus Order.

When the Second World War broke out, religious services were disrupted by the Japanese who occupied the Church land. Fr. Teng himself was arrested and jailed for three weeks. Upon his release, he went to Seremban where he stayed for ten months. During his absence, the Catholic Action Group helped out in the church work. Fr. Teng returned to the Parish in 1946.

Some of the French priests who served at St.Anne's.
Prayers at the site of the new church.

Post-War Years (1946- 1956)

The threat of communism began to engulf the country after the war. It prompted the government to declare a state of emergency in 1948. Curfew, food rationing and other restrictions were imposed on the people. BM hill was often bombarded by the army as many communist terrorists hid there. The old Church grounds were declared out of bounds due to their activities, and so, Church services had to be held in the Convent of the I.J. Sisters.

Building of New Church

In order to control the insurgency problem, the town was divided by the British government into black and white areas. The white areas were supposed to be “clear” of communist elements. A new church was built in 1957 by Fr. Thomas Chin because the old one was situated in a black area. As a large number of Chinese were suspected to be communist sympathisers by the British Government they were relocated to “new villages” created by the government.

Consecration of the new church.

The first half of the twentieth century was a period of consolidation, organisation and institutionalisation for the Catholic Church in the country. In the beginning, the number of clergy was very small, composed mostly of French missionaries. After the war, the Chinese and other missionaries expelled from China joined the ranks of the native clergy. Apostolic movements of the laity began to flourish. The life of the Parish revolved around these movements. In St. Anne’s Parish, the St. Vincent De Paul Society and Legion of Mary were among the most active. The St. Vincent De Paul Society took care of the material needs of the people; the Legion of Mary, the spiritual. The Legionaries used to visit homes and hospitals, reminding Catholics of their Christian obligations. The Marist brothers were also asked in 1949 to take charge of Kim Sen School.

Independence and Vatican II (1957-1970)

The Federation of Malaya gained independence in 1957. Tunku Abdul Rahman became the first prime minister of this new confederation of states. The new country was established as a constitutional monarchy; has Islam as the official religion; and Malay as the national language. In 1963, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak and the Federation came together to form the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore left the Federation in 1965. These political events wrought changes to the Malaysian way of life, culture and in turn religion.

This era was an historical one for the Catholic Church because of the Second Vatican Council. At the initiative of Pope John XXIII, about 2, 000 people (members of the hierarchy, the laity and even non- Catholics) gathered at Vatican City in Rome to start the process of aggiornamento (renewal) in the Church. The sessions lasted for three years and covered a wide range of topics.

Consequences of Vatican II

Soon the concepts of Vatican II began to seep into the dioceses and Parishes. Changes in the Liturgy were the most conspicuous. Latin gave way to the vernacular or to English. The non-English speaking parishioners suffered as a result of this change. Besides this, many Catholics were brought into the Pre-Vatican II model of the Church where the participation and responsibility of the laity were at the minimum. The priest made all the decisions and the faith of the people consisted mainly of devotional practices that had little to do with their lives.

Expansion (1970)

Traditionally, BM has been a trading and transportation centre for goods coming from surrounding towns and even as far away as Thailand. This is primarily because of its strategic location and the facility of transport. The mid-70s saw the beginning of an economic boom for the country. New housing estates sprouted all over the country. Since land and houses were cheap in BM, there was an influx of new residents into the community. These two factors affected the lives of the residents especially in terms of their value system and interpersonal relationships.

An early photograph of the Old Church amid greenery.

In 1976 the Peninsular Malaysia Bishops and priests attended a month-long aggiornamento at the College General in Penang. At that meeting, they decided to build Basic Ecclesial Communities as the pastoral thrust of the Church. Two years later, the personal parishes were abolished in the diocese of Penang to give way to territorial parishes. This strategy was conceived for the purpose of better integrating the different language groups and to witness to unity in response to the growing racial polarisation of Malaysian society. Area groups which were supposed to develop into Basic Ecclesial Communities began to emerge. In 1976, for instance, Fr. L. Catel helped to form the Tamil Area Groups in the St. Anne’s Parish.

Towards the Centenary (1980-1989)

The following decade saw more residents flocking into the area. New housing estates were opened due to the cheaper cost of land. Plans were made for the relocation of some government offices to the outskirts of the town. To top it all, the Penang Bridge linking the island to the mainland was opened in It cut travelling time considerably and encouraged more mobility among the population.

With the influx of people, the Catholic population also increased. The newcomers appeared to be English-educated and belonged mostly to the middle-income group. They started to get involved in the Parish activities too.

The country plunged into economic recession in the mid-1980s, and people were retrenched as a consequence. Poverty crept into the lives of the citizens, and caused some strain and tension among families, making some shy away from area groups or even from participation in Church. Some families felt isolated, unable to receive consolation and support from the area groups and from the faith.

Centenary celebrations.

In 1984 Fr. Augustine Wong was assigned to the Parish. Earlier Fr. Peter Pang had planned for a mission to be conducted by the Redemptorists but he left the Parish before the plan could be carried out. It was only a few months after Fr. A. Wong’s arrival to the Parish that the Redemptorists came to conduct the mission. The result of the mission was the formation of area groups for the English and Chinese-speaking.

In 1985 the parish priest organised the Parish Renewal Committee to implement the Parish Renewal Programme, a diocesan option for building the Basic Ecclesial Communities as the overall renewal of the Parish. Steps were gradually taken to set up the programme which included the sending of one parishioner (Mr Lazarus Anthony) to a seminar on the New I age of the Parish in Manila in August 1986.

In 1988 the Parish gave a face-lift to the Old Church for the Centennial celebration in 1989. The centenary of the church was celebrated in a truly stupendous manner with processions of floats and marching bands.

Extracted from the Parish Records – courtesy of St. Anne’s Church. This article was reproduced with kind permission from Pulau Pinang, vol. 3, no. 2, published by Georgetown Printers in 1989.