Our last day in Penang coincided with Palm Sunday, an important celebration for Christians as it marks the beginning of Holy Week and Easter, which is the day Jesus Christ died on the cross before he was resurrected three days later.
While I’ve been to churches several times before, I have never experienced mass on a religious occassion. I wanted to sit in and see how it usually goes, so N and I checked out early and headed to the Church of the Assumption, a Catholic church just down the road from our hotel.
The Church of the Assumption is the oldest Catholic church on the island (although not the oldest in Malaysia, as that title belongs to the now abandoned St Paul’s Church in Melaka, which was built in 1521. The next oldest is the still functioning St Peter’s, also in Melaka, completed in 1710). It was founded by a French missionary, Father Arnaud Garnault, in 1786. Garnault and his group of Eurasian Catholics, who were mostly of Portuguese descent, were escaping persecution in Siam at the time, before arriving in Penang to make it their new home.
The Catholics initially built a simple wooden structure on Church Street, where the building served the community until 1857, before it was relocated to its present site at Farquhar Street. The new building was much bigger, built in a crucifix shape with two imposing bell towers. Today, the building is well-preserved, having completed extensive restoration works in 2016. The architecture is quite austere in comparison to some Catholic churches I’ve seen in Europe, but there’s a quiet, dignified beauty in the curves of its tall, arched windows and pristine white walls. The interior also boasts simple but beautiful architecture, with stained glass windows behind the altar. The mezzanine holds a grand pipe organ called The Old Lady, which is used when the choirs sing in English and Latin.
We arrived around 9.45am, so there were still plenty of seats, but these were filled by the time mass started at 10am. We were then invited to go outside where there was a pile of palm leaves, which devotees waved in the air to reenact an event in the Christian scripture, where Jesus was welcomed to the city of Jerusalem. For Christians, this represents the welcoming of Jesus and god into their hearts and their lives.
Back inside, hymns were sung, and as part of the service, the Passion was read which narrated the suffering and crucifixion had to endure. There were a few rituals conducted too, which involved the priest and the altar boys and girls walking around with a incense-filled censer, but I’m not sure what they represented. If someone could enlighten me on what these entail, much appreciated!
Maybe it’s the setting, but I was moved by the story of Jesus and how he suffered. Having attended several church events before, I also think the Catholic mass is something I relate to more compared to the Christian masses I have attended with N before, which can involve up to an hour of worship songs before the sermon.
Two beautiful marble statues of angels guard the entrance, holding shell-shaped vessels. These would be filled with water pre-pandemic.
Just in front of the church is a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary, which devotees paid respect to after Mass.
What was my first Catholic Mass experience like?
It was glad for the opportunity to observe the deep connection that Malaysian Catholic devotees have with their religion and god. I always believe that to live in harmony, it is essential to understand the faiths and beliefs of others, so that we can achieve mutual respect, even if we may not subscribe to those beliefs.
As someone who is primarily driven by logic, the doctrines of many religions raises in me more questions than answers. But logic also denotes to me that there are things out there that my human brain could not possibly understand. I do not agree with people who think that science is the be-all-end-all; nor do I agree with religious fanatics who go overboard in their convictions. Why can one not be both?
For those interested in attending services at the Church of Assumption, the English mass is conducted every Sunday at 10am. More information here.
CHURCH OF ASSUMPTION (PENANG)
Lebuh Farquhar, George Town, 10450 George Town, Pulau Pinang
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