Penang’s oldest church gets facelift

New Straits Times

Penang’s oldest church gets facelift
3 JULY 2016 @ 1:21 PM

PENANG 28 JUNE 2016. From left, Chairman Fund Rising Sub-Committee Assumption Church Restoration Committee, John Lau; Bishop of Assumption Church Restoration Committee, Sebastian Francis; Consultant Architect Assumption Church Restoration Committee, Ar Edmond Khoo; and Chairman Assumption Church Restoration Committee, Gerard Theraviam review around the church after a press conference on announce the details of the Assumption Church Restoration project at Assumption Church, Lebuh Farquhar here. NSTP/DANIAL SAAD

From left, Chairman Fund Rising Sub-Committee Assumption Church Restoration Committee, John Lau; Bishop of Assumption Church Restoration Committee, Sebastian Francis; Consultant Architect Assumption Church Restoration Committee, Ar Edmond Khoo; and Chairman Assumption Church Restoration Committee, Gerard Theraviam review around the church after a press conference on announce the details of the Assumption Church Restoration project at Assumption Church, Lebuh Farquhar here. NSTP/DANIAL SAAD

When he was a child, he went to the church with his family to worship on Sundays. Today, Reverend Gerard Steve Theraviam is chairing a committee that oversees the restoration of the 156-year-old Church of the Assumption in Farquhar Street, George Town, Penang.

“I have a personal connection to this house of God wherein saints and sinners have worshipped together and it is certainly an awesome building.

“Each day we welcome many tourists and pilgrims who come to view this historical gem and, at the weekends, many people come and join our services and to savour the beautiful sounds of our recently-restored pipe organ,” he adds as he takes media representatives on a tour of the glorious edifice.

The church will close its doors for 14 months from Sept 1 for a RM2.5 million restoration job. It is obvious for all to see that the building needs a face-lift.

The church underwent its only major renovation in 1928 when two wings were added.

It is the third oldest Catholic church in the country, after St Peter’s Church (built in 1710) and St Francis Xavier’s Church (built in 1856) in Malacca.

The church is home to one of Southeast Asia’s oldest pipe organs. It was built in 1914 by Morton & Moody of Oakham, England, and reassembled in the church in 1916.

Fondly known as the “Old Lady”, it is Malaysia’s largest church pipe organ. The instrument is made of oak, pine and mahogany, and boasts 640 pipes made of lead and zinc.

Reverend Theraviam took the journalists up to the choir loft to view the impressive pipe organ, accompanied by Bishop of Penang Right Reverend Sebastian Francis and the project’s fund raising committee chairman, John Lau.

“This is not just a pipe organ. It is one with a rich history. It was built in 1914, assembled here in Penang by The Robinsons Piano Co Ltd in 1916 and has been through so many organists,” says the church’s resident organist Leonard Gurunathan.

“My life revolves around the organ. It is very special to me. My family was heavily involved in church activities, especially my late dad, who talked about music with us. I looked forward to going to the St Francis Xavier Church in Penang Road to hear the blind organist, Peter Goh, play.

“He inspired me a lot… if not for him, I would not be here today,” says the Penang Free School teacher.

Ahead of the restoration job, which will be undertaken by Catholic architect Edmond Khoo (who has worked on other buildings belonging to the Catholic Church), the precious organ is slowly being wrapped up and secured in the loft, as Gurunathan and the choir members take a brief break.

“This church is already a monumental landmark in the George Town Unesco World Heritage Site, situated almost next door to other notable buildings such as St George’s Church, High Court, Logan Memorial, Convent Light Street and St Xavier’s Institution. Our restoration efforts will enhance the historical value of our beautiful city of George Town,” says Rev Theraviam.

Bishop Sebastian says the church will contribute RM500,000 of the estimated RM2.5 million the restoration job is expected to cost. The balance will be raised through fundraising activities.

“I appeal to Catholics as well as the public for their generosity to contribute by way of donations to this project.

“Since George Town was recognised as an Unesco Cultural World Heritage Site in July 2008, it has undergone tremendous transformation with many heritage buildings being restored.

“It is in this spirit that the Catholic Church sees it timely to restore the Church of the Assumption to its former glory.

Lau says the committee welcomes contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals.

The scope of work includes replacing the glass louvre windows with timber shutter windows, like those that were installed in 1928.

“Extensive repairs will be carried out inside and outside. In addition, new amenities will be installed or upgraded to enhance comfort and aesthetics, including a new air-conditioning system, new sound system, new projectors, concealed rewiring works and internal and external lighting.

“The sanctuary will be upgraded to enhance its heritage value and external landscaping works will also be carried out.” The church’s history can be traced to an early wooden building in Church Street.

“In 1786, when Captain Francis Light founded the settlement of Penang, he invited some of the first Catholic community in northern Malaya at Kuala Kedah to come to Penang,” says Khoo in supporting documents submitted to apply for permission from the local authorities to carry out the restoration work.

“A Father Garnault who co-founded the community with a Father Coude accompanied them to Penang and built a wooden church on the land bounded by Church Street, Pitt Street and Bishop Street.”

In 1802, a brick building with a tower replaced the wooden structure, and the building was subsequently demolished in 1857 and construction of the new church on the present site in Farquhar Street commenced in 1860.

“On the first Sunday of October 1861, the first service was celebrated at the newly-completed building,” says Khoo.

The final service at the church, before the restoration work begins, will take place on Aug 14, which is the eve of the Feast of the Assumption.NST

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