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Tuesday December 5, 2006

Iconic ‘twin towers’ of Penang

A STONE'S throw away from the St George's Church stands another religious landmark - the Church of Assumption. 

Its grey “twin towers” may not be as spectacular as the famous Petronas architectural wonder in Kuala Lumpur, but the Roman Catholic church is just an important an icon to many Penangites. 

In 1781, two missionaries founded the first centre of Catholicism at Port Queda (Kuala Kedah) near Alor Star. 

At the invitation of Captain Francis Light, the Catholics from Port Queda settled on the island, forming the nucleus of the Church of Assumption's congregation.  

One of the earliest religious establishments in the state, the church got its name from the day the first group of Roman Catholic Eurasians from Kedah landed in Penang on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption.  

The original building, a wooden structure erected with the help of craftsmen from Calcutta, was founded by Father Arnold Garnault and constructed on Church Street in 1786. 

In 1788, the parish was mainly made up of about 200 Portuguese, Burmese and Siamese state administrators hired by Light and by the end of the 18th century, the number tripled to about 400.  

After several relocations, the congregation found a permanent place of worship in Lebuh Farquhar. The building today was built in 1860 by Father Claude Manissol and opened in 1861. 

Architecturally more superior and spacious than previous buildings, the new Church of Assumption could accommodate a congregation of 1,200. 

During the Second World War and Japanese Occupation, the church was practically closed since most parishioners had taken refuge outside the parish limits. 

In 1954, a statute of Our Lady of Fatima was carried in a long procession through the streets of George Town before being enthroned in a new specially built shrine in front of the church. 

That year, new stained glass windows were placed in the main altar to replace those damaged during the Japanese bombing raids.  

In 1955, the church's status was elevated to a cathedral, renovated and extended to accommodate a permanent throne for the state's first Bishop, Right Reverend Monsignor Francis Chan. 

The Church of Assumption then became known as the Cathedral of Assumption. 

According to church administrator Father Michael Thoo, the “cathedral” status meant that the church would assume the role of “mother” church of the diocese of the state's 28 parishes.  

“In 2002, the status of cathedral was accorded to the Church of Holy Spirit because the Catholic population had shifted away from the city centre to the new housing suburbs in the Green Lane area. 

“Together with the parishes of St John Britto, St Francis Xavier and Our Lady of Sorrows, the Church of Assumption forms part of the City Parish. 

“It remains a valuable Catholic heritage with a rich history spanning almost 220 years even though it is no longer a cathedral,” he said, adding that the church is normally closed except when masses are held on Saturdays and Sundays. 

Today, the cathedral still serves the Roman Catholic community in Penang, although what's left of the original Eurasian Roman Catholic community has dwindled to a few homes behind the church along Argus Lane. 

It is also believed to be the only church in the diocese to house an antique pipe organ.  


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