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Visiting Saint Anne Church - The Catholic Pilgrimage Site

In a predominantly Muslim country, the Church of St Anne, at the foothills of Bukit Mertajam in Penang, Malaysia, stands as a shining example of religious tolerance. More than just a Catholic Church, the Parish of St Anne is also one of the twenty most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. Every year, during the Feast of St Anne, throngs of devotees converge on the otherwise sleepy hamlet of Bukit Mertajam to rever St Anne, said to be the grandmother of Jesus Christ.

I visited the Church of St Anne together with some members of the heritage society to which I belong, and am writing about my experience here, to share with other travel and heritage enthusiasts.

The beginnings of the St. Anne Church of Bukit Mertajam can be traced back to 1833, when Catholics of Chinese and Indians descents from Batu Kawan settled in the foothills of Bukit Mertajam. They are farmers who have come to clear the land for cultivation, and were part of the congregation that had earlier settled at Batu Kawan in 1933. From there, the Catholics moved to Permatang Tinggi, Macang Bubok and Bukit Mertajam. The church was started by French missionaries who visited Bukit Mertajam from Batu Kawan. There were already a congregation of 190 believers in those early days. The church was named after St Anne, a popular saint among the French missionaries.

St. Anne is regarded as the mother of Mary, the virgin who gave birth to Lord esus Christ. Catholics observe her feast day on 26 July every year. St. Anne is believed to have been born around 50BC in either Nazareth or Bethlehem. She is the patroness of cabinet makers and miners, as well as those engaged in the craft of spinning, weaving, embroidery, sewing and other such skills. The very first Catholic church in Bukit Mertajam, a small chapel, was built on top of the hill, some time between 1840 and 1860. Today, the site of that small chapel is the 15th and final station of the Cross which devotees make in their pilgrimage.

As the congregation grew, another bigger chapel was built in 1865. The site of this second chapel is just behind the wall of taps of Saint Anne's water. The present Old Church was built in 1888, under the leadership of Fr. F.P. Sorin. He died in 1907, right on the day of the St. Anne Feast, and was buried at the entrance to the Old Church.

In 1957, during the Emergency period, another church building was constructed. Fearful that the Chinese community in Bukit Mertajam would be sympathetic to the Communist movement, the British Government relocated them to new villages. The Old Church, located in a "black area", where Communist activities was regarded as strong, became a prohibited area, and the new church was built next to Kim Sen School. For the following 48 years, this was the "new St Anne's church".

The year 2000 sees the latest, and biggest addition to the sanctuary, with the construction of the present church building, on the grounds just below the Old Church. The new building incorporates local elements such as multi-tiered Minangkabau roofing. The new church was dedicated on the St. Anne Feast Day on 26 July 2002. From then on, the Old Church is called the Shrine of St Anne. It continues to be the focus point of the celebration of St. Anne Feast.

The St. Anne Feast of Bukit Mertajam is one of the 20 biggest Catholic pilgrimages in the world, drawing about 40,000 to 60,000 devotees each year. An unusual sight within the grounds of St. Anne's Church is a pre-historic stone with inscriptions. Called the Cherok Tokun Stone Relic, the stone is the only megalith in the state of Penang gazetted by the Department of Museum and Antiquities.

We ended our visit by adjourning for refreshments. The St Anne's Church presented each member with a souvenir pack containing two books, one on the official opening of the new church complex on 26 July 2002 and another on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Diocese of Penang, in 2 June, 2005. We are very pleased with the reception given to us, and want to record our thanks to the members and workers of the St Anne's Church for making this such a memorable site visit. I am now writing a report on the visit to place on the web, at http://www.earthdocumentary.com, to be shared with other travel enthusiasts.

Timothy Tye is a travel enthusiast who has documented many of the major cities and sights in the world for his websites, EarthDocumentary, http://www.earthdocumentary.com, AsiaExplorers http://www.asiaexplorers.com, and WorldGreatestSites http://www.worldgreatestsites.com

He is passionate in sharing the beauty and wonders of the world with fellow travel enthusiasts.

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