A friend’s Insta-story reminded me that March 30 this year was not only Good Friday, but also the beginning of the observance period for the Chinese tomb-sweeping festival known as Qingming (清明). The coincidence of two religious festivals, each revolving around different ways of honouring the deceased, struck me deeply. And so, I was drawn to discover how each of these groups would experience the same day in their distinct ways.
After my previous discovery of St Joseph’s Church, I yearned to be able to have a glimpse of the inside. At the same time, there was something impressively ornate about the building that almost deterred me from going in – a sense, I’d say, that I might be intruding on something sacred. But on a rainy Thursday I found myself standing outside a side door left ajar that led into the main sanctuary. I carefully shook my umbrella dry on the steps outside (I was too afraid of accidentally dirtying the floor), and walked in.
Immediately, I found myself swallowed by a vast quiet. The rain that had gotten onto my bag and clothes suddenly seemed immaterial, and I was seized by a burst of awe. Stretching before me were rows of pews of deep, dark polished wood that culminated in a massive alcove at the front of the hall, from which gazed the likenesses of various saints from within altars or the fronts of stained-glass windows. There were no services or Mass at the time I arrived, but instead quiet human activity bubbled from a group of church members putting up wreaths next to the windows. A solitary man knelt before a small golden side altar, silently crossing himself. Gingerly, I walked down the length of hall, fearful to touch anything or to go too near the icons of the Virgin Mary nearer the front. Though dark rain clouds were gathering outside the church, the area felt suffused with a regal levity. Perhaps it was the tall domed ceiling, or the flowing intricate architecture adorning the windows, or the images of saints that appeared to peer down on worshippers from their perches in nooks set within the pillars. In spite of myself, I felt a massive sense of reverence.
Later that day I was warned by a gruff caretaker not to ‘take too many photos’, and my own timidity has also made me refrain from taking as many as I’d normally have liked. Part of me was bursting with questions – about the architecture, the history of the church, and the people that still fill its halls now and then. But the dignity of the building arrested me; a dignity untarnished by its location just a stone’s throw away from a cluster of bustling shopping malls. For now, I will be content to sit and look around me, breathing in the dust of history and enjoying its quiet nobility.
On my way out from the Central Library, I’d always noticed the spires of a cathedral rise up amid the familiar jumble of other urban buildings, interjecting the sky-scape with its curious domed spires. Unable to restrain my curiosity any further, I decided to go across the road to take a look. Though its entrance was hidden from road level by a thicket of bushes, its ornate facade looked even more impressive from close-up, and I was pleasantly surprised by the wealth of history I discovered behinds its gates.
St. Joseph’s Church, I discovered, had been a bastion of the Portugese Eurasian community since the early 20th century. The community resulted from the inter-marriage of Portugese colonisers with indigenous women in Malacca during the 16th and 17th centuries, and like many other Eurasians retained some aspects of the culture of their European forbears, including their religion. The church’s adjoining parish house, which was constructed with aid by a Bishop of Macau named Joao Paulino d’Azevedo e Castro, is itself just one of the many pieces of evidence showing the ties the community maintained with other members of the Portugese diaspora. The building of the church itself was completed by the Scottish architect David McLeod Craik in 1912, and the parish house was used as the headquarters for the Portugese Mission shortly after.
Besides its religious uses, being the official residence of the Bishop of Macau on his visits to the island, the parish house became a centrepiece of the social and cultural life of its congregation. The ground floor was used as a meeting area, and hosted many a church reunion dinner. The parish canteen was opened to devotees in 1960, and hosted its first wedding just five years later. In addition, the parish house library was an important gathering area for the Patrician Movement, a branch of the Legion of Mary which consisted of lay volunteers for the Roman Catholic Church. While two priests still live in the building today, the austere quiet that lay over the church buildings did hardly else to betray their rich legacy.
The most visible reminder of the building’s Portugese roots still lay in its exterior. The cathedral itself was a fine piece of Baroque architecture, with its tall grey ceiling frescoes and imposing central spire giving it a regal air and harking back to the eminence of the architectural form in Portugal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The spires were supported by fluted Gothic arches and pinnacles, another reminder of the dominant European styles of architecture at the time of its construction. The faded baby blue that trimmed its ceilings would also called to mind the distinctive Portugese Azulejo tiles that the church is known for. A sign outside the cathedral mentioned worship services for Our Lady of Fatima, further cementing the visceral spiritual connection this community held with the Iberian Peninsula.
While I was unable to view the interior of the cathedral on my visit, I was nevertheless captivated by what I already saw before me. I had to take a moment to crane my neck up towards the domed spires, conscious of how they dwarfed me, and let the weight of its rich background and significance settle over me as the setting sun drew its shadow across the concrete.