This report accompanies the permit plan submission for the repair of the Church of the Assumption under the above-mentioned title. It is intended to explain the decisions made and represented on the submission plan by way of historical facts and evidences especially in regards to the replacement of inappropriate components/materials added on the building over the years.
The Church of the Assumption at 3, Farquhar Street, George Town, was built by the Eurasians who followed Captain Francis Light to Penang when he established it as a British trading post. The Eurasians originally living in Ligor and Phuket were facing religious persecution. In 1781, they fled to Kuala Kedah, led by Bishop Arnaud-Antoine Garnault of Siam. In Kuala Kedah, they were joined by another 80 Catholics of Portuguese descent who had made Kuala Kedah their home. Some had come from southern Siam, while others had left Malacca after the Dutch conquest.
Before founding Penang, Francis Light and his business partner James Scott had a trading business all along the coast of Kedah. He spoke the local languages and was familiar with the Sultan of Kedah, so he could well commiserate with the plight of the Eurasians. Moreover, he had a common law wife by the name of Martina Rozells who was a Eurasian of Thai-Portuguese descent.
When Francis Light got the Sultan of Kedah’s approval to open a trading post in Penang, Bishop Gar-nault sought his help to relocate his Catholic mission there. Light agreed to help, and sent his ship Speedwell to assist in the exodus. The first group of Catholics landed in Penang on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, in 1786, and celebrated their deliverance from persecution by so naming their church as the Church of the Assumption. Its original location was on Church Street. Bishop Garnault’s presbytery was located on the adjacent road, which became known as Bishop Street.
In 1857, the Church of the Assumption moved to its present site on Farquhar Street which was previ-ously occupied by the Convent Orphanage. The present building was erected in 1860, under the leader-ship of Father Manissol. When it was completed in 1861, it could hold 1200 worshippers. The building underwent an extension in 1928, when two wings were added to it.
In 1955, the Church of the Assumption was elevated by a Decree of the Vatican, to the status of the Ca-thedral of the Diocese of Penang. The sanctuary was renovated for the setting up of the seat for the first Bishop of Penang, the Rt. Rev. Monsignor Francis Chan. From the 1970’s onwards, a gradual shift in the population of Penang Island away from and into the suburban areas, resulting in a marked de-creased in the size of the church congregation within the city area. In 1988, a decision was made to amalgamate the four parishes in George Town into one, bringing the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows, St Francis Xavier Church and St John Britto Church, until then indi-vidual parishes, into the same umbrella of “City Parish”. The status of Cathedral Church held by the Cathedral of the Assumption was transferred in 2003 to the Church of the Holy Spirit in Island Park, and the Farquhar Street Cathedral became once more Church of the Assumption.
Brief History of the Church Building
Early Wooden Building at 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. Fr. Garnault, who co-founded the community with Fr. Coude accompanied them to Penang and built a wooden church building on the land bounded by Church Street, Pitt Street and Bishop Street.
Church Building at Present Site, 1860.
In 1802, a brick building with a tower replaced the wooden building. The building was subsequently demolished in 1857 and construction of a new church on the present site at Farquhar Street commenced in 1860. On the first Sunday of October 1861, the first service was celebrated at the newly completed building.
From old photos and maps, the church building then had the following features no longer in existence:
- Straight block (without the two side wings).
- Highly visible higher pitched Indian tile roof.
- Perimeter classical ‘bottle’ balusters above the cornice (external).
- Two rows of internal columns as intermediate support for the roof structure.
- similar to St. George’s Church, Lebuh Farquhar.
- Double height main entrance (without the present mezzanine floor).
Major Renovation and Extension in 1928.
In 1913, Fr. Louis Duvelle built a choir loft and the present pipe organ was erected on June 1916. A major renovation and extension was planned in 1924 to increase the seating capacity of the church. Construction works started in 1928 and completed the following year.
In the 1928 renovation and extension, the church building had been altered in the following manner:
- Two additional wings (East & West transepts) were added on each side of the building, giving it a cruciform plan.
- The Indian tile roofing and roof structure were removed and a concrete barrel vault roof with its intricate concrete rib structure was built across the width of the church. The roof was no longer visible at ground level but the underside or ceiling featured as a beautiful barrel vault ceiling.
- This entailed the removal of two rows of existing internal columns which had become irrelevant, improving visibility to the Sanctuary and seating capacity.
- The construction of the barrel vault roof also required the classical ‘bottle’ balusters to be removed and replaced with a concrete parapet wall. The styling of the parapet wall had features not unlike the manner in which parapet walls were treated in Art Deco buildings, which was popular then.
- Internally, there seemed to be a shift away from classical styling towards Art Deco styling in the manner ornaments were treated.
- From the old photos after the 1928 renovations (and probably before), the building had timber shutter/casement windows and doors with adjustable louvres (except the main door). Above each door and window is a fanlight.
Note : timber shutter/casement windows with adjustable louvres.
Old shutter/casement window with adjustable louvres discovered in a cavity wall where a window once was.
Note : the finish on the window panel: Not painted but with darker wood stain or varnish.
Minor Additions and Alterations Through the Years.
After the 1928 renovation and extension, only minor alterations were made to the building. These include the following:
- Roof: The concrete barrel vault roof, in order to span across the width of the building, had large intricate external concrete ribs acting as beams above the concrete surface. These would seem difficult to achieve water tightness especially in the tropics, with cracks probably developing over time and considering the waterproofing knowledge available at the time, the concrete roof leaked profusely. An additional low pitched metal roof was constructed on the concrete roof structure. It was unknown when the additional metal roof was added. However, concealed behind the parapet wall, the additional metal roof is not visible from ground level and was a necessary element. These metal roofing sheets were probably replaced over the years due to weathering. In recent years, the rusted and deformed metal sheets were replaced with new ones due to severe leakages.
Photo showing exposed concrete barrel vault roof and rib structure during the replacement of rusted metal roofing sheets.
- Windows and Doors: The timber shutter/casement windows and doors with adjustable louvres were removed and replaced with pivoting wooden windows with fixed louvres as shown in photos taken in the 1960s.
Photo taken after 1965, note pivoting window panels.
- Subsequently these pivoting windows were replaced with adjustable glass louvres, which are presently in use along with double bi-fold wooden doors (and metal grills for security).
- The Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima was erected in 1954 at the front of the building.