Campaign to restore a 131-year-old deserted church in Kedah

Story and photos by ANNE HASLAM

Air of neglect: The church now stands as silent as the graveyard next to it.

FEW people today have heard of Sungai Lembu in Kedah and fewer still know it is the site of a 131-year-old Catholic church in ruins.

It was once a grand church named the Sacred Heart of Jesus, styled after the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

It was built in 1882 by a French missionary together with the Hakka Catholic populace who were the early settlers of the area known as Pagar Teras, about three kilometres away from Sungai Lembu.

Sungai Lembu, a Chinese New Village, opened in 1952 with about 100 households. It is 10km from Bukit Mertajam.

Christine Wong, 76, recalled walking to attend Sunday mass at the church with her parents and other villagers.

The walk from the neighbouring villages of Machang Bubok and Junjong took about an hour or two.

The church, which has 62 steps leading up to it from the roadside, sits on a hillock, providing visitors a breathtaking view of the nearby Bukit Mertajam hills.

One can almost visualise a bride being led up the stairs to her waiting bridegroom in the church, during its heyday.

Wong, who lives in Sungai Lembu, remembered the dedicated French priest at that time, Father Marcel Selier, who spoke Mandarin and Hakka.

She recalled there were many church activities as well as Cate-chism classes for the children.

The communist insurgency in the 1940s and 50s disrupted church services and the people were resettled in new villages like Sungai Lembu.

Wong said they stayed behind barbed wire fencing to protect them from communists and went out only to work on their farms or in the rubber plantations.

When Pagar Teras was designated a ‘black area’ in 1948, Father Marcel moved church activities to Kulim, operating from temporary premises.

Chapels were also opened in the new villages during that time including the Chapel of the Imma-culate Conception in Sungai Lembu.

In 1957, the new Sacred Heart of Jesus Church (SHJC) built with stained glass windows from the church in Pagar Teras was opened.

The church at Pagar Teras was eventually abandoned to the elements and the jungle.

Today, the church altar and belfry still stand, and an eerie silence surrounds the ruins and the graveyard in its vicinity.

Lost beauty: Visitors exploring the church ruins. In the background is the altar.

Sungai Lembu village committee secretary Yeo Keng Chuan, who is promoting eco-tourism and heritage sites in the area which is not far from the Mengkuang Dam, said the ruins were deteriorating rapidly.

According to Yeo, some of the locals as well as visitors claimed to have seen an apparition of a lady they believed to be either the Blessed Virgin Mary or St Anne in the niche where the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus once was.

“Many visitors have come to see the church including a French photographer who was fascinated by the ruins,” he said.

“Some say they can see an image of a lady at the altar and that the image is more prominent in their photographs.

“Something needs to be done fast to restore the church in view of its rich history.”

The church and cemetery grounds belong to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Penang, and are cared for by SHJC Kulim.

Last year, parish priest Father Thomas Koo initiated the setting up of the Beautification Committee of the Pagar Teras Old Church to res-tore it to its former glory.

Committee chairman Francis Chen said this move came about after Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s visit to Sungai Lembu in October last year when he happened to see the church ruins.

Lim then gave a donation of RM20,000 from the state government to start the ball rolling towards restoration of the site.

Chen said the funds were used for fencing and a gate and laying a drain fronting the church.

“We will put up a signboard on the church’s history before All Souls Day which falls on Nov 2,” he said.

He added that an application was now before the Seberang Prai Municipal Council for the site to be classified as a heritage area.

Of days gone by: Wong (left) remembers walking to the church for Sunday mass while Yeo is keen to revive the church in view of its rich history.

“We are still waiting for a reply from the authorities. The Class A classification will enable us to get the funds to realise our dream of restoring the church.

“The restoration is expected to cost about RM200,000,” he said.

Father Marcel, the first resident priest at Pagar Teras, is buried in the cemetery near the old church, at his request.

He served as parish priest of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church from 1940 to 1959 and again from 1963 to 1973.

At least eight priests, the earlier ones being Frenchmen too, served at the church in Pagar Teras from the 1880s until the church moved to Kulim.

Another parish priest Father Barnabas Gao is also buried at the cemetery in Pagar Teras.

To get to Sungai Lembu, get on the Kulim highway heading towards Kulim, and then take the Penanti/Berapit exit which also leads to the Mengkuang Dam.

Broken tiles are a small reminder of what the church used to be in its heyday.

Once you have taken the exit, turn right towards Berapit and you will see signboards showing the way to Sungai Lembu.

The village is a 10-minute drive from Kulim town and 45 minutes from Sungai Petani.


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