The ‘Notre Dame’ of Pagar Tras
A haunting edifice of a forgotten French-Hakka story from the past
It is among the oldest and most remarkable buildings in Malaysia. Yet one can easily drive past the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus along the meandering Jalan Sungai Lembu near Bukit Mertajam without even noticing it. Built by French Catholic missionaries in 1882, its design was inspired by that of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. Like the 800-year-old church in Paris acclaimed for its classical Gothic architecture, it had two bell towers and three decorated portals on its façade.
However, as a smaller version of the Notre Dame in Malaysia, it did not have as many European aesthetic details – no gargoyles, long arcades or ornamental pinnacles. Because it served a predominantly Hakka community in the area still known as Pagar Tras there were many Chinese cultural features in the engravings and wordings on it to complement the Gothic-style rose window, gables and arched doorways. The windows were louvred as was the fashion in the then Straits Settlements, and the towers were flat-roofed and not spired.
What should be hailed as a historic edifice is now in ruins. Only one tower remains today with a wild tree having grown on its high belfry. The roof of the interior prayer hall is no more, and the church’s aisle, nave and choir areas are left open to the elements with the sky as their ceiling. Small fragments of the old mosaic floor tiles, most of which have probably been pilfered, can be seen strewn about on some parts of the ground overgrown with grass.
The entire structure radiates with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and even loss. As one ascends the broad flight of stone steps on the hillock towards the frayed balustrades before the building, it is difficult not to feel the mysterious charm and lost grandeur of the place. Stepping through the threshold and vestibules of the ruins one can imagine how beautiful the space must have been in its heyday with sunlight likely filtering through stained glass windows that were once mounted on the sidewalls and the spacious hall leading serenely to the circular apse where the main altar had been.
At this far end is a large central alcove - it would have directly faced the congregation during the church’s active days – on whose wall surface dark blotches have accumulated, seemingly caused by the ravages of time. Uncannily enough, people from nearby villages and the faithful who visit the ruins swear that the blotches form a pattern which resembles an image of Madonna and Child.
The church traces its roots to the coming of Father Allard, a priest from the Society of Foreign Missions (Société des Missions-Étrangères) in France to Pagar Tras in 1866. There was a large Hakka community from southern China that grew agricultural produce like cloves, nutmeg, coconut and pepper there then. The French missionaries learnt to speak Hakka themselves and within a short time managed to convert these people to Catholicism.
Together with the church on the hillock they constructed further down the slope a two-storey structure to serve as a missionary school and hostel. This building is no more. The church’s fortunes changed after the Japanese conquest of Malaya in the Second World War during which time its priests are believed to have been killed by the invading army.
The communist insurgency followed the war and the Japanese surrender. In a bid to prevent the villagers from delivering supplies to the mainly Chinese militants in the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) who were suspected to be hiding in nearby jungles, the British colonial administration listed Pagar Tras as a “black area”, placing heavy restrictions on the residents’ movements. It is said that CPM cadres committed mass suicide in a secret three-kilometre tunnel from Pagar Tras to Tangga Seribu in Bukit Mertajam when their leaders were negotiating with the British to possibly lay down arms. As it so happened, the insurgency only ended much later, after Malaya’s independence from the British, in 1989 when the CPM signed a peace treaty with the federal government.
Interestingly, a new church with the same name was built in Kulim in 1957 under the guidance of parish priest Marcel Selier. The stained glasses from the windows of the abandoned Pagar Tras church were brought here together with some other items. These included a Sacred Heart statue, three bells from the towers and a wooden lintel board inscribed in Chinese with the words “love”, “hope” and “faith”. The statue is now housed on the main altar of the Kulim church. It is flanked by two large coloured stained glasses salvaged from Pagar Tras, one depicting the saint Peter and the other Paul, on either side.
The Kulim parishioners also maintain an ancient Catholic cemetery located beside the Pagar Tras church which is still used for burials. The cemetery houses the grave of Selier and other luminaries who contributed to the church during its glory years. Descendants of the villagers who were removed from the site decades ago, as well as their relatives and followers of the religion, gather here on All Souls’ Day on November 2 every year.
While such occasions help to reinforce of the binding link the parishioners and the old community have with the church, its unique cultural and architectural legacy also makes it a significant relic for Malaysians at large. It is therefore doubly important that the building is not only preserved but duly restored, if possible, to raise it from its crumbling state for a well-deserved new life to be given to what is left of the much-forgotten little Notre Dame of Asia.
With appreciation to Francis Chen and the Heritage Maintenance Committee of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Kulim, for the guidance and information for this article.
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs © Adrian Cheah
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