MINOR BASILICA OF ST ANNE
The origins of St. Anne’s Sanctuary can be traced back to as far back as 1833, when Chinese and Indian migrant workers arrived from the Batu Kawan area in Penang. In 1840, Chinese Catholics settled at the foothills of Bukit Mertajam and worked in the farms and orchards. At that time, there was already an established parish in Batu Kawan. Thus, French missionaries from Batu Kawan came to Bukit Mertajam to minister to the Catholic families in the area.
The Catholics in Bukit Mertajam then numbered about 190. Fr. Adolphe Couellan MEP was the first visiting priest, and it was not long later that he saw the need for a chapel. Consequently, he built one on top of the hill, about two kilometres from the town of Bukit Mertajam. The foundation and cornerstone of this first chapel can still be seen at its original site at St. Anne’s Hill today.
The earliest records of the parish were that of baptisms in 1846, making it the year the parish was officially established. Consequently, from 1860 onwards, visiting priests came from Permatang Tinggi. With the increase in the Catholic population, a bigger chapel was built in 1865 by Fr. Maistre MEP. The foundation stones of this second chapel can be found behind St. Anne’s Water Fount.
Four years later, Fr. Allard MEP was assigned to the parish and became its first resident parish priest. In 1883, Fr. F. P. Sorin MEP took over the parish and served for 15 years. It was Fr. Sorin who built a bigger church in 1888 for the locals as the Catholic population increased. Today, this same church still stands and has become the revered Shrine of Harmony. It was also fondly called the “Old Church” by local parishioners. Incidentally, Fr. Sorin passed away on the feast of St. Anne, 26th July 1907 and he was buried in the main aisle of the church that he built.
THE POST WAR YEARS (1946-1956)
Soon after the Japanese occupation, the threat of Communism loomed over Malaysia. It prompted the British Government to declare a State of Emergency in 1948. Curfew was imposed and there was food rationing as well. Many restrictions were imposed on the local population. Bukit Mertajam Hill was often bombarded by the army as communist terrorists were believed to be hiding there.
Generally, many Chinese were suspected to be communist sympathisers by the British Government and they were uprooted from their lands and houses and relocated to the infamous Chinese New Villages throughout the country. Around Bukit Mertajam, we can still find them in Berapit, Machang Bubuk, Sungai Lembu and Junjung. Eventually, the church grounds (old church) were declared out of bounds and labelled as a “black area” because of the communist insurgency. Thus, church services were temporarily held in the chapel of the Holy Infant Jesus Convent instead of the church.
BUILDING OF A NEW CHURCH
It was at this time that the parish priest, Fr. Thomas Chin, saw the need to build a new church for worship because of the communist insurgency. Thus, in 1957, the land which was bought by Fr. Teng became the site of the church (fondly called the “new” church) which had a capacity of about seven hundred seats. It took about 2 years to complete and this church was used by the parish for the next 46 years, until July 2002 when the parish moved back to the Sanctuary grounds. Fr. Michael Cheah built the present church. The construction began at the end of 1998 and was completed in the middle of 2002.
St. Anne’s Today
Today, an increasing number of pilgrims make their way to the minor basilica not only during the feast day of Saint Anne but also throughout the year. The Penang state government has also made the minor basilica an official tourist spot for the state. As such, people from different nationalities visit as tourists or pilgrims. All in all, the Minor Basilica of St. Anne has become an integral part of the town of Bukit Mertajam and we hope that our community will continue to grow and be nurtured by the endless blessings of God.