The Grand Dame of South-East Asia
St George's Church
Farquhar Street, George Town.
Dedicated to the patron saint of England, St George’s Church is South-East Asia’s oldest Anglican church and the largest in Malaysia. In 1817, the seed for building this grand house of worship had been sown and just a year later, building commenced at a cost of about 60,000 Spanish dollars – quite a huge sum in those days!
Built by Indian convicts in the veins of Western neo-classical style and Georgian Palladian design, the white building was inspired by the architectural style that was the rage in Britain and other parts of Europe at the time.
The brick building, modeled after a similar one in Madras, has a plastered stone base. The roof was originally flat but was converted to a gable in 1864. The highest point is the octagonal steeple and the most eminent feature is the portico of Greek columns outside the front entrance. These columns are “Doric” in style (like the Parthenon in Athens).
Former British Governor of Penang Colonel John Alexander Bannerman’s daughter later married at the church that was constructed during her father’s term. Janet Bannerman’s marriage to Governor W.E. Philips Esq on June 30, 1818, was the first marriage ceremony for St George’s.
Although it was built under the auspices of Philips and Bannerman themselves (the highest-ranking British officers on the island then), the church was founded by Reverend Sparke Hutchings.
The congregation in those days comprised a multi crew of British officials, printers, tavern-keepers, fiddlers, hairdressers, coach-makers, watchmakers, coppers, shipwrights, merchants, planters and sailors, and French and Dutch prisoners of war who filled the pews and enjoyed the gardens.
Perhaps divine intervention has saved (except for the roof) the church from the World War II air raids, allowing ex-servicemen from the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) to come “home” annually to honour 35 of their comrades who died in the line of duty and were laid to rest in various cemeteries in the country. A plaque bearing the names of those killed in action during their brief sojourn in Malaya between 1947 and 1951 hangs inside the church.
Within the sprawling church compound still sits a beautiful domed structure built more than 120 years ago in memory of Light and in celebration of the founding of Penang as a trading post in 1786.
Shrubs surround the Greek temple-like memorial, bringing with it a sense of tranquility despite its location in the heart of the city.
During the war, (now antique items like the) pews, pulpit, lectern and organ were looted by the locals but a marble plaque (engraved with writings about Light) framed by two column figures, is worth a look.
As a tribute to the Grand Dame, the church was gazetted as a historical monument in 1996, acknowledging its importance and role in the spread of Christianity in the region. Indeed, the essence of the church lies in its unpretentious yet breathtaking facade.
These days, mass is still conducted here every Sunday morning. Non-Christian couples who have fallen in love with the historical church often arrange for their wedding photographs to be taken in the compound while many Christians take great pride in exchanging their vows in a church that epitomises eternity.