The old wooden church


Update (7 December 2012): After this article appeared in The Herald in April 2011, plans to demolish this heritage building Church of the Nativity, Butterworth were quietly put on hold. Now talk has surfaced in the parish about demolishing the building to make way for some large pastoral centre. Plans for this centre could be scaled down so that the old church building is not affected and the greenery preserved.

Originally post on 24 April 2011:

Old church in Butterworth – rare wooden public building from 1935

I am an old wooden church. You might even stroll past me without even a second glance. For if you look at me now, you might think I am nothing much to shout about. But I am a constant reminder of a bygone era of simplicity when the community was more important than concrete structures.

I came into existence in 1935, thanks largely to the efforts of Father Jean Baptist Souhait, parish priest of Assumption Church in Penang, and the local Christian community, after Catholics settled in the 1920s in the outlying northern areas of Butterworth.

I am made of hard treated timber that has stood the test of time and I blended in with the lush greenery all around me.

I started life as a primary school, just a few classrooms, during the pre-war years, and on certain Sundays, the building was used for Mass. A priest from the College on Penang Island would travel to the mainland to say mass before the war years. Later, towards the end of the war, a priest would cycle from the next town, Bukit Mertajam, to come and say Sunday Mass here.

Those were the days when children used to come to school with three cents as pocket money. They would buy a small plate of bee hoon for one cent, and a ball of ice scrapings coated with sweet coloured syrup for a quarter cent. And they would still have change of one cent left over.

Folks were a lot more humble and simple back then: the people who flocked to me on Sundays worked as civil servants such as those from the Health Department and the Railways, or small traders such as cloth vendors. There was even a toddy inspector! To get to me for Sunday Mass, some had to use a sampan to cross the Prai River to reach Batu Ujung and then walk up in their Sunday best.

It was Fr Adrian Devalls who blessed me during the official opening in 1938. But my pride and joy was short-lived.

On 8 December 1941, the earth shook as Japanese planes attacked Butterworth and two days later, 70 aircraft launched massive air raids on Penang Island. In the distance, I could hear the faint thud-thud-thud of bombing all around me. By 13 December, people began fleeing from Penang, as the British retreated towards Singapore. Shocked, many flocked to me and I heard their anguished prayers, entreating the Lord for mercy.

Those were difficult years during the Occupation. More bombing again in Penang in 1945 as Allied forces tried to retake Penang with the Japanese finally surrendering in September 1945. For a moment, a burst of relief and celebration but then came the dark years of the Emergency. And then again, in 1957, I heard the expectant and fervent prayers of the community as they expressed their hopes and dreams as the country celebrated Independence.

Ah yes, I have been through a lot with the community during their ups and downs. I have witnessed their joys and sorrows.

I now see around me the grandchildren of the original inhabitants and how times have changed. A culture of materialism has spread. All around me I see the trappings of ‘development’ and crass consumerism. Devoid of simplicity and spirituality.

What has happened to the simplicity and community solidarity of times past?

Today, like most old things and senior citizens who find themselves unwanted, I find myself feeling insecure. Will I be the next to go? How long more have I left before they consign me to the ash-heap of history and spend millions to put up a ‘modern’ structure.

Often, I hear them say that they need better more and comfortable air-conditioned surroundings for catechism classes and meeting rooms. But I remember when I was opened, the excited looks on the chidren’s faces. Things were a lot cooler then with all the greenery around them. Today much of my surroundings have been covered with concrete and tar. Why is it that modern churches think they have to be covered with concrete and tar all around them?

What do people think when they look at me? Do they ignore me, walk past me? Do they feel embarrassed when they look at me? Do they see an old building that is a nuisance to maintain? Do they feel uncomfortable when they look at me and compare me to the gleaming white concrete complexes that surround me – structures devoid of much soul and history with no tales to tell of the community around them? Or do they think a gleaming church complex would look much grander. Ah, the illusions of grandeur.

Today, when people look at me, are they reminded of an era of simplicity when faith was manifested in simple structures and the prayers of a humble community? How they respond to my humble structure tells a lot about how they see their faith.

I remember Fr Belville and his cough-cough-cough as he said his mass. Although he built a bigger church next to me for the growing community around me, I suspect he was fond of me and didn’t have the heart to tear me down. Neither did the parish priests who followed him, including our Archbishop. Others even lovingly restored me.

Whenever I find my wooden structure feeling feeble and vulnerable, I am reminded that when his closest followers had deserted him, the closest thing to our Lord on the cross was the wood of the cross.

Today, I feel comforted by the thought I am still housing kindergarten classes and providing a haven for migrant workers to gather on Sundays. It is these simple people who still appreciate me. Just like, I am sure, the artisan carpenter from Nazareth, who didn’t have a roof on his head, would.

But how much longer do I have before someone or some committee decides to demolish me – and along with it the history and memories of a community – the only lingering trace of me being perhaps a fading photograph on the wall of some meeting room?

Originally published in The Herald

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M. Alex

There are still many ways we can salvage & keep this heritage church alive. We need people with a soft heart not a hard head. If this news is carried far & wide by the emedia & news portal surely by God’s grace it’s demise would not happen. Anil, get Herald to publish this story again And also lets all believe in the power of prayers


This church holds memories for me too. It is not money that is needed to restore and preserve this small treasure, it is the awareness of its historical, spiritual and nostalgic value. Those who have grown up with and in this church will have nothing to show their children, grandchildren, or even their potential spouses, a place of their past and all the memories it holds. Destruction of the old wooden church would be a tragic loss to the Catholic, as well as the whole Butterworth community at large.


Time has changed many things, many perceptions, many tastes & many lifestyles. As has been the crux of argument for and against tasty, cheaper street hawker food vis-a-vis super cleanish yet expensive food courts plastics, the ‘contemporary trend for style’ seems to be going for a more comfortable airconed and modern stylish building to house worshippers in the ways of attracting more believers and prospective converts. Some even went to the extent of having hifi sense surround equipment with wireless mikes and miniature ear phones! Surely God is not suffering from Tinnitus and definitely does not want such extravagant display… Read more »

Frank Talk

My friend is posted to work in Papua New Guinea. From what I have learnt from him, it will be a good place that fits tunglang’s conditions as an ideal place to stay, as the place has yet to be affected by any form of capitalism, religious bigotry, technology invasion and consumerism.


Hi Anil, Happy Easter. Hi Gerakan K, Happy Easter. Hi Andrew I, Happy Easter. And everyone, Happy Easter. Every year, Happy Easter is a reminder to me we don’t have to die in vain. B’cos He died for our sins. Each one of us now has a chance to receive this Good News. And the next Good News is His Coming in Glory. It is very, very near. Talking about old church brings me back to my 70’s teenage years at AOG, Macalister Road, Penang. It was a time of carefree fellowship with God where the Holy Spirit was felt… Read more »

Andrew I

Belated Easter greetings to you too, Tunglang.

Yeah, religion should be inclusive rather than exclusive, like how some break-away churches promise entry into heaven to their followers.



Can you give examples of inclusive and exclusive in the context of religion? I am trying to learn from you as my English is not as good and I cannot find it in Google.

Hope to learn from you.


Welcome back!

Dr.Chris Anthony

It is a pity that we are so eager to demolish the past for some unjustifiable future.Why can’t we coexist with the past as far as we can?Isn’t the past a lesson for the present and future?


Hi Anil,

Happy Easter to you and everyone here.

Where is this wooden church? There is no address or any indication of its whereabouts except its in Butterworth. I am not from the north, so maybe some directions or google map?



Found it! Its listed under the Diocese of Penang.

Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1935)
3972, Jalan New Ferry, 12100 Butterworth, Penang

Sunday Masses :
8.30 am (English)
5.00 pm (1st, 3rd & 5th Sundays in Tamil)
5.00 pm (2nd & 4th Sundays in Mandarin)


If you have good faith (of any religion), the place of worship is in your heart. There is no need for a grand place of worship. You can pray in solitude in your home, no need to show people your religious affinity at the place of worship. Then the world will be more peaceful.


Devi, If you know the Bhagavat GIta well, its divided into the Yoga of Action, Devotion and Wisdom. A place of worship provides you with Devotion, and also a place for Wisdom to flourish especially with the guidance of a Guru, which Krishna had clearly mentioned to Arjuna. So in this case, the church is also a center for Knowledge and Wisdom, besides providing a place for Devotion.
That is where such Churches/Centers play a crucial role in the development of spirituality & divinity in an individual



I agree with you. Do not get me wrong. I am just trying to say that we do not need big, lavish, grand and expensive places of worship as a simple one like the one highlighted in this blog has proven the point. However, if you faith is strong, you can pray anywhere.


Devi, we can choose to make our individual body a sanctuary for Christ to live in our lives thro’ the Holy Spirit. In addition to having fellowship in churches – old, new, small or big.
I prefer the small ones where there is greater folksiness and more concerns for individual well being regardless of status than the numbers in finance and congregation.


A good article to promote religious understanding among all races in Malaysia.


“I am as poor as the Church mouse!” Perhaps, self-claimed rich man Gerakan K maybe able to untie his purse strings and undertake to do an upgrading renovations…no haram money is acceptable in the House of our Lord.

Gerakan K

The church admin must ask for donation first. Donating money is not a problem for me. I’m not stingy for charity works.

Charlie Oscar

Happy Easter Day!!!


Very interesting article, I did some of my fact finding about our church. My church (in KL) have a group of committees also have the same mind set (big brain), building a bigger church. Each Sunday service I can always see the same old group people (old people), some already gone to meet our Lord. There seen to no increase of attendees and it getting smaller by all the Sunday to come. Worse each Sunday, there always mention on monies & monies talk, why. Asking for monies to buy a land and build a bigger church, the cost RM20 mil… Read more »

Albert Goh

Nowadays society is about money. Money rules. No money no talk.

Laurence Mosas


Gerakan K

Want to run donation campaign for upgrading works ???

Andrew I

Yeah, we can start off with your BMW. I hope you haven’t spilled any of your bah kut teh in it and please empty all your unsuccessful toto jackpot receipts from the glove compartment.

Gerakan K

Your statement hurts me a lot !!! That jackpot is gone. Sigh ~

Nevertheless, I will do my part if there is donation campaign for the church.

Andrew I

Never mind. You can try again when the GE nears. The jackpot will start snowballing around that time.


Again Gerakan K misses the point! (and not for the first time!)