Atmospheric ruin with ancient tombstones
Crowning the peak of St Paul’s Hill, the rather haunting roofless ruin of St Paul’s Church is not only one of Melaka’s most fascinating sights,but it also offers a fine view over the historic city.
The church began as a simple Catholic chapel built in 1521 by a Portuguese sea captain, Duarte Coelho, in gratitude for survival from either storms or pirates (accounts are unclear) on the South China Sea. The Jesuit Saint Francis Xavier visited several times during the course of his missionary voyages throughout the archipelago, and on one of these occasions he acquired the church’s deed for the Bishop of Goa, India.
His evangelising led to the establishment of a Jesuit school at the chapel. Saint Francis returned to Melaka posthumously when his body was temporally interred in the church en route from his place of death in China, before being shipped to Goa. Said to be the Saint’s final miracle, the body allegedly showed no sights of deterioration.
Today visitors can peer into the empty tomb enclosed by a cage inside the church. A statue of the saint graces the front of the ruin, erected in 1952, the 400th anniversary of his death. Curiously, a large tree fell and damaged the likeness, smashing the right hand and mimicking the fact that Saint Francis Xavier’s hand had being removed as a relic, to this day on display in a reliquary in the Church of Gesù, Rome. In later years the church expanded and a second floor and bell tower were added.
The Dutch conquest saw the conversion of Roman Catholic churches to Protestant Dutch Reform, and St Paul’s became Melaka’s principal parish church until it was later deconsecrated after the construction of Christ Church in 1753. By the time the British arrived, the structure was already in ruins and the Brits found better use for the building as a military storehouse.
At the turn of the 20th century efforts began to preserve the historical structure when Melaka’s Resident Councillor Robert Norman Brand photographed and translated Dutch and Portuguese tombstones found in the church, publishing the results in his 1905 work, Historical Tombstones of Malacca.
Today propped up against the ageing walls, the large tombstones add to the somewhat poignant ambience, only slightly disturbed by the hordes of tourists and souvenir sellers. Approach the ruin via the Dutch Square following the track along the side of The Stadhuys or from the path beginning at Porta de Santiago. The feast day of St Francis Xavier is celebrated here on the Sunday closest to 3 December, and usually draws a crowd of the faithful.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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