Evocative historic church and graveyard
Published/Last edited or updated: 2nd October, 2017
St George’s Church is the oldest purpose-built Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, although with its most recent restoration completed in 2011, it looks as fresh as it would have done when its first service was held on Christmas day, 1818.
Curiously the Anglicans were the last of Penang’s major religious groups to build a dedicated place of worship, perhaps less surprising when you learn that the building was entirely funded by the British East India Company, who were probably more concerned by their ledgers than the good book, coupled with the fact that Penang’s founder, Francis Light himself was the son of an unmarried mother, and in all likelihood wouldn’t have found the institution all that welcoming. Prior to St George’s, Anglican services were held in the small chapel at Fort Cornwallis, with the first recorded ceremony, the marriage of Francis Light’s widow in 1799.
Better late than never, this beautiful gleaming white Georgian-Palladian-style church, fronted by a quartet of double doric columns and topped by a gothic spire, modelled on St George’s in Chennai (previously Madras), stands in a large green lawn, dappled by the shade of a huge, century-old mahogany tree. You would be forgiven for mistaking the elegant rotunda in front of the church as a sort of baptistery in the Italian style but it is actually a cenotaph dedicated to Francis Light. Entirely funded by public conscription, it is testimony to the influence of this high priest to the colony, its inscription moving in its heartfelt description of him as “a Father” to whom the community were “greatly attached”.
The austere church interior almost transports you to any parish in England, until you notice the ceiling fans, recently installed air-con and rattan seat pews. Japanese bombs dropped in 1941 wreaked structural havoc but failed to damage the Bishop’s chair near the altar or the lovely stone baptism font near the entrance, topped by its own little wooden pointy hat to avoid less than considerate visitors using it as a large ashtray.
To complete the journey from cradle to the grave, why not continue on to the Protestant cemetery, not as you might suppose behind the church itself (you’ll find a less than holy car park there) but 800 metres away on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah near the E&O, in its original spot, pre-dating the church.
This large, slightly overgrown space, with clusters of peeling sepulchres and weather-ravaged gravestones beneath canopies of frangipani trees, is worthy of the most sensational gothic horror novel. The tombs and gravestones huddle together as if even in death the pioneer community seeks safety in numbers; as well as segregation—notice that beyond the wall, a small locked gate bars the way to the Roman Catholic patch. A wander through brings many poignant moments, especially with a collection of infant graves in the furthest corner, as well as throwing light on the interesting mix of governors, judges, planters, engineers, merchants, midshipmen, missionaries and mothers who made up the early settlers. Dutch, Chinese, French, German, Armenian and American surnames attest to the mix of nations.
The earliest surviving memorial is from 1789, although church records record an earlier unmarked burial from 1787, and the most recent from 1892, for the grandly named Cornelia Josephine van Someren. Many prominent early members of Penang’s community find their resting place here, including Francis Light. Film buffs may be interested to know that Thomas Leonowens, the husband of the Anna made famous by “The King and I” is also buried here, his untimely death no doubt prompting her to search for her famous teaching commission.
The combined peaceful walk beneath a shady mahogany tree, a gothic spire and a canopy of frangipanis makes for a rewarding and evocative, if not slightly spooky, insight into the influence of the British East India Company and the invaluable contribution of the Protestant community to early Penang.
If you fancy continuing on in colonial style, make a visit to nearby Fort Cornwallis, drop into the church’s Heritage Centre for a spot of tea and cakes or head to the E&O for a tiffin lunch. Between St George’s and the cemetery, stop for a peek at the Church of Assumption, the oldest Catholic church in Penang, under renovation at the time of research in July 2017.
For history buffs, the St George’s Heritage Centre within the churchyard displays early photographs of the church and sells a book on its history and Georgetown World Heritage Incorporated produce a handy brochure about the cemetery that includes a map of the graves—download it here.
The last Sunday of the month, Penang Heritage Trust offers free guided walks of the graveyard—preregistration is required. The church is opened to visitors Monday to Thursday 10:00–16:00, and Sunday for services only 08:30 and 10:30. St George’s Heritage Centre is open Monday to Friday 09:00—16:00.
Address: St George’s Church: 1 Lebuh Farquhar; Protestant Cemetery: Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah
T: (0426) 12 739;
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º20'21.74" E, 5º25'12.25" N
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These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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