The amazing thing was, along the way, we stopped at the St Anne's new church in Bukit Mertajam. Although, I've been a regular pilgrim to St Anne's, BM when I was a child growing up in Ipoh, that annual family trip to the extremely packed feast day ended when I grew up and left the nest.
My father said the reason we used to go to St Anne's yearly was because he prayed for a baby after I was about 6 years-old. That was of course followed by the conception and birth of my brother Nicholas Ong aka Point Blanc. Thus, the annual pilgrimage to St Anne's old church to fulfil a vow or promise he made.
I usually enjoyed the car ride, but things always got too intense for my liking when we entered the smaller old church which thousands throng. We packed ourselves like sardins with long candles burning and sometimes you can see people accidentally burn the hair of the person in front of them as they processed into the church.... painful, not to mention the odd smell. Sometimes people faint due to immense stuffiness of the extremely crowded space.
The old church which is just beside the new one
Besides that, you have all these devotees (my guess is almost half are non-Catholics, and could be Hindus and Buddhist - unofficial inter-religious thingy going on) begging outside the church with their handkerchieves - as fulfillment of the vow they made when their prayers were answered through the intercession of Jesus' grandmother (St Anne la - in case you are suffering from Cradle Catholic syndrome when reading this post).
A carnival atmosphere permeates the air as hundreds of stalls will be set up selling religious items necessary for prayers like candles and flowers. Of course, there'll also be a variety of food and drinks, toys and all sorts of everything.... which later leaves a trail of plastic bags littered all over the sprawling grounds.
The other thing I look forward is the climb up a small hillock where the grotto of St Anne is located at the peak. Well, usually a joy when it doesn't rain. The years when it did rain, my shoes and sometimes my clothes get covered in mud - yucks (guess you know now, I'm not much into jungle trekking and that sort of thing, usually). I shan't mention or describe the queue to the toilets now, would I?... guess not.
Hmmm.... am I painting a negative picture here? Well, the point I'm trying to make is that despite all the discomforts, I treasure the moments of deep prayer together with the thousands who converge in Bukit Mertajam every year.
Most people have their personal miracle stories to tell after their visit to this church and that's why St Anne's BM is such a popular site as pilgrims from around the Asian region are drawn to it.
It can also be because in the past, a few people, including Hindus had witnessed St Anne's appearance. Some who were very poor had prospered and now are diehard believers, coming every year to fulfill their vows. These stories were related to me by Patrick's uncle who is a local boy of mainland Penang.
So last week, when Pat, my mother-in-law and I were passing through this area enroute to Jitra, I suggested we stop and go check out the new church (which is built just next to the old one) so that I can pray a little while.
It was indeed a great decision. I felt such peace when I arrived outside the new church. It is a magnificent architecture. I felt like I was transported back to ancient churches in Europe. The brown stone walls, the bell tower (especially with the peeling, gives it an authentically old look), the lush greenery.... ahhhhh..
So if you can't afford a pilgrimage to Europe yet, a visit here gives you a foretaste of it, minus the cool weather unfortunately.
What a sight for sore eyes. Makes my soul sing for joy. If you haven't already guessed, it was my first visit to the new church. They had life-size Stations of the Cross and beautiful angel statues, not to mention mosaic art around the church.
No excuses not to go for Confessions, as they have so many Confessionals.... waiting for you....
I took many pictures and surveyed the grounds (it seems to never end) but most importantly I spent some quiet time with St Anne, asking her to put in a good word for me. I just didn't have anything specific to ask... in fact I wondered why. Just put in a good word for me to Jesus and that He knows what's best for me was my ardent prayer.*shrugs*
Anyway, I thank my Abba, Jesus and of course the Holy Spirit for leading us there for such a sweet and gentle experience. It was btw, Trinity Sunday weekend (though we passed through on a Friday morning).
I look forward to coming back to this parish for mass.... I'm not sure whether it would be during the feast day stretch of 17July-26July 2009 due to the "madness" of the crowds, but I'll definitely be back.
Some more pictures for you to cuci mata (your viewing pleasure).