Keeping the faith – Macao’s rich religious heritage gains international recognition

13 May 2016

Four centuries ago, Catholic missionaries travelled to Macao to study at St. Paul’s College, the first higher-education institution founded by Jesuits serving the Portuguese empire.

Today, thousands of tourists flock to the Chinese territory to visit this institution along with a multitude of churches and chapels and three sacred art museums. Pilgrimages to dozens of Buddhist and Taoist temples are also popular, as are festivities marking important dates in the Roman Catholic calendar.

Having survived three fires, what remains of St. Paul’s College and the attached church, Igreja da Madre de Deus, is now a monument known as the Ruins of St. Paul. Since 2005, it has been Macao’s main tourist attraction on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Known best for its famous gaming industry, Macao is also a city with a rich and unique history befitting international tourism. The Macao SAR Government has therefore preserved its significant cultural and religious heritage with special care.

Pilgrimage services enhance appreciation and diversity of religious sites

Friday, 11 am. A group of Korean tourists – ten women and a man – visit St. Anthony’s Church (Fa Vong Tong, in Chinese) or the Church of Flowers. After a nun gives a short presentation, the man takes a white garment out of his backpack, slips it on, and heads to the pulpit. He is a priest at Dangsan-dong parish in Seoul serving, according to his estimate, about eight thousand faithful. He has travelled from South Korea to pay tribute to Saint Andrew Kim Taegon who, 150 years ago, attended the same church and studied theology in Macao.

“We are very proud because he was the first Korean Catholic priest, and we believe he helped us a lot,” the priest explains near the statue of the martyr. Adding, “Macao is beautiful because it’s all very old. We do not have old churches and they are all very small.”

The Church of St. Anthony was built in 1638. In addition to its patron saint as well as Saint Taegon, it houses statues of Jesus of Nazareth, Saint Joseph, Saint Sebastian, and Our Lady of Fatima, among others. It holds daily Mass in Cantonese and Portuguese and, on Saturdays, in Korean.

The visit by the Korean tourists is guided by two sisters of the Catholic Pilgrimage Service of Macao–local nuns who present the city’s most famous shrines in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and Korean, all free of charge. St. Lawrence’s Church (Feng Shun Tang, in Chinese) or the Hall of the Soothing Winds, built around 1560, and the exuberant St. Joseph’s Seminary Church, built in the mid-18th century, are just two such shrines included in Macao’s main tourist circuit. These sites therefore receive logistical support from the Macao Government Tourist Office (MGTO), which also finances the Catholic Pilgrimage Service.

Helena de Senna Fernandes, MGTO director, acknowledges the importance of the group’s work. “If a person is in a church and doesn’t know the history or know how to identify the saints – something we Catholics take for granted – they will just see another statue or work of art, without knowing why it’s special,” she explains.

Born in Macao and a fervent practitioner of the Catholic religion in her youth, Senna Fernandes used to sing in the choir at St. Lazarus Church. “I used to be involved. I wasn’t part of any association, but I helped and participated from time to time,” she says.

Today, the director of the Tourist Office says it’s inevitable that there is strong religious tourism in Macao. In addition to the numerous sites for worship, many of Macao’s publicly celebrated religious festivals exist only in a few other places in Asia, thereby attracting thousands of pilgrims. “History shows us that many Catholics from Hong Kong and other countries such as the Philippines often come to Macao to attend the festivities, and they do so individually, not with tourist tours or packages,” says Senna Fernandes. The growth of the local Filipino community has led to Masses given in English and Tagalog.

But Senna Fernandes advocates that religious tourism should not be operated upon a logic of commercialism. The government currently collaborates with churches prepared to receive tourists, such as Cathedral and Our Lady of Carmel in Taipa Village, whose western architecture and surrounding gardens often serve the setting for popular photo shoots. MGTO ensures the safety of these locations, and the Cultural Bureau takes care of restoration and preservation. Since the festivities promote the city by “let[ting] people know that there are different things to do and see,” Senna Fernandes stresses that they should “keep their dignity, appealing to the heart rather than being used to make a profit.”

Religious museums are windows into Macao’s past

Macao’s most-visited tourist attraction is indeed a religious one, albeit now neither a church nor a chapel. But it once was.

The Ruins of St. Paul are the former Igreja Madre de Deus, destroyed by three fires, the last in 1835. Originally made of wood, all that remains today is the facade and stone foundations. But beyond the facade itself, the grounds of the ruins can be explored: the location of St. Paul’s College, the first western-style university in a Chinese territory, is also home to the Sacred Art Museum of the Crypt.

Macao recently took a guided tour with a member of the Macao Heritage Ambassadors Association. A student of cultural management and the son of tour guides, our ambassador is passionate about the history of the site as well as the territory in general. With the help of an explanatory leaflet, he takes us on a thorough and detailed tour lasting 30 minutes.

The museum recounts the history of the region’s missions. Drawers on the walls contain religious remains and martyrs of Japan and Vietnam. Where the chancel once stood, a chapel crypt has been built where a granite rock and a brass cross mark a grave, probably that of the founder of the college, Father Alessandro Valignano.

The room adjacent to the crypt displays replicas of objects from various churches in Macao, such as a collection of Sino-Portuguese crucifixes in ivory, wood, and silver as well as liturgical vessels in silver (chalices, incense boats, patens, communion wafer boxes, relics) from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Of the statuary and sacred paintings, many Indo-Portuguese in style, that of Archangel Michael from the 17th century stands out. Painted in accordance with Western styles and with the technique of a Japanese disciple of the Jesuit Giovanne Nicollo, it is the only work that remains from the original ancient school. In the centre of the room stands a Nossa Senhora do Remédios in silver, in neoclassical lines with Rococo decorative motifs.

Our guide informs us that the museum receives around 50 visitors every day, this number doubling on weekends and holidays. He complains that it is difficult to control camera flashes and curious hands. “We need to better control this behaviour and also attract the interest of young people in Macao to heritage,” says the docent, who is 19 years old himself.

St. Dominic’s Church, built by Portuguese Dominicans in the 1590s, also has a museum: the Treasure of Sacred Art has been open to the public since 1997. Many of its numerous works of art were acquired around 1834, during Portugal’s state secularisation – a time when religious orders were terminated and their lands and possessions nationalised.

The Treasure of Sacred Art museum mainly boasts a collection of jewellery, statues, richly ornamented vestments, religious paintings, and various objects of worship. Many of the pieces are from Macao, but some come from other parts of Asia, even India. All told, there are roughly 300 artefacts dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

A passion for history and art

Walking through bustling Senado Square presents yet another of the city’s picture-perfect moments: Travessa da Misericórdia. “Not a single tourist from China who has visited has not taken a photograph here!” claims António José de Freitas, president of the Holy House of Mercy of Macao, a historical building situated in the square.

Fifteen years ago, Freitas decided to enhance the street adjacent to the Holy House. He erected a bust of D. Belchior Carneiro, founder of the Brotherhood Mission – an institution that has been around for more than four centuries – and created a museum within mission headquarters at the Holy House of Mercy, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “I thought it was important to re-store the dignity of this institution, more than four centuries old, as an essential pillar of protection for the most vulnerable and, above all, for the role played by the Jesuits and the Catholic Church in the contact of civilizations from East and West,” says Freitas. “We are proud to have contributed to another point of tourist interest in Macao.”

The museum’s collection mainly comprises religious art objects that serve as support to liturgical activity. Images and sculptures are displayed on altars along with various pieces accumulated over the centuries, the most important of these being the original manuscript of the Commitment of the Holy House of Mercy of Macao, dated 1662.

The museum’s estate is the original. Most of it was constructed in mainland China and belongs to the personal collection of President Freitas, with some pieces belonging to his predecessor, the architect Carlos Marreiros.

Collections of porcelain and Chinese, Japanese, and European ceramics bearing the Companhia de Jesus monogram reveal a unique artistic-religious mix, representative of Macao’s multicultural heritage. “I would say that this is one of the places exhibiting the most pieces with this monogram in the world,” claims the president. The second room, which opened in 2011, displays an assortment of small statues and lamps made of porcelain and pearl shell, the Virgin Mary with oriental features, even Christ depicted with muscles or with a belly and chest hair, “because in the minds of Chinese people, Jesus was a foreigner, and a European had to be a strong man.” On the far side of the room stands a porcelain statue that cost half a million patacas, purchased by the president for the catalogue.

Freitas was 28 years old when he began collecting religious art. The son of a humble family, the former government translator studied Chinese language and history, which sparked his passion for historical art.

Freitas boasts that Macao’s Holy House of Mercy is the only one of its kind in Asia and survives without any government funding. By his accounts, 50 to 80 people visit the centre daily, a mix of Catholics and sightseers. “The museum is a bit amateur because it doesn’t have a director, only a president, me, and my work is on a voluntary basis,” he says. “But I think [visitors] should take advantage of the uniqueness of Macao. The city has such a strong link between two cultures, one that has remained for over four centuries, so it is important to reinforce ties between the communities that live here who have always been friendly and peaceful.” (Macao Magazine, by Filipa Queiroz. Photos Eric Tam and GCS)