- 2008/09/08 Chapel of sugar cane

Over a thousand Catholics and other visitors gathered at the quaint Assumption Chapel in Praya Lane off Jalan Banda Hilir here recently to commemorate the Feast of the Assumption in a unique and traditional way.

The majority of the congregation was made of members of the local Portuguese-Eurasian community, but there were also many non-Christians and tourists who came to witness the late evening celebration and procession known as the Sugar Cane Festival.

The feast is observed annually in mid August, but it is unlike other similar celebrations as stalks of sugar cane are decked up against the chapel walls. This is part of the community's tradition dating back to the 17th-Century Dutch protestant era.

Image: The statue of Our Lady of the Rosary being carried in procession with sugar cane stalks in the background at the Assumption Chapel in Malacca recently
The statue of Our Lady of the Rosary being carried in procession with sugar cane stalks in the background at the Assumption Chapel in Malacca recently.

Though the Assumption Chapel was opened in the early 1900s, senior community member Lionel Theseira, who has lived in the Portuguese settlement since 1940, said the tradition is symbolised the perseverance of the Catholic faith in dire times.

Theseira, whose home is adjacent to the chapel, the tradition originated during the Dutch occupation of Malacca from 1641 to 1795.

"At the height of the occupation, Catholics from the Portuguese community in Praya Lane and neighbouring Kampong Tengah went underground to conduct prayers and devotions for fear of reprisals from Dutch authorities," he said.

He said, at that time, there was a sugar cane plantation close to the chapel that offered Catholics a safe haven to pray and conduct other rituals in candlelight.

"Succeeding generations chose this novel way to commemorate the protection of their ancestors in the sugar plantation when the chapel was built," said Theseira.

On the day of the feast, following the late evening service, a procession is held where the 160-year-old statue of Our Lady of the Rosary is carried on a wooden bier decked with flowers. Sugar cane stalks are cut into short pieces and blessed before being distributed to those present.

Theseira said, in the old days, wild ferns and young coconut leaves were used to decorate the chapel's interior and compound.

"Another ritual still in practice is a group of flower girls ahead of the procession strewing bunga rampai (scented flowers) on the ground. These flowers are also distributed to Catholics to adorn their home altars," he added.

The Assumption Chapel in Praya Lane is special to the Portuguese-Eurasian fishing community and those living in the Portuguese Settlement in Ujong Pasir, whose devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary is legendary.

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