Sat, 13 May 2000

Anglican church speaks of history

By Ida Indawati Khouw

Most people are probably unaware that the Anglican church on Jl. Ridwan Rais in Central Jakarta once housed the first English- speaking institution in Indonesia. This is the fourth article on historic churches in Jakarta, and the 38th article on historic and protected buildings in the capital, appearing every Saturday.

JAKARTA (JP): With few exceptions, the churches in Batavia (the historic name of Jakarta) were closely related to the Dutch colonial government. One of these rare exceptions in the All Saints Anglican Church in Central Jakarta.

This church is a precious piece of the city's heritage, being at one time the site of what was the first English-speaking institution in Indonesia.

The site that now houses the Anglican church played another important role in the past, for it was from here that the first missionaries begin to work among the Chinese in Indonesia, said the current vicar of the church, Andrew Lake.

Located on the busy Jl. Ridwan Rais, the church may escape the notice of most passersby, being hidden behind trees and a high wall. Moreover, for such an important structure in the history of the capital, it is quite small.

The area where the church was built was at one time called Prapatan (The Crossroads), because it was here that traffic from several important areas in the city met. Traffic from the old town of Kota in West Jakarta, the Chinese settlement in Senen, Menteng and Koningsplein (the present site of Taman Medan Merdeka), all in Central Jakarta, converged at this point, creating what must have been quite a hectic scene.

The site is still one of the busies areas in the city, but the chaos is blocked out on the grounds of the 169-year-old church.

The pollution and noise of the surrounding area seems magically to disappear when one glimpses the well-managed "Tropical Georgian" architectural style of the church, with a well-trimmed lawn and a beautiful gazebo in front of the church, providing the ideal spot for the congregation to enjoy tea after Sunday services.

The building is now an Anglican church, related to the Church of England, but history shows it initially belonged to the London Missionary Society (LMS), an institution which was the home for people from various backgrounds who performed Christian missionary work worldwide.

The present church building itself was built in 1831 to replace a bamboo house which had stood on the site, but for the first 150 years the church had no exterior walls, "only pillars of bricks and plaster", Lake said.

Lake says, however, the origin of the church goes back to 1819, when a man called Slater, a missionary from LMS, arrived in Batavia to work among the Chinese and British communities. It was Slater who purchased the land and built the bamboo house which originally stood on the site.

Lake said Slater's description of the land to the LMS directors emphasized its strategic position for a Christian missionary station.

" ... being situated about half way between Cornelis (Meester Cornelis) area, where one of the Chinese community existed. It is now called Jatinegara area, and the City of Batavia and nearly in the center between three other Chinese campoongs, or settlements, one of which is as large as Malacca .... ," Slater wrote.

Soon afterward the bamboo house burned down, resulting in the loss of most of LMS' Testaments and religious tracts. "However, the subscriptions of the British inhabitants enabled Slater to repair the damage, and in 1821 a small bamboo chapel was built," Lake wrote in a paper.

The present church building, which was described as a "new and handsome chapel" at the time of its construction, was built during the ministry of Reverend Walter Medhurst to replace the bamboo chapel, which was destroyed by termites.

"Medhurst was a visionary whose primary aim was to take the gospel to China, which at that time was closed to missionary work. Not to be confounded he sought to evangelize the Chinese expatriates of Southeast Asia so that they would take the gospel back to their home country," said Lake.

The Chinese community in the Dutch East Indies, the name of Indonesian during Dutch colonial rule, was the largest outside of mainland China at the time.

The total number of Chinese on the islands of Java and Madura in 1815 was 94,441 according to the book The Chinese in South East Asia by Victor Purcell.

However, there is no record of how Medhurst and LMS carried out their work among the Chinese community, but what is clear is that the church became the center of LMS' activities, which were focused on establishing a ministry in China.

At different times a number of important missionaries who lived in Batavia worked and worshiped at the church. "They included Gutzlaff (a pioneer missionary in China), Barenstein (who worked among the Dayaks) and Mary Anne Aldersley (a pioneer of women's education in China)," Lake noted.

However, these missionaries abandoned the city and went to China when the country began to open up to foreigners in 1843, leading LMS to sell the property to the British Protestant Community.

Under the new owners, the building was extended with an annex sanctuary and chancel, giving it a more distinctively Anglican flavor than the original building, which only had a nave and veranda. The aisles were also given the tradition Anglican cruciform pattern.

Inside the church are numerous religious symbols -- IHS monograms, which represent the name of Jesus in Greek, plants symbolizing the Christian grace or doctrine, symbols of the Trinity and numerous crosses located around the building, including the pulpit, lectern and baptismal font.

The cross located on the roof is a mix between Celtic and fleury design, with the circle in the center representing eternity and the lily petals on the arms representing life.

"The meaning is Jesus Christ is the source of eternal life," Lake said.

Although the grounds of the church were not used as a graveyard as at other churches of the time, several tombstones of important English figures are located on the walls and in the churchyard.

There are no bodies, however, as the tombstones were moved to the church from other locations where they were being neglected.