Beyond the Facade

The Story Behind the Ruins of St. Paul's

The Ruins of St. Paul’s have long been regarded as a symbol of Macao’s identity. Locals and tourists are fascinated by its unique existence, being the remains of the most magnificent church in Asia in its prime, surviving to this day against all odds.    

Located adjacent to the Mount Fortress, the Ruins of St. Paul’s is the façade of the Church of St. Paul’s, also known as Mater Dei (Our Lady Mother of God) in Latin. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the church was built by a group of priests from the Society of Jesus who travelled to the Far East to spread Catholicism. Adjoining the College of the Society of Jesus, a residence and a library with thousands of books, it was meant to express the triumph of the Roman Catholic Church. 

Construction began during the pontificate of Urban VIII in 1602 and was completed decades later in 1641. The church was a basilica with three naves with a cross-shaped floor plan - a structure similar to that of St. Dominic’s Church near Senado Square.

“According to the sketches done by George Chinnery and archeological studies conducted by the Cultural Secretary during the Portuguese administration in the 1990s, there was a main altar at the far end of the church, chapels in the chambers on both sides and an organ installed in the church attic above its entrance,” says André Lui, a local architect who specializes in cultural heritage. 

To the right of the church was a tower that housed the great clock donated by the King of France Louis XIV. Striking quarterly and hourly, it could be heard all over the city. 

In 1623, the Rev. Father Alexander of Rhodes S.J. complemented it saying: “Such a beautiful church; I have seen nothing to equal it, even among all the beautiful churches of Italy. Its façade is admirable, the inside is very big, and it is built in an excellent architectural style. It is all gilded with ducat gold at the top and bottom, with very rare paintings.”

Suppression of the Society of Jesus

Despite hostile reaction around Europe against the political and commercial power they had gained, the Jesuits enjoyed relative peace for more than a century in Macao, until 1759 when a decree by the Marquis of Pombal, first minister of the King of Portugal, Dom Jose I, ordered the dissolution of the Society of Jesus in Portugal, and the confiscation of all its property throughout the world. 

On June 5, 1762, the Jesuits of Macao were arrested and imprisoned in Lisbon. The church and the college were pillaged and taken over by military garrisons. Many of the precious books and historical documents were destroyed or stolen. 

On January 26, 1835, a violent fire broke out, starting in a pile of wood near the kitchens inside the church. Despite the rescue efforts of the nearby residents, the flames spread quickly, devouring the wooden ceiling, sculptures and interior. Among the broken arches and walls, only the granite façade and the staircase survived, in the form of what we see today.

In the aftermath of the fire, the site was abandoned. People took stones from its remains to build houses and the walls eventually crumbled. It was once even a graveyard where a number of Catholics were buried. And in around 1888, the Na Tcha Temple was built where the left chamber of the church was originally located, to honor the Taoist deity for driving away epidemic diseases.

An important reminder of Macao’s roots

After much tragedy and frustration, the Society of Jesuits was finally rehabilitated in 1814. According to André Lui, in around 1904, a group of Catholics and civilians started a charity programme to rebuild the church, but it never came to pass, probably due to the political instability caused by the political revolution in Portugal.

Today, the façade of the church has become a much-revered heritage site of Macao. In 2005, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with Senado Square, A-Ma Temple and other historical sites. It is one of the most visited landmarks in Macao, flocked to by tourists who are eager to take photos and selfies. However, many of them only see the remains of an old church, and are oblivious to its ornate architectural details.

Starting with a dove at the top that symbolizes the Holy Spirit, the façade is divided into five levels. A carved statue of Jesus can be seen beneath the dove, and around it are stone carvings of the implements used during the crucifixion. Other sculptured motifs include biblical images, mythological representations, several nautical motifs and bronze statues. 

Asian artists trained by the Jesuits are believed to have worked on the decoration of the church, but the identity of the statue’s sculptor is unknown to this day.

According to Lui, the order of the iconic columns on the façade reflects a female character, in honor of the Virgin Mary. Eastern elements such as Chinese characters and six Chinese lions were incorporated into the façade, as part of the Jesuit missionaries’ strategy to integrate into the local culture. 

Despite various studies conducted on the Ruins of St. Paul’s, there are still a number of mysteries that keep researchers pondering.

For instance, the carved face of a bearded man can be seen at the top left of the façade. According to legend, it was the face of Father Carlo Spinola, an Italian Jesuit who studied mathematics in Rome, and was believed to be the designer of the church. However, according to Lui, some suggest that it was the head of Jesus with a crown of thorns, as it is facing Travessa da Paixão, which also means ‘the suffering and death of Jesus’. 

Lui also recalls a rumor that has been circulating around the local community for decades. Legend has it that in around the 1950s and 1960s, a crew of workers were seen digging into an old construction inside Patio da Mina for months. It was believed to be the entrance to a secret tunnel that led all the way up to the Church.   

“Books and utensils were carried out from the tunnel, the older generations say,” Lui explains. “I believe that the existence of an underground tunnel is possible, because in the past, the area where Patio da Mina is now situated was by the seaside. It would have been a convenient spot for transportation.” 

More archeological studies are needed to solve the mysteries, but the unique existence of the Ruins of St. Paul’s will continue to invite locals and tourists to explore beyond its façade and enjoy its ornate beauty and historical charm for decades to come.