Church buildings in Kuala Lumpur date back to the British colonial period, which are mainly clustered around the city centre. The oldest of these is St Mary’s, an Anglican church, which was originally consecrated in 1887 in Bukit Aman. The wooden structure could only accommodate 95 people at the time, and mainly catered to the small number of Anglicans in Kuala Lumpur at the time.
Eight years later, the church, now made of brick in an early English Gothic style, would open its doors at its current site, around the Dataran Merdeka area. The architect was A. C. A. Norman, also known for other buildings in this historic district, including the Sultan Abdul Samad building and the KL Library.
The pipe organ installed in the church was built in 1895 by Henry Willis, the famous English organ maker, who was also responsible for the organ in St Paul’s Cathedral and the original Grand Organ of the Royal Albert Hall, both in London. A faithful version of the St Mary’s organ, which had been moved from its original location and refurbished multiple times, is still a draw for worshippers and tourists.
The church was upgraded to cathedral status in 1983, and is the Episcopal see of the Anglican Bishop of West Malaysia. Nowadays, services are conducted in a variety of languages besides English, such as Iban, Nepali and Mandarin, reflecting the changes in the city’s congregations, from increasing numbers of East Malaysians to migrant worker communities.
Other noteworthy examples from this period include the ornate Holy Rosary Church built in a French Gothic Revival style, with dramatic high windows, pointed arch, the ribbed vault and a flying buttress. No less beautiful is the more modest English country Gothic style exhibited by St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, on Jalan Raja Chulan.
Mid-century modernist gems
As the twentieth century progressed, modernist architecture started to appear in church designs around Kuala Lumpur. This evolution can be seen clearly with the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, the Mother Church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur and the seat of its Archbishop.
St John’s dates back to the 1880s, making it Kuala Lumpur’s first Roman Catholic church, but at the time, it was no more than a long wooden hall, servicing a small group of parishioners made up of Chinese converts, Europeans and Eurasians from Melaka. Later on, a brick church in neo-classical style was built, which today remains in use as a welfare centre.
However, the grand cathedral that stands now was constructed in the mid-1950s in a much more modernist style, enhanced with Grecian-Spanish details and stained-glass windows from Paris depicting Gospel scenes with St John the Evangelist. At the time it was built, it was the largest church in Malaya.
Today, St John’s remains a popular choice for KL Catholics, including the large Filipino population, who have established their own services and church choir there. As a result, nearby Kotaraya shopping complex has become a hub for Filipino cuisine and goods.
Another particularly charming example is the Tamil Methodist Church in Brickfields. With roots back to 1896, the modernist church building was constructed in the 1960s. The textured and gently coloured stone outer wall and overall triangular shape give the structure a distinctly mid-century modern feel.
The church continues to minister to local Tamil Malaysians as well as newer migrant workers, with services in English and Tamil as well as in Nepali, Telugu and Sinhalese.
21st century megachurch
As the needs of contemporary Christians evolve, so too do the built environments of churches. The Pentecostal Calvary Church was established in Damansara Heights in the late 1960s, but as the church numbers grew alongside a demand for a more youthful focus, a new home was needed.
In 2013, the church opened its Calvary Convention Centre (CCC) in Bukit Jalil. With a futuristic design reminiscent of a space ship, the CCC is said to be the largest church in the region.
Beyond conventional church spaces, the CCC’s six storeys and 600,000 sq. ft. of space includes a 5,000-seat auditorium, a multi-purpose hall, a covered plaza, lecture halls, a nursery, a recording studio and performing arts rehearsal rooms. With audio-visual capacities suitable for theatre and musical performances, the CCC has also made a name for itself as an event space, from catering to weddings and parties to hosting awards ceremonies, conferences and international pop concerts.