MACAU CATHOLIC HERITAGE – The Church of Saint Joseph

– Maria Kwak

Those who recognize the Chinese name of the Church of Saint Joseph may wonder its relationship to the Saint Paul’s. Known as 小三巴仔 in Chinese, it is literally translated as ‘small St Paul Temple’ in English. These two churches were the main architectural creations of the Society of Jesuits in Macau. To the eyes of its admirers, it may simply have been another Jesuit church built after the St Paul’s at a smaller scale. While the St Paul’s was given the name Madre de Deus (‘Mother of God’) to represent the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, Saint Joseph honors Jesus’s father. Together, they symbolically represent the parent-figures who protect Macau and its inhabitants.

Located on top of the Matto Mofino hill, it was built in a manner that was visible from all corners of the town as a symbol of Christianity.

During the 17th century of Chinese history, Jesuits faced a great dispute, what is known as the Rites Controversy. The image of Crucifixion and that of the Virgin Mary’s conception of Jesus without her husband Joseph looked immoral in the eyes of Neo-Confucian scholars at the court of Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of the Qing Dynasty. As a result, it led to the exile to Macau of all Christian missionaries. An account by José Soarez (1656-1736) – the Portuguese rector of the Jesuit’s College in Beijing – mentions St Joseph’s intervention, together with that of Jesus and Mary, by which the exile brought about a conference held in Canton which consolidated Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans together in 1667. In the following year, Saint Joseph was declared patron saint of China with the agreement among all three religious orders, on 26 January 1668. In 1692, Emperor Kangxi issued an Edict of Toleration of Christianity, which would give it an equal status with Confucianism.

One the facade, one will find a plaque indicating that the church dedicated to Saint Joseph had the cornerstone laid and the church consecrated on 10 October 1746, the feast day of Saint Francis Borgia. Initially built as part of the Seminary complex, the beautiful stone steps take the visitors to the one and only remaining Baroque church in Macau. The façade is rather bold and simple compared to St. Paul; a typical feature of Italian Baroque style.

In the top story, the central bay, the relief painted in white is the symbol of the Society of Jesus. Commonly known as ‘God’s soldiers,’ the Society was opened for “whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God.”

On the main altarpiece, two most important figures in Jesuit history stand side by side: Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesuits and Francis Xavier (1506-1552), ‘The Apostle of the Indies.’ The double-bases of the columns next to the saints symbolize Christian martyrdom in relation to the China mission. It is evident from the symbols of ladder, hammer and the Cross. Both saints come from the Kingdom of Navarre (in the north of present-day Spain).

Saint Francis Xavier was the first missionary to the Far East under the edict of

King John III (1502-1557) of Portugal in 1540. He eventually travelled from Goa to China with the hope of evangelizing the Chinese. However, he died from an illness at the age of 46 on Shang Chuan Island.

The humerus bone of the Saint is reserved in a solid silver reliquary, on the altar of the right transept altar. In 1621, together with St Ignatius of Loyola, he was canonized by Pope Gregory XV (1554-1623), who was also educated by Jesuits. The Pope also elevated March 19 as feast day of Saint Joseph.

Above the reliquary, a statue of Saint Joseph with Jesus in his arms welcomes its visitors. On the left transept altar, two Jesuit saints stand under the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary with angels at the foot: Saint Stanislaus Kostka (1550-1568) holding a baby in his arms and Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591) holding a cross on the right hand. These two saints served as role models for Jesuit Colleges throughout the world as both saints died at young age while dedicating their lives to those in need.

The memorial copper tablet of consecration stone, written in Latin, indicates that it was Fr Luis Sequeira (1693-1763) who initiated the project and Brother Folleri (1699-1767) who served as architect. Sequeira was a prominent figure in development of the Church and the College of Saint Joseph, since his arrival in 1726. Unlike most of the Catholic churches, it follows the shape of the Greek cross, which is widely used in Byzantine architecture, due to its physical characteristics.

Last but not least, the church is the home to the one and only Baroque pipe organ. It serves as an important venue that holds for Baroque music concerts nowadays. Accessible from the Rua do Seminário, the church is open daily between 10:00 and 17:00.

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