MACAU CHURCH HERITAGE – At the Seminary of St Joseph

Maria Kwak*

The purpose of heritage interpretation is to provide a meaning to the community which has generated it. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy highlights the community value of the Church’s cultural heritage. It denominates cultural treasures as the “fruits of a community which has lived its faith intensely.” As a vehicle to deepen the visitors’ understanding and appreciation of the past, it helps connect visitors with historical objects and narratives. Through promoting public understanding, the process contributes to the sustainable conservation of cultural heritage sites.

The Treasure of Sacred Art of St Joseph’s Seminary was opened to the public in 2016 through the cooperation with the Cultural Affairs Bureau of the Macao SAR Government and the Diocese of Macau. Together with the Church of St Joseph, the Seminary is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it being a part of the Historic Center of Macao. The current exhibition rooms are spread over seven individual rooms with various themes: the Seminary’s history, Jesuit’s history, the documentary St Joseph’s Seminary, icons of Mary, books and documents, liturgical vestments and vessels and images of saints.


Since the destruction of the College of St Paul, the Seminary has been the only Catholic institution which provides Western education in Macau. The old photographs feature some of the significant figures who made contributions to the society of Macau. Under the theme “Priestly Training” (Exhibition Room I), two important alumni of the Seminary, Cardinal John Tong Hon and Bishop Domingos Lam from Hong Kong represent the significance of the Seminary in the Pearl River Delta region. During the 1950s, the Seminary served as the only facility in the region for those who aspired to become Catholic priests due to the political unrest.


Much earlier than this event, St Joseph’s Seminary was the second college to be established by the Society of Jesus in Macau in 1728. Exhibition Room II under the theme “Icons of Jesus and the Society of Jesus” underline the relationship between the institution and the Jesuits. The large collection of crucifixes is evidence to the Jesuits’ special devotion to Jesus Christ.

Among the four Jesuit saints featured in the exhibition room, the most important figures are St Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. The contribution of the founder of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius of Loyola, is found through the Spiritual Exercises which is closely related to the life of Jesus. Known as the Apostle of the East, St Francis Xavieris a patron saint of Macau. The Church of St Joseph houses a piece of bone from the arm of the saint which is recognised as “one of Macau’s most precious religious relics.” Two other saints Stanislaus Kostka and Luis Gonzaga may hold a special meaning to the seminarians. As the young seminarians of the Society in the 16th-century, they are remembered for piety despite the short life.  A large portrait of Thérèse of Lisieux is displayed on the first floor of the museum. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) had dedicated the last chapter of her play Pious Recreations based upon the life of St Stanislaus Kostka (1550-1568).


Exhibition Room IV houses various icons of Mary. Among the objects, Our Lady of Immaculate Conception has a particular association with this institution. The Congregation of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception was inaugurated on 8 December 1893 by Fr João Gonçalves with Fr Antonio Maria Alves. Founded in 1563 by young Belgian Jesuit Jean Leunis at the Roman College of the Society of Jesus, the Congregation was authorized with the Papal Bull Omnipotentis Dei on 5 December 1584 by the Pope Gregory XIII. This devotion is not only significant to this institution and the Catholic Church but is regarded as an “intangible cultural heritage of Macau.” Celebrated on December 8 every year, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a public holiday in Macau, being the only place in East Asia, where this unique cultural influence is witnessed. Another significant feature is found in the three statues of Our Lady of Lourdes. Based upon theMarian Apparitions at Lourdes by Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, the material heritage of this devotion appeared since the early 20th century in Macau. Along with the Grotto in Penha, another shrine has been constructed in the Seminary backyard.


The current exhibition features six books dated from the 19th century to early 20th century published by the Seminary. The collection provides an insight into the language studiescurriculum at the Seminary. In essence, the books and documents published by the Seminary are evidence to the society as “contributions to the educational undertakings of Macau. One of the books is a translation of the Sacred Edict (聖諭廣訓), issued by Emperor Kangxi in 1670. The work was translated by Macanese alumnus, Pedro Nolasco da Silva (1814-1912) who taught in the Escola Comercial and Liceu de Macau. The book was used as a teaching material for Portuguese students to learn Chinese.


The collection of various statues and paintings of the saints in the Exhibition Room VII highlight their regional and historical influence. As the “City of the Holy Name of God,” Macau has been protected through the intercession of the saints. St Cecilia is the patron saint of music and the Seminary’s orchestra was named after this saint. A painting of St Veronica is one of the Church’s most prominent icons featuring the Face of Jesus. In Macau, this image is used in the procession of the Passion of Our Lord. As a patron saint against thunderstorms, St Barbara is also found in the Penha Church which was an important place of worship for the sailors. She is also mentioned extensively as a saint venerated by St Stanislas Kostka in the play Pious Recreations by St Thérèse of Lisieux. The celebration of victory over the Dutch Attack in 1622 attributes its glory to St John the Baptist and for this reason, he was declared as patron saint of Macau. Being the favorite saint of the Portuguese, St Anthony of Padua was a patron saint of Macau until the 17th century. St Francis of Paola is patron saint of mariners and sailors. As a patron saint against plague, St Roch has become significant once more in light of today’s pandemic situation. (Photo of museum exterior by author.)

*MA Candidate in History and Heritage Studies at USJ