As any visitor who bothers to read a tourist brochure knows, the name Macau comes from A-Ma, a Taoist sea goddess who’s said to protect fishermen. The Chinese “A-ma-gao,” or Bay of A-Ma, quickly became “Macau” in the mouths of Portuguese colonists.
The Portuguese also brought their own divine lady, the Virgin Mary. They built the Chapel of Our Lady Guia (“guia” is Portuguese for “guidance”) on Macau’s highest peninsula in 1622. That same year, the Dutch attempted a takeover. One local legend says Mary emerged from the chapel and used the skirts of her robe to deflect bullets. Another version claims she wrapped her skirts around the Macanese to protect them.
Amidst the proliferation of nightlife and luxury hotels, Macau’s Catholic Churches legacy adds to its rich underlying cultural texture. The more time I spent wading through casinos and contemplating a giant bungee jump, the more I craved the quiet and reverence of a church interior.
Lucky for me, the special administrative region still has more than a dozen beautifully maintained churches.
Although the Portuguese population of Macau now is less than 1,000 people, Catholicism has a firm hold. There are around 100 weekly masses. The overwhelming majority are in Cantonese but some are conducted in Portuguese, English, Tagalog and Mandarin.
I managed to visit some of Macau’s most celebrated churches and to even get my Palm Sunday fronds. Here are a few of my favorites.
It would be difficult to visit Macau and not see Mater Dei. Macau’s most iconic image is the facade of this church which adjoined Saint Paul’s College. Jesuits created this first western university in Macau to prepare missionaries and named it for Jesus’ most brilliant disciple.
Most people refer to the ruins (the victim of a fire in 1835) as Saint Paul’s but the late Father Albino Pais insisted on differentiating between college and church. “College was for the brain, but they need also something to help faith,” he explained to me. “So after college, they created the church.” Pais, a Portuguese native, lived in Macau for nearly 30 years.
The ruins of Mater Dei are Macau’s most famous site. It’s a singular experience to gaze at the massive façade of a church with the rest of it missing.
The façade is adorned with statues and carvings depicting the history of Catholicism in Asia. Aside from the symbols one might expect – the crucifixion, saints, the Virgin – Mater Dei also sports a Portuguese ship, a Japanese chrysanthemum and a Chinese dragon.
For many years, nothing lay behind the façade of Mater Dei. But in 1995, the Sacred Art Museum and Crypt opened. Now visitors can see a fabulous collection of Macau’s Catholic Churches art.
Some of my favorites were a wooden painted Indo-Portuguese statue of Saint Augustine and a 17th century silver incense holder shaped like a boat.
In the 1500s and early 1600s, Macau served as a base from which missionaries sought Chinese and Japanese souls. But thousands of converts later, Christians suffered a tragic backlash.
In 1597, Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered 26 Christians crucified in Nagasaki.
Considered martyrs by the Catholic Church, their bones are on display in a quiet crypt adjoining the sacred art museum. It may sound morbid, but gazing through a glass window at these old bones is kind of restful after Macau’s late-night partying.
2-Saint Francis Xavier Chapel
Saint Francis Xavier cofounded the Jesuit order and was an early missionary to Asia in the 1500s. He’s still extremely revered and is one of two patron saints of missionaries.
The chapel named for him on Coloane is a colourful place on a hopping square.
The Nga Tim Café’s outdoor tables are within yards of the church entrance and Lord Stowe’s Bakery, maker of Macau’s most famous egg tarts, is nearby.
I ate dinner at the café and was thrilled to find the church doors still open at night. Inside, I entered the most brightly decorated Catholic church I’ve ever seen.
Primary colours rule the day here, with painted walls and red Chinese lanterns. One local Portuguese Catholic told me the priest was responsible for the loud decor.
While she wasn’t a fan of his paint job, she said he was attracting many Chinese converts, who are accustomed to colourful temples. I found it very fun and lively.
This cheery yellow church with green shutters and white trim is the perfect place to duck out of the heat and bustle of nearby Senado Square.
Dominicans hastily built the original structure in 1587. But its present look dates from 1828, thanks to Spanish priests who knew a thing or two about architecture.
Dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, this church is referred to both as Rosary and Saint Dominic’s. It’s cheerful on the inside as well, with a pale yellow and white paint job, several attractive Mary statues and decorative painting on the ceiling.
4-Our Lady of Guidance
Father Pais thought it was no accident that Our Lady of Guidance church and a lighthouse stand side by side at Macau’s highest point. The Virgin Mary and lighthouses both guide people, he said.
It’s a fun walk up Guia Hill to visit the church and lighthouse, which stand inside Guia Fortress. Guia Hill is popular with locals, who use it for exercise — jogging uphill and using bright red and yellow metal exercise apparatus, which I couldn’t quite figure out.
This area was restricted due to military presence until 1976. Twenty years and many tourists later, the government decided to restore the church.
While inspecting the ceiling, some paint flaked off and revealed hidden frescoes. Restoration specialists carefully uncovered a whole series of religious paintings, including John the Baptist and a Chinese lion. These works of art date as far back as the 1600s and were probably created by Chinese artists.
5-Chapel of Our Lady of Penha
Visitors who love old churches – and who are hoping to walk off an egg tart or almond cookie – will find the trek up Penha Hill worthwhile.
The original chapel here was founded in 1622, and patronised by sailors praying for protection on their voyages. In addition to the church, the hill offers beautiful views of Macau’s harbour which serve as a backdrop for many a newlywed photo shoot.
I loved the tall pillar in front of the church topped with a Mary statue. From Penha Hill, it looks like Mary stands taller than the Macau Tower.
Macanese Catholics will say she surely does. Outside the church are several sweet little shrines to Mary.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed many of the luxuries of my trip to Macau, such as tower views from my bathtub at the Mandarin Oriental, hot almond cookies and exquisitely presented bites of dim sum. But stopping into a place where people have worshiped for centuries, be it the A-Ma Temple or one of the Macau’s Catholic churches, lends an extra depth to vacation. And remembering that the material world is fleeting makes your egg tart that much more delicious.