My annual “dates” with St. Anne go back some 30 over years when I was a much younger fellow…..
I can’t remember exactly how or when it actually started but it seems now that I was always “eager” to make the annual nine day novena from where I lived at Prai to Bukit Mertajam (BM) about 16 km away due south. I remember that I’d put all my “appointments” on hold from 5-8 p.m. during that time. Which was not something that came easily – I was football mad those days, and nothing could stop me from the daily kickabouts with my friends. Except for that particular week in July.
In the beginning, I usually went with my parents – those were the days before I “graduated” to hanging out with friends. We didn’t have a car then and so had to rely on the good old Central Province Wellesley Transport Company’s yellow and red bus No. 60 for our rides to BM. Somehow, I didn’t really mind the inconvenience or the ordinary condition of the buses (they didn’t have air-conditioned buses then). In fact, I think that made the journey so much more interesting. Looking back now, it’s funny to see how so many things have changed, and not necessarily for the better either.
The journey itself though was always interesting. As the bus made its complimentary stops and starts, it gave me time to watch the landscape change from an urban setting to a more austure kampung scene. Like many of those things from the 70’s, even those old buses don’t exist anymore. Many of the traditional houses that lined Jalan Baru (the main road to BM) have long gone too, replaced with spanking new, modern housing estates, all of which look like each other! Gone are the individual quirks and traits that those village homes possessed. Gone too are the vast green paddy fields that provided a soothing sight for the eyes. In its place now stand rows of low-rise apartments housing mainly UITM students.
The old bus-stop in BM is now a vacant plot. Where the Summit Hotel and Store supermarket now stand, was a huge football field. That too is gone. We had to walk from there to the then “new” St. Anne’s church – now St. Joachim Centre, past the shops and the old BM Supermarket, the first major one in the area, near the main market. Next came the district hospital and the IJ Convent school. As we neared the church, I remember walking on the old road-bridge over the railway tracks next to the Convent. That was some scene. That bridge is also gone, replaced by a more wider one, but without a pedestrian walkway. Not that you can see many people walking along there nowadays! The price of progress I guess.
Entering the church, if you were lucky you could find a place inside or else had to prop up on long benches outside under the shady trees or along the 5 foot way of the church. The singing by the choir was always something I looked forward too. I can still recall the sounds of the lone guitarist strumming his acoustic guitar. The highpoint for me though were the homilies. As was and still is custom, there were always visiting priests from other parts of the diocese and country who broke the Word of God to those present. I remember being impressed very much and touched by the sermons. Which in later years, became the main reason to keep this annual “date” with St. Anne. It’s not so much as the “Feast” in itself, or the candle light procession, or the crowds, or the good time with friends. It was more like going for my own “semi-directed” retreat. A time-out for a little bit of reflection and a time to recharge my batteries.
As I look back over the years, over all that’s happened, I sense also how much time has passed me by. When once I used to come with my father and mother, then friends, and then much later alone, I now am now going back as a husband and father, with my own family, with an 8 year old kid in tow. That kid now seems to be happy tagging along with me, (at least for now!), as did I with my own father some four decades ago. Yesterday at the 3rd day of the novena masses, for the first time I saw and heard him singing away loudly, trying to follow the words on the large screen. It made me think. I’ve come full circle it seems. Somehow, I would never have imagined it all those years ago. Such is Life – strange, mysterious even.