Arquitectura Divina Part I: The journey from swampland to Kuching’s ecclesiastical masterpiece

St Peter's Church stands magnificent even in its incomplete state.

By Marlynda Meraw

Read Part II here.

IT all started with Monsignor (Mgr) Aloysius Hopfgartner’s heartfelt determination to nurture the growth of the local church in Sarawak, driven by his profound vision for expansion as he purchased eleven acres of swampland in 1937, tenderly planting the foundational seeds of St Peter’s Church, Padungan.


Fate, however, dealt a poignant blow as Mgr Hopfgartner was unable to witness the fruition of his dreams, succumbing to a stroke and passing away on May 15, 1949. Yet, amidst the sorrow, the torch of his legacy burned bright as construction persevered, and by the end of the same year, the church stood proudly completed and was solemnly dedicated to the revered patronage of St Peter the Apostle.

From its humble beginnings as a swampland, the property has evolved into a thriving community hub, hosting a church, St Teresa’s primary school now converted to St Joseph’s International School, a rectory, and a convent. It now standing poised to welcome a traditional Gothic-style church, epitomising its enduring journey of growth and purpose.

We had the privilege of conversing with one of the priest at St Peter’s Church, Father Vincent Chin, who graciously shared with us the rich history of both the land and the church it cradles.

“A few years ago, we (the church) discovered that the foundation of the church was giving way because of the big drainage next to the area. The foundation was no longer solid enough as it was on rotten ‘bakau’ (mangrove) piling and would eventually collapse,” Father Chin told DayakDaily when asked what prompted the construction of the new church.

“So, I spoke to the archbishop, and he told me to build one according to the church’s tradition. I was referred to the old St Joseph’s church that had a Gothic design,” he added, noting that the previous St. Joseph’s Church (now St Joseph’s Cathedral in Kuching) was demolished because of the same foundation problem.

Following that, Father Chin submitted a proposal for the new church, prioritising the construction of a columbarium in the first stage to honour parishioners by providing a sacred space for their ashes, allowing families to visit and pray for their departed loved ones. This would be followed by the construction of the church.

Presently, construction is focused on the church, and amidst the cacophony of hammering, the church stands as a focal point of intrigue; its unfinished form already seizing the public’s attention, a vivid reflection of the anticipation surrounding its completion.

The old St Peter’s Church which was completed in 1949. Source: Golden Jubilee of St Peter’s Church
The proposed site for St Peter’s Church. Source: Proposed St Peter’s Church, Second Edition
The old St Joseph’s Church served as inspiration for St Peter’s Church’s design. Source: Proposed St Peter’s Church, Second Edition

Divine odyssey of stone and glass and dancing lights

St Peter’s Church is set to serve as a beacon of architectural excellence, distinguished by its commanding cross-shaped design visible in an aerial view, a symbol of its sacred significance atop its Gothic-inspired structure that echoes the revered St Joseph’s Cathedral of bygone eras, shrouding the edifice in an era of timeless grandeur.

While we explored the serene interior of the church, Father Chin seized the moment to share with us that a specially commissioned tile had been crafted to complement the ambiance of the sacred space.

“As you see, these tiles are made to order. Here we can differentiate the edges of the tiles,” he said while showing us a sample of the corner square.

The church prominently features stained glass windows, each a masterpiece depicting scenes from the chronicle of Christ’s life as well as dedicated panels honouring St Peter as well as soaring pointed spires and intricate flying buttresses gracing its exterior.

The flying buttresses, with their graceful arches, serve not only as architectural spectacle, but also as vital supports, allowing for the lofty heights and expansive interiors characteristic of Gothic churches, while the pointed spires, crowned with ornate decorations, stand tall against the sky, its intricate details capturing the essence of medieval craftsmanship.

We were also informed about the deliberate orientation of the church, with its sanctuary facing east, strategically positioned to welcome the natural light of the rising sun that illuminates the church, accentuating the vibrant hues of the stained-glass windows and creating a colourful and serene atmosphere for the parishioners.

Regrettably, as we were there, the sun had reached its zenith, its radiant beams obscured by thick clouds overhead, thwarting our hopes of witnessing the enchanting spectacle of colourful dancing lights within the church.

A sample of the corner tile edged in brown.
The church’s upper floor’s exterior with flying buttresses and pointed spires in view.
The church’s interior.
One of the stained-glass panels depicting Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem riding a donkey.
Light passing through a stained-glass window can be seen on the ground.
Light passing through a stained-glass window. Source: Father Vincent Chin

One of their own

While admiring the stunning structure of St Peter’s Church, one may wonder about the creative mind behind its beautiful design.

“The designer was one of our parishioners, the late George Yong, who is incidentally interned in the church’s columbarium. He was the owner of Architecture DesignPractice (ADP), which is currently run by his wife,” Father Chin told us.

He also revealed he had invited six Catholic architects to weave their visions, all echoing the call for a Gothic church design, yet amidst this creative array, it was the late Mr Yong’s creation that stirred the parishioners’ hearts, earning their collective approval through a majority vote.

Father Chin disclosed that St Peter’s Church’s construction has reached the 80 per cent completion milestone following its commencement in October 2019, with a projected completion date of end of October this year, hopefully in time for a soft opening for Christmas celebrations.

Despite not having a confirmed date yet, he expressed contentment over the warm reception the church has already garnered, even in its unfinished state, which is adding a sense of anticipation and excitement to the community’s journey.

St. Peter’s Church design proposed by the late George Yong. Source: Proposed St Peter’s Church, Second Edition.
The ground floor layout of the church. Source: Proposed St. Peter’s Church, Second Edition

Fostering harmony amidst diversity

Padungan, where St Peter’s Church will stand with its breathtaking Gothic elegance and intricate Italian-crafted stained-glass windows, is situated within the cultural and historical heart of Kuching City.

St Peter’s Church lies in close proximity to Sarawak’s first Floating Mosque, Siew San Teng Temple, Sri Srinivasagar Kaliamman Temple, and Gurdwara Sahib Sikh.

The church adds another voice to the chorus of diverse faiths in the city’s ethos of religious harmony, and another beacon of unity in Kuching’s spiritual landscape.

Presently, St Peter’s Church gratefully welcomes donations from those inclined to support its endeavours. Contributions may be made to St. Peter’s Development Fund at Maybank a/c no. 511038632278, with donors encouraged to request proof of transfer by contacting the parish at +6018-9853500. — DayakDaily

Kuching City—the ‘City of Religious Harmony’. Source: Proposed St Peter’s Church, Second Edition

Read Part II here.