Although often referred to as the Portuguese Church because of its location in what was once a Portuguese settlement that emerged after their arrival in the 1500s, the church was built by an Italian priest.
Construction on the church is believed to have begun in 1749, after Italian Catholic priest Paolo Nerini, a missionary from the Barnabite Order, obtained permission from King Binnya Dala, who reigned from 1747 to 1757, to build a church to replace a wooden one originally built by the Portuguese. Construction of the church was believed to have been funded by an Armenian, Nicolai de Agualar.
The Department of Archeology and National Museums first began work to preserve the remains of the church, with walls measuring 24 metres long, 10m wide and 12m high, two years ago, centuries after it had been damaged in wars in the 1750s and Typhoon Nargis in 2008.
In 2016, the Catholic Church of Myanmar instituted an effort led by Bishop John Saw Yaw Han to clear the grounds of the church and have it fenced off as the ruins had become frequented by drug addicts.
Last month, a ceremony to consecrate the land the church is located on was held inside the compound. Over 2000 Catholic devotees came together to celebrate mass in the remains of the church on January 12.
“The church has also been a refuge for those in need, a clergy house, a dispensary, and boys’ home. A boarding school for girls had also been built around the church. Father Paolo taught languages such as Burmese and Mon, and subjects such as arithmetic, and navigation at the boys’ home. With the help of others, the priest offered health assistance at the dispensary too. Sadly, the church fell into disrepair due to wars and the ravages of time and nature,” Bishop John Saw Yaw Han said at the event last month.
“Three years ago, when I first came here, the church was a dark zone. The red-brick ruins of the historic church located in the grounds of what was the British colonial era Thanlyin oil refinery, just across the Bago River from Yangon, had been full of vice and frequented by drug users. Grass was as tall as one man standing on top of another,” U Lazarus, vice chairman of the church’s committee told Myanmar Times.
Interestingly, within the ruins of the church there is a tomb that was mistakenly thought to belong to Philip de Brito, a Portuguese adventurer believed to have arrived in Burma in the 1500s. He is credited with building the Portuguese settlement in what was once known as Syriam, today called Thanlyin.
According to the website Yangon Time Machine, research later discovered that the tomb belongs to a woman named Maria Dias, who died in 1732, long after Brito, but before the construction of the church. The tomb stone was actually found elsewhere in Thanlyin by the British, and moved to the church in the late 1800s. Above the stone is a Latin inscription regarding de Agualar, who funded the church. Though their placement makes it look as if they are part of a single tomb, the two are entirely unrelated.
“The church was once famous for fulfilling wishes if one prayed in the name of Nerini,” U Lazarus said, adding that he hopes to see the church returning to its former glory.
He may well get his wish as the site is drawing increasing interest of visitors from Yangon and is now gaining a name for itself as a new place of interest for tourists visiting Yangon. According to travel website, My Magical Myanmar, Spanish and Portuguese visitors frequently visit the site.
The Department of Archeology and National Museums is also conducting proper research and excavation work on the site to learn more about its history.