By C.Y. Lai, Penang
The Church of the Assumption, known as the oldest church in Penang
The Church of the Assumption, the oldest church in Penang, West Malaysia, lies within a UNESCO World Heritage Site showcasing colonial architecture.
Once inside, another attraction awaits—a pipe organ almost a century old, but still thundering through the church during Mass every Saturday evening.
However, few are aware that an old man has been almost single-handedly maintaining this “king of instruments”— one of only a handful in Malaysia.
“I am a self-confessed pipe organ nut and believe that while they may cost more than the electronic variety, they last much longer,” said Chorus Master Ian Campbell, now in his late 60s, who has been responsible for the organ’s upkeep.
The pipe organ was built in England in 1914 and erected inside the church two years later. No records exist of the organ’s professional maintenance until 1972, when it had deteriorated to an almost unplayable state.
Among major restoration works done by Campbell and his helpers included replacing the organ’s bellows and restoring its pneumatic pedals.
Campbell’s commitment is no surprise. Apart from being a church chorus member since he was young, he has also been playing on the pipe organ since he was a teenager.
“The organ still runs well due to the love and dedication of Ian Campbell,” said principal organist Leonard Selva Gurunathan.
Leonard added that maintaining the pipe organ involves a hefty sum and expressed his disappointment over the lack of support from Church and other heritage groups.
Rather, Campbell and other parishioners raise funds through various ways such as selling CDs produced by the chorus.
The lack of attention to the church and its pipe organ comes after Assumption Church was downgraded in status from being the Cathedral of Penang diocese in 2003, when the bishop of Penang moved his seat to Holy Spirit Church outside the city.
For Campbell, Leonard and a few other parishioners who stayed on, the old pipe organ remains at the center of their music-making during Saturday worship.
As Leonard puts it, “There is no other instrument that can picture God so well sonically other than the pipe organ.”