The story of Jakarta Cathedral begins, unexpectedly, in Europe, after Napoleon installed his brother Louis as the King of Holland in 1806. Holland, then a Protestant kingdom, suddenly found itself with a Roman Catholic ruler who convinced the Vatican to appoint an apostolic prefect for its Dutch East Indies colony, now Indonesia, in 1807.
Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono
Less than a year later, the envoys, Revs. Yacobus Nelissen and Lambertus Prinsen, arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta).
They held a mass at the home of a Dr. Assmuss in Senen as well as in a hut in a nearby military barracks before the colonial government gave them a chapel in Kwitang. This chapel, dubbed the Church of St. Ludovikus, was effectively the first Catholic church in the Dutch East Indies. The name perhaps was a nod to the king in Holland. Ludovikus is a Dutch version of Louis.
Records say that Sir Stamford Raffles, the incumbent British governor (the colony had temporarily fallen under Britain during the Napoleonic Wars), was one of the godfathers for one of the first babies baptised in the chapel. However, the congregation had to find a new home after a fire razed the church in 1828.
Its successor was the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. It was built on a plot owned by a Dutch nobleman named de Kock that was purchased with the help of the Catholic colonial commissioner-general, Leonardus du Bus de Gisignies.
This second church featured the neo-Classic architecture typical of other period buildings. It was inaugurated in 1829 and collapsed three days after Easter in 1890.
The prefecture decided to rebuild on the same site, appointing a Jesuit priest named Antonius Dijkman to design a new church. Dijkman who previously designed two churches in Europe, studied under the award-winning French architect Viollet-le-Duc and worked under Cuypers, a Dutch architect celebrated for commercial building designs in The Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies.
Dijkman designed the new church along neo-Gothic lines, in contrast to the neo-Classical trend in Batavia favoured by the Dutch as they built monumental structures to support their colonial endeavour. Meanwhile, the neo-Gothic style was popular for church designs in Europe. The mode, noted for its dark colours and tapered towers, gained traction after decades of war and symbolized repentance and an approach to God in the heavens.
Like its peers in cathedrals in Europe, Jakarta Cathedral has three towers, each with a different design. Two 60-metre towers are located in the front. The left is called The Fort of David, representing strength of the king in protecting his people, while the right is called Ivory Tower to symbolise the purity of the Virgin Mary. Standing only 45 metres tall, the third tower–the Angelus Dei, or God’s Angel–is located above the church’s main altar.
In Europe, neo-Gothic structures were typically crafted of stone. Dijkman, mindful of local artisans, used locally sourced 20x40- cm bricks for the bearing wall construction, along with wood and shingles for the roof, which was later changed to copper to avoid leaks. Unfortunately, Dijkman never saw the church completes, as illness forced his return to The Netherlands. While construction, which continued under Marius Hulzwit, was supposed to take three years, the work actually took a decade, due to a hiatus while funds were raised in The Netherlands.
The church, which held its first mass on 21 April 1901, was planned as a cathedral, and hence was furnished with a cathedra, the throne used by an archbishop, and a rosetta window. This window, an icon of the Jakarta Cathedral, is located above the architrave of the main gate with its two wooden doors. The architrave, which is a ribbon for a stone sculpture of Mary, is engraved with the phrase “All generations shall call me blessed”.
Other windows are also made with stained glass. However, unlike in European cathedrals, which show pictures of Jesus or the saints, the Jakarta Cathedral shows repetitive floral patterns. “We assume that Dijkman wanted to evoke an Eden-like interior, which was supported by many birds flying above the main hall,” Susyana Suwadie, chairwoman of Jakarta Cathedral Museum, says. Nonetheless, the colour effects brought by the stained glass enriches the interior and is complimented by 14 artistic ceramic arrangements by the Dutch graphic designer Theo Molkenboer that depict the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus was said to have walked on his way to the Crucifixion, on a curtain-like mural.
The main hall of the cathedral is full of artwork. Statues of Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier are mounted on two columns that framed a third sculpture of Christ on the Cross that stands before the altar. A Sacred Heart of Jesus has been placed in the left wing of the main hall. In a corner in the back is a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Long before electricity, priests delivered homilies from a podium with a shell-like ceiling for better acoustics. The cathedral’s three altars were made according to European fashion: A main altar flanked by an altar on the left for Mary and one to the right for Joseph. The cathedral has a grotto built in 1979 that resembles the one in Lourdes, France. It features a statue of the Virgin Mary and special stones taken from Lourdes, which is a sacred place for Catholic pilgrims.
The architect acknowledged the tropical climate with an onion-like wooden arrangement for the ceiling, as opposed to the murals that were popular in the Europe. Thanks to the heights of the neo-Gothic style, people can enjoy an airy feeling in the main hall brought on by the high ceiling.
The church has a foyer that connects the gate to the main hall so people can bless themselves with Holy Water before entering. The altar is located in front of the main hall. At the end is the tabernacle, which holds the sacramental bread. Before a mass begins, the priest and the altar servers gather in the sacristy, behind the altar of Mary. The sides of the hall are filled with rooms for Reconciliation Sacrament, where sins are forgiven. The church has also a U-shaped mezzanine, dedicated for the use of the choir and those waiting to receive absolution for their sins.
Masses are accompanied by a choir and a pipe organs. The cathedral’s first organ, which had 400 pipes and was imported from Germany, was mounted under the rosetta window. The current organ, made in Belgium, was built with hundred- year-old wood from The Netherlands.
Han Awal first restored the church in 1988 at the request of Archbishop Leo Soekoto, who was worried about leaks and mold. The church had already been proclaimed a heritage building at the time. In 2014, an air conditioning system was installed for the interior. Recently, the stained glass came under maintenance for the first time.
Thanks to these restorations, the beauty of the Jakarta Cathedral can still be enjoyed. The fort-like building is a place of faith where peace can always be found.
Jakarta Cathedral - Church of Our Lady of Assumption
Jl. Katedral, Central Jakarta 10710
Pr. Antonius Dijkmans
Graphic Designer (for murals and Via Dolorosa)
Architectural Conservation Consultant (in 1988)
Han Awal and Partners