Back in the middle of the 17th century, Jl. Pangeran Jayakarta was one of Batavia’s hottest addresses. It was a wide, spacious boulevard so beloved of colonials who delighted in replicating their European idyll in the tropics. Today the road at first glance is as nondescript as many others in Jakarta, but it does have one claim to fame. Gereja Sion is the oldest functioning church in the city. Also known as the Portuguese Church the Gereja Sion stands testament to Jakarta’s rich cosmopolitan history.
The road on which it stands may have been for the 17th century elite, but the Portuguese Church catered to a wholly different clientele. Portugal’s eastern influence, never particularly strong, was fading but its language lingered through a hybrid of freed slaves, prisoners and the offspring of mixed relationships. Never fully accepted by colonial society these people of Bengali, Gujerati and Malay origin were granted Portuguese names on being granted their ‘freedom’ and left on their own to make their way in the world.
They were allowed to worship on condition they converted from Catholicism to Protestantism and as long as they didn’t use Dutch. Most of these people couldn’t afford to live within the city walls at the time so they were forced to live ‘outside the walls.’ With Jakarta Fort being constructed just ‘outside’ the walls along what is now Jl. Pangeran Jayakarta many of these outsiders would have found work within its walls and in the same year the fort opened, a cemetery was consecrated.
The graveyard became a focal point for the poor who lived in the area and in 1676 a hut was added to the land so that some basic worship could be carried out. The bell used to call people to the service still stands in the Gereja Sion to this day. A rare antiquity in today’s smog filled North Jakartan streets. Work started on the church itself in 1693 and within a couple of years the first service was being held in Low German based on the first book of Kings.
The land around the church has today been gobbled by developers and road builders and many of the people who used the church as the focal point of their lives are now long forgotten. A walk among the tombs can take us briefly back to those early days but nothing in our experience can help us comprehend a year like 1790 when 2,381 burials were recorded.
Today school children play basketball in front of the main entrance, the basket just below the ageing organ that leads the worshippers during the services. A kindly caretaker stands willing to show the occasional visitor around the historic place of worship, the man himself as much of interest as the church.
A small, spindly man, he has worked at the church for the best part of a quarter of a century since arriving in Jakarta from Cirebon. He finds nothing strange in the fact that he, a Muslim, should be showing people round a church. A Sundanese Muslim amid a sea of Chinese Christians all united in the Portuguese Church.