The Ruins of St. Paul is the most popular symbol of Macau but all that remains of the once impressive 16th Century cathedral is its front façade. Many mistake the St. Paul’s ruins to be the ruins of St. Paul’s Church; however, this is not the case as there was never a St. Paul’s Cathedral in Macau to begin with. The St. Paul’s ruins are instead the ruins of the Mother of God Church or Church of Mater Dei. The once Mother of God Church was located at close proximity to the College of St. Paul. For some reason, the name St. Paul became associated to the church façade but was actually its next door neighbor. Although it is completely inaccurate to call it the Ruins of St. Paul, the name has already stuck and for most people, this was how they know it to be.
The Mother of God Church was built between 1582 and 1602 by the Jesuits. At the time it was finished, it reigned as the largest Catholic Church in Asia. According to early travelers, the church was brilliantly decorated and furnished entirely of taipa and wood. Many claim that royalty in Europe vowed to give the best gifts to this cathedral. However, while Macau was slowly overtaken by Hong Kong with regard to its culture and importance, so was the glory of the cathedral. The final stroke of the said church came in 1835 when a typhoon caused a fire to break out and destroy the entire structure. The only place that was left almost unharmed was its façade.
The façade was the work of local Macanese craftsmen and Japanese Catholics who lived in exile under the supervision of Carlo Spinola, an Italian Jesuit. Construction was made between 1620 and 1627. Measuring 23 meters from its sides with a height of 25.5 meters, the façade narrows at the top into a triangular pediment. Embellished with sculptured moldings of Chinese lions, Catholic saints, Japanese chrysanthemum, a Portuguese vessel, and nautical symbols, the facade remains a mixture of ornamentation that reflects the work of many Macau locals and Japanese craftsmen.
People from the Instituto Cultural de Macau did restoration work and a study on the ruins between 1990 and 1995. They made excavations that revealed the foundation and crypt that allowed scientists to further understand and describe the layout of the building. In order to prevent the lone façade from falling over, efforts of a conservation program were put into place as the façade was reinforced with steel and concrete.
With such efforts, tourists are able to climb up the steel stairway to the rear of the structure to see the ruins up close. It’s also tradition to throw coins from its top window for good fortune especially if it’s your first time visiting. The easiest way to reach the ruins is to start from the main square of the Largo do Senado and look for signboards until you reach the ruins. The ruins of St. Paul have been regarded for a long time as a symbol of Macau, which indeed makes them well-worth the visit.