Of the places that remain of a childhood in a Singapore that I will never be able to see again, there is one which carries not just the memories of yesterday, but also the memory of an emotion that has almost been forgotten. The place, a church – St. Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street, which is housed in a building which on the 30th of June will celebrate its centenary, is one that takes me back to years which hold my earliest memories. It was a place where I had spent many Sunday mornings at mass after which I could look forward to sitting by tables and chairs laid by St. Anthony’s Boys’ School in the church’s compound where I could enjoy a bowl fishball noodles from the enterprising school canteen vendor who opened just to serve churchgoers on Sunday. It was also a place to which my grandmother would take me to every Good Friday, when arriving early to get a seat inside the church for its very popular Good Friday service, I would spend hours seated next to my grandmother as she sat in quiet contemplation.
The church was known then to me as the ‘Portuguese Church’, a name which pointed to its origins in the Portuguese Mission in Singapore and its administration by Dioceses in the Portuguese colony of Goa and later in the Portuguese colony of Macau. The mission’s presence had dated back to the early 1820s – not long after Raffles founded modern Singapore, and predated the French Mission under which the Catholic churches in Singapore were later to come under. The Portuguese presence was to continue through the church which came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau until 1981 and after through priests appointed to the church until 1999 by the Bishop of Macau. This long association with the Portuguese Mission has not only provided us with the beautiful building that houses the church, but also with a little bit of Portugal that manifests itself in the Iberian flavour of the church’s interior as well as traditions and practices that are unique to St. Joseph’s Church which even to this day is still very much in evidence.
The current church building was blessed by the Bishop of Macau, Dom João Paulino Azevedo e Castro on the 30th of June 1912. The grand ceremony had commenced at 7 am with a procession during which various points around the exterior of the church were blessed before the congregation was admitted into the new church building’s interior in which as newspaper reports would have it “nearly every available space” was occupied.
The congregation that morning would have been the first to marvel at the splendour that was the new church building’s interior, one that even with the worn appearance that it now wears, is still very much a sight to behold. It is this interior, and its 14th Century style Gothic design that for me makes the church the most beautiful in Singapore. The interior is one that at time of the day is illuminated by a soft and beautiful pale green light that streams through the generous panels of stained glass it is provided with that casts both light and shadow on the many niches that line the walls of the church. The niches are ones which contain statues of Saints – statues which in the Catholic tradition are not as is popularly believed, idols, but reminders of ordinary people who have achieved the pinnacle of holiness. It is a statue of one of the Saints high up on the south wall in the middle of the church’s nave that in my childhood I had a fascination with – that of St. Sebastian depicted as he popularly is, bloodied and tied to a tree.
The church is laid out as was the tradition on a plan in the shape of a cross – a Latin cross in this instance. The nave which ends with the apse in the shape of five sides of an incomplete hexagon in the west which houses the Chancel and the main entrance to the east, is crossed by a transept. The high ceiling allows the provision of the many stained glass windows along the upper levels of the nave and the transept and those that attended the blessing ceremony would have seen this but not the stained glass that has to be seen as the church’s crowning glory – the beautiful panels in the Chancel which although now in a state of disrepair, can still be appreciated as one of the more elaborate works of such kind found in Singapore. The panels were the work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges. The church’s stained glass which are now in an obvious state of disrepair will be part of a restoration effort that will commence soon after the church celebrates the building’s 100th Anniversary. The work which will take two years of painstaking effort to complete will be carried out by a Singaporean stained glass artist, Bee Liang, who has extensive experience in the work from her stints in Canada and training in Germany.
Besides the beautiful stained glass – the very elaborate high altar of white and coloured marble dedicated to St. Joseph is another that is worth taking a notice of. The church also features some excellent carved teak wood pieces – one which runs along the transept is a 40 metre long altar rail along which the faithful would once have knelt to receive Holy Communion. The carved piece that will certainly be noticed is the ornamented teak pulpit with its canopy, one that I never failed to notice every time I visited the church.
The church which once shared its compound with two schools – St. Anthony’s Boys’ School and St. Anthony’s Convent, is the last of the three to remain and having been gazetted as a National Monument in 2005, will be one that will certainly be there for a much more than the 100 years it has stood, for which a mass will be held at 10.30 am on 30th June 2012. Besides the work on the stained glass, there is much more repair work that needs to be done – the ravages not just of time, but also of nearby construction activity are clearly evident which will require funds to be raised. It will not just be the magnificent building and all that it holds that will with its restoration and conservation be retained, but also of a tradition that its has been proud to maintain that dates back to the early days of Singapore.
More views around the church in the morning light