A landmark that would have been hard to miss on a northern journey to the end of Sembawang Road or to Sembawang Shipyard was the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, which occupied a corner of Chong Pang Village. The corner which the church occupied, was where a fork in the road gave one a choice of taking a left to Canberra Road or a right to continue along Sembawang Road. For many in the pre-1971 days of the Naval Base, the church would have marked the area which led to Canberra Gate – an entrance along the southern boundary of the huge base which had stretched along the northern coast of Singapore from a line which ran northeast from Canberra Gate all the way west close to the Causeway to what is today the western end of Woodlands Waterfront.
The church building, small by today’s standards (it would have had a seating capacity of maybe a hundred or two) and surrounded by a iron picket fence typical of fences of old, had a wonderful homely feel to it. The building was completed in 1953 through the efforts of its then parish priest, Fr. Albert Fortier. It was blessed on 13 December 1953 by the visiting New Dehli based Apostolic Internuncio to Malaya (and India), Monsignor Martin Lucas who had a busy Sunday – he also blessed the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Highland Road earlier on the same day.
The parish’s history does go back a little further than the building that stood at the start of Canberra Road. Based on information on the church’s website, the origins of the parish goes back to the beginnings of the Naval Base when priests based at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes sought to extend their ministry to the small community of Catholics from 1926 – probably involved in the construction of the base which was fully completed only in 1938. Services were to first be held in a makeshift building on the grounds of the Naval Base School before the parish was established by Fr. Dominic Vendargon at a building at Jalan Kedai (this would be the area across Canberra Road from where Sembawang Mart is today) which had been used as a school during the Japanese Occupation in August 1949. It was Fr. Vendargon’s successor, Fr. Fortier, who had to put up a new church building after the former school was deemed unsafe in 1952 and the simple building was built at a cost of some $53,000. A statue of Christ which stood in the grounds just outside the church, another landmark, was added in February 1956.
The church building was one which I did visit from time to time in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, it did serve a large community of Tamil and Malayalee parishioners, many of whom worked at Sembawang Shipyard which had taken over the Naval Dockyard in 1968. With the days of the village coming to a close in 1989 – it was being cleared to make way for the new public housing estate of Sembawang, the church (its land was also acquired) had to seek new premises. Its then parish priest, Fr. Louis Amiotte announced the construction of a new church at Yishun Street 22, designed in it was said to be in the shape of Noah’s Ark, which was completed in 1992. The new church building, built at the cost of $4 million, was blessed on 30 May 1992 by then Archbishop Gregory Yong.
Much has changed in the area since the village disappeared at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s. The new housing estate started coming up at the end of the 1990s and very little traces of the once bustling village are left. Much of the land on and around which the church had stood – except for the expanded road, is now vacant, awaiting future development which, at least based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Master Plan 2008, will see sports and recreation facilities coming up.