Singapore’s oldest Catholic church now looks like its newest

28 11 2016

The beautifully restored Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church and a National Monument, re-opened on 20 November 2016 when it held its first mass in over three years. Sitting on a foundation of nothing more than compacted earth, its structure had been quite badly affected by ground disturbance caused by construction work in, around, and under it, which required it to be closed for repair work could be carried out.

As it turned out, the repair effort was quite timely. Columns supporting the pediment at the cathedral’s Victoria Street end gave way as the building was in the late stages of repair on 3 September 2015. Fortunately, the incident – which also saw the pediment come crashing down – happened at night and no one was hurt. The incident also led to the discovery that the supports, on which the weight of the steeple and bell tower also rests, were inadequate and required strengthening and a decision was taken to replace the original brick columns with stronger but lighter steel columns due to weight (which would increase structural load on the base) and time considerations. Another consequence of the collapse would have was in the discovery of the original time-capsule. This was placed beneath the cornerstone when that was laid on 18 June 1843. It was only found due to the work that was needed on the new structure. The time-capsule contained coins, newspapers and a service booklet from the time and its contents are now on display in the Cathedral Heritage Centre.

The entire project, which also involved restoration of the Cathedral and its rectory, as well as the construction of a new three-storey annex block – where the heritage centre is being housed – came at a cost of S$40 million. One of the key areas of repair required was in the underpinning of the cathedral building due to the lack of a suitable foundation. The intervention also allowed service ducts to be run under the building to carry both electrical cables and ducting for air-conditioning – a much welcome addition. The gallery pipe-organ  – Singapore’s oldest pipe-organ – was also restored. This required it to be shipped to the Philippines, which has a rich organ building. The restored pipe-organ also made its debut during the reopening mass when it so wonderfully accompanied the cathedral choir.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

The sanctuary after the reopening.

The sanctuary after the reopening, with a new altar.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2013.

View down the nave, 2013.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

With its columns braced in 2010.

With its columns braced in 2010.

A close-up.

A close-up.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

Another view of the new Pietà.

Another view of the new Pietà.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The choir organ in 2013, which has been removed.

The choir organ in 2013, which was in the north transept and has since been removed.

Where the choir organ was located.

Where the choir organ was located.

The cathedral in 2016.

The cathedral in 2016.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

The turret before restoration.

The turret before restoration.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

Before the restoration.

Before the restoration.

During the restoration.

During the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.


More views of the beautifully restored cathedral

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Welcomed winds of change blowing through Queen Street

5 02 2014

The winds of change sweeping through Singapore will soon blow through yet another place that is familiar to me. This time around, it is perhaps a change that perhaps will be welcomed and one that will perhaps see the oldest Catholic church in Singapore, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, restored to its former glory.

The yard behind the rectory - a once familiar world that is now in the midst of change.

The yard behind the rectory – a once familiar world that is now in the midst of change.

The Cathedral and its grounds are now closed and hoarded up.

The Cathedral and its grounds are now closed and hoarded up.

The Cathedral, its structure ravaged by age and nearby construction activity,  has long been in dire need of repair; a large crack in the wall behind the sanctuary, has clearly been in evidence, as have crumbling plaster work and  temporary wooden shoring at columns supporting the Victoria Street end of the building where the steeple and bell-tower is.

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, gazetted as a National Monument in 1973, is Singapore's oldest Catholic church.

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, gazetted as a National Monument in 1973, is Singapore’s oldest Catholic church.

Shoring can be seen supporting the steeple and bell tower.

Shoring can be seen supporting the steeple and bell tower.

With limited public funding available through the Preservation of Sites and Monuments for such repair work, a huge effort was required to raise sufficient funds to start on the much needed repairs, and it wasn’t until November 2013 that work did eventually commence, with the last mass before the Cathedral’s closure for repairs taking place on 27 October 2013.

Another looks at the shoring under the steeple.

Another look at the shoring under the steeple.

Fr. Adrian Anthony, who is in charge of the Restoration Fund, posing with Hospitality Ministers and members of the congregation during one of the last masses held on 27 Oct 2013.

Fr. Adrian Anthony, who is in charge of the Restoration Fund, posing with Hospitality Ministers and members of the congregation during one of the last masses held on 27 Oct 2013.

The repair and restoration efforts will also see a new 3-storey annex block, housing a heritage centre on its thrid floor, being erected, as well as restoration of the Cathedral’s century old Gallery pipe organ, the work for which will be carried out in the Philippines. Besides the structural restoration efforts on the Cathedral building’s supporting structure which will also include work on the gallery floor, the roof and the bell-tower  and on the masonry, work will also be carried out to add air-conditioning to the Cathedral. Works will take place over a two-year period during which will see the Cathedral and its grounds, long an oasis in the midst of the city, closed.

The Gallery Organ.

The Gallery and the Gallery Pipe Organ.

More on the Cathedral and the work expected to be carried out during its closure can be found at the following links:


Artist Impressions of the restored Cathedral and its new annex

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More photographs of the Cathedral and its grounds

The annex building that is being demolished to allow the new three-storey annex to be built.

The annex building that is being demolished to allow the new three-storey annex to be built.

The yard behind the rectory will also be going.

The yard behind the rectory will also be going.

The view of the yard and rectory from Queen Street.

The view of the yard and rectory from Queen Street.

Another view of the yard and the building that will be demolished.

Another view of the yard and the building that will be demolished.

The rectory, behind which a new annex housing a heritage centre will be built.

The rectory, behind which a new annex housing a heritage centre will be built.

A passage that will be transformed.

A passage that will be transformed.

The sheltered walkway between the rectory and the old annex building.

The sheltered walkway between the rectory and the old annex building.

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An oasis that will be lost for two years

7 05 2013

Serving the faithful for more than 165 years, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on Queen Street, will soon see its gates closed. The last of several surviving structures lining Bras Basah Road from the 1800s that is still used in the role it had been built for, the closure is thankfully not a permanent one. The Cathedral is taking a much needed two-year break so that repairs can be carried out on its long suffering structure.

A reflection of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd which will be closed for two years to allow repair work on its structure to be carried out.

Not a mirage of an oasis but a reflection of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd which is a spiritual oasis for many in the city. The Cathedral will be closed for two years to allow much repair work on its structure to be carried out.

Gates which will soon be closed.

Gates which will soon be closed.

Closing gates at the Queen Street side.

Closing gates at the Queen Street side.

That the building (see a previous post: Whispers of an otherwise silent world), bears the marks of age as well as the scars left by recent construction activity in the area. Large cracks, crumbling plaster work, and shoring at the end facing Victoria Street are all very visible. With the Cathedral requiring a huge effort to raise sufficient funds to cover the repairs, (public funding available for such work is limited – see Whispers of an otherwise silent world), estimated to cost somewhere in the order of S$40 million, repair work could only commence once sufficient funds were available to cover the initial costs.  The amount raised thus far through private donations and fund raising activities is well short of the target and much more is needed to cover the entire cost.

The steeple. Cracks at this end of the building and shoring erected to provide support is very visible.

The steeple. Cracks at this end of the building and shoring erected to provide support is very visible.

Crumbling plaster work can also be seen.

Crumbling plaster work can also be seen.

The Cathedral building, built originally as the Church of the Good Shepherd in the Renaissance style, is probably less interesting as a building than several other Gothic inspired Catholic buildings in the vicinity. The church, which originally stood at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Institution (now Singapore Art Museum), was erected on the present site through the efforts of a tireless French missionary, Fr. Jean Marie Beurel. Fr. Beurel was also responsible for setting up St. Joseph’s Institution and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in the mid 1850s. What is perhaps most interesting about the Cathedral is one of the Cathedral’s two pipe organs, the older Gallery Organ which was installed in 1912. Restored in the early 1980s (completed in 1984), the organ is now the oldest working pipe organ in Singapore. The second organ, the Choir Organ was set up in 1994 by Robert Navaratnam who also lent his hand in the restoration of the Gallery Organ. More on the Cathedral’s architecture and pipe organs can be found on a Wikipedia page on the Cathedral.

A view down the nave. The gallery on the upper level and the Gallery Organ can be seen at the end of the nave.

A view down the nave. The gallery on the upper level and the Gallery Organ can be seen at the end of the nave.

Interestingly, the Cathedral holds the relics of a Saint, that of St. Laurent Imbert. Fr. Imbert was a French missionary who had been martyred in Korea in 1839 and his remains found its way to the Cathedral. The  name of Cathedral (then church) is in fact attributed to the Saint, who is thought to be the first Catholic priest to set foot on our shores, arriving in December 1821 on his way from Penang to China. The dedication of the church to the Good Shepherd is explained in an article in a July 2006 edition of The Catholic News:

The dedication of the church to the Good Shepherd stems from a note written by St. Laurent Imbert to his fellow missionaries, Fathers Jacques Chastan and Pierre Maubant, asking them to surrender to the authorities to save their flocks from extermination during a period of Christian persecution in Korea. He had written, “In desperate circumstances, the Good Shepherd lays down His Life for His Sheep”. They did and the three of them were beheaded on Sep 21, 1839.  

News of this and their martyrdom reached Singapore at a time when Father Beurel and company were considering an appropriate name for the church. Father Rene Nicolas, the current Procurator of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) in Singapore, discovered a little casket with the relics of Father Imbert all but forgotten on the first floor of the sacristy of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd when he was its Vice-Rector.

 A proper memorial with the relics was installed on a wall of the Cathedral in the left transept of the building. It was felt that this was only appropriate as it was through Father Imbert that the first Catholic contact was made in Singapore. While on his way from the Penang College General to his mission in China, he visited Singapore in December 1821 and reported to the Apostolic Vicar of Siam that he had found a dozen Catholics here.

A tablet laid to commemorate the consecration of the church as a Cathedral in 1897.

A tablet laid to mark the corner stone with information on the consecration of the church as a Cathedral in 1897.

The Cathedral, due to its central location, does offer many, including myself, a spiritual oasis – its grounds are particularly calm and peaceful and an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, which during the two years will be lost. It has also played host to many groups including migrants communities who as a result of the temporary closure would have to find a new or temporary home. One, the Korean Catholic Community has since found a new home at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Several others including the resident choir, the Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ, will be using the premises of the Church of St. Joseph (Portuguese Church) nearby in Victoria Street.

The Cathedral played host to the local community of Korean Catholics who have since found a new home at Nativity Church in Hougang.

The Cathedral played host to the local community of Korean Catholics who have since found a new home at Nativity Church in Hougang.

A statue of the late Pope John Paul II put up in 2006 to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of ties between the Vatican and Singapore and the 20th Anniversary of the Papal visit.

A statue of the late Pope John Paul II put up in 2006 to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of ties between the Vatican and Singapore and the 20th Anniversary of the Papal visit.

The Cathedral has always been a spiritual oasis in the heart of the city.

The Cathedral has always been a spiritual oasis in the heart of the city …

... rain or shine ...

… rain or shine …

The main entrance. Two iron spiral staircases to the gallery and the statues of St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis Xavier welcome the visitor.

The main entrance. Two iron spiral staircases to the gallery and the statues of St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis Xavier welcome the visitor.

The more recently installed Choir Organ in the North Transept and the choir stalls.

The more recently installed Choir Organ in the North Transept and the choir stalls.

A view through a window along the nave.

A view through a window along the nave.

A  Pietà at the entrance.

A Pietà at the entrance.

The statue of St. Joseph seen against the glass of the windows.

The statue of St. Joseph seen against the glass of the windows.

Detail of the glass.

Detail of the glass.

A view towards the Sanctuary - a large crack on the upper part of the wall behind it can clearly be seen.

A view towards the Sanctuary – a large crack on the upper part of the wall behind it can clearly be seen.

More views around the Cathedral:

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Whispers of an otherwise silent world

26 03 2012

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) are ones that once spoke to me. It was on these streets and some that are no more that as a schoolboy, I had spent four years wandering through a little more than three decades ago, developing a strong attachment to them as they were back then. My schooldays in the area ended at the end of 1980, and leaving that behind me, I did not realise that that it was the world around it that I so loved that I was to leave behind as well.

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum are ones that were familiar to me from my school days at the end of the 1970s. The streets are colourless and silent now, a silence that is broken by the sounds of traffic that pass it by.

I often wander down the same streets today, hoping to find that world that in the distractions of my passage into adulthood was swept away by the winds of change that blew over the area in the decade that followed my last days of school. It is not the voices that I had been familiar with that now greet me, but the screams of a deafening silence that I am unable to close my ears to. The world that was coloured by the uniforms of school children scurrying to school or thronging the many book shops the area had a reputation for; its silence broken by the passing of those who lived, worked and shopped along the well worn sidewalks and five-foot ways; is but a pale shadow of its former self, rendered silent and colourless by the world we have chosen to embrace.

A world that has changed.

Once a world dominated by the towering spires and domes that flavoured the area, it is now a world where the same spires and domes have become mere reflections on the glass and steel edifices that now tower over the area. It is in these reflections that the voices of that old world are sometimes heard. They no longer are the loud and confident voices I had grown accustomed to, but fading whispers which I struggle to hear over the loudness of the silence that has befallen the area.

A world once dominated by the spires and domes, is now one where the spires and domes have become mere reflections of that world in the glass and steel of the new world.

A reflection on a world that I once knew - the SAM reflected on the polished walls of the NTUC INCOME Centre.

One whose whispers I can sometimes hear is the soul of the magnificent domed building that is today’s SAM. The building, gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, was where I attended school – St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI), one that I spent four wonderful years going to. Although a lot has changed since it held airy classrooms behind the green louvered wooden doors that are now painted grey, it is a building that I still have a deep attachment to. Beyond the coolness of the climate controlled galleries that now fill the spaces behind the grey doors, there are many areas in which I can hear those whispers of its forgotten past.

The buildings of the former St. Joseph's Institution now houses the Singapore Art Museum.

It is no longer through gates manned by school prefects identifiable by the green ties that stood out against the all white uniforms we wore that I now pass through – the half height walls on which iron grilles had stood are no more, but across a lawn that I rebelliously can now walk across to arrive at the portico on top of which a famous statue stands. The lawn had been a garden populated not just by shrubs, but also a weather station and a fountain that I don’t remember seeing come on.

SJI in the 1970s

St. Joseph's Institution by night in the 1970s.

The garden in front of the school building in the 1980s.

The famous statue is that of St. John the Baptist de la Salle, showing what seems to be the way to two boys beside him. St. John the Baptist de la Salle was the founder of the De La Salle Brothers – a Catholic missionary organisation dedicated to the education of boys from poor backgrounds. Aside from the many jokes we heard about the statue that wore a coat of silver paint back then, it was famous as a landmark for the area, having stood in its place above the portico since 1913. The bronze statue was cast with money donated, coincidentally it may seem, by an old boy of the school John La Salle on the occasion of the school’s Diamond Jubilee in 1912. The statue is a replica a marble sculpture by Cesare Aureli that stands in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The statue of St. John the Baptist de la Salle above the portico of the former school building (seen here in 1980), served as a landmark for the area.

To the right of the portico is another area that whispers loud enough to be heard. The shallow fishpond coloured green by algae lay and the guava tree which lent its shade to the pond is now an area that has been paved. The pond had been a convenient point for several of us to meet. Immediately behind the area where the pond was, the corridor beyond the arches of the building had been one that led towards first the staff room and turning left at the end of it, the tuck-shop. The tuck-shop was on the ground level of a building which had above it, the Brothers’ Quarters, along Queen Street. The building is one that has since been replaced by a new building. The Brothers’ Quarters with flagpoles mounted on the ledge on the second level was where we faced as we said our prayers, sung the National Anthem and recited the Pledge during our school assemblies that were held on the tarred surface of a courtyard that has now been made much smaller. At right angles to the Brothers’ Quarters with its back to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, was another building that lined the courtyard that has been replaced. This held rooms for several societies including the Co-op and the 2013 Hippo Scout troupe’s den.

Assembly at the Courtyard.

The 2103 Hippo Scout Unit had its den at a building that lined one side of the courtyard.

Prize giving during school assembly. The doors led to the school's tuck-shop on the ground level of the building that housed the Brothers' Quarters.

Across from the Brothers’ Quarters was the building (still there) which held the dark school hall (now the very bright Glass Hall) on the lower floor, and the school’s chapel (now the Chapel) on the upper floor. The chapel was where as schoolboys we could sit in quiet contemplation. The chapel stripped of its benches and Sanctuary does still fill me with a sense of calm and peace. It does still thankfully bear some reminders of its days as the school’s chapel: the floor tiles; the ceiling panels; and the plaques that served as the 14 Stations of the Cross a Catholic place of worship is never usually without.

The chapel in 1977.

The building we see today, wasn’t always how it had looked like. It took on its distinctive appearance in 1903 when the curved wings and the portico were added. The school the building was home to dates back long before 1903. It started its illustrious life as Saint John’s School on 1 May 1852 on the premises of an old Catholic church on the same grounds. It establishment in 1852 was due largely to the efforts of a French missionary priest, Father Jean Marie Beurel. Father Beurel, who arrived in Singapore in October 1839, had spared no effort in the early years of his posting to Singapore in trying to enlist the services of the De La Salle Brothers to set up what was to be the first De La Salle school in the Far East. Father Beurel was also instrumental in the construction of the new prior to that – the Church of the Good Shepherd (which is the present Cathedral of the Good Shepherd) and also in bringing the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) to our shores two years later in 1854.

Fr Jean Marie Beurel, a French priest whose efforts were instrumental in the setting up of not just SJI, but also the setting up of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the construction of the Church (now Cathedral) of the Good Shepherd.

A view of CHIJ as it was in its early days. Father Beurel is credited with bringing the Convent in two years after his efforts brought the De La Salle Brothers to our shores.

The complex of buildings that housed CHIJ and also the Cathedral are ones where the spires that dominated the area stands, along with that of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (then referred to as ‘Chinese Church’) on Queen Street. The three (or parts of then in the case of CHIJ) have also been gazetted as National Monuments. The most beautiful of the buildings that hold up the spires is the beautiful Gothic styled former chapel of CHIJ – now the CHIJMES complex. It is however the other two whose whispers I hear, having interacted with them both as a child and during my days in school when we attended many school Masses in both churches. The earliest of the buildings to be gazetted as a National Monument, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (gazetted in 1973) is one that is perhaps one that is most in need of attention. The structure of the building has suffered not just from its age (it was opened on 6 June 1847), but also from more recent construction activity in the area – ironically ones that were to have a minimal impact on the character of the area, the tunnelling work for the MRT as well as the construction of the Singapore Management University campus which was to blend in with the surroundings (some think it otherwise).

Temporary shoring of the Cathedral's structure is obvious when seen from Victoria Street.

Stepping into the Cathedral, one can’t help but notice the large crack at the wall at the far end to the right above the Sanctuary, and behind that – very obvious temporary shoring can be seen supporting the building’s structure on the outside. Being a National Monument that is run by a religious or non-profit organisation, the Cathedral is only able to draw on the limited public funds available to such monuments badly in need of repair. Based on information on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s (PMB) website, the funds available for the 29 monuments run by a religious or non-profit organisations for such urgent repair work is limited to a total of $5 million that is to be distributed to qualifying monuments over a five-year period (i.e. $1 million per year) from 2009. A pre-requisite for monuments to qualify for the funding is that the organisations involved must first have the means to fund the required work. The amount does seem rather misery considering the amounts being spent on some of the other National Monuments. The repair has been estimated to cost up to some $35 million. As of now only a fifth of the amount needed has been raised. The Cathedral is attempting to raise the remainder of the much-needed funds privately with fund raising activities organised at the Cathedral.

A large crack is clearly visible on the wall of the Cathedral's Sanctuary.

The Cathedral is attempting to raise much needed money - some S$35 million is needed, to repair and restore the building.

A close-up of an information board providing the progress of the fund raising shows that only about a fifth of the money required had been rasied as of December 2011.

As I leave behind the whispers of familiar voices, the contrast that the silent new world is becomes apparent. In the coldness and greyness and in the hush of that new world, I can sometimes hear the silent screams of the faces of the old. The screams are ones that fade with the passage of time. The whispers are ones that in the decrescendo of voices that I hope I would still be able to listen to, in a world where the only other sounds are the sounds of traffic that passes it by, much as the new world that has now passed it by.

The Cathedral is an oasis of calm in a sea of deafening silence.





Now from the outside looking in and from the inside looking out …

6 09 2010

From the world apart at Little India, my ex-schoolmates and me made our way back to Bras Basah Road by MRT for the final part of a walkabout which had started right where we found ourselves back to. Tired from what was a hot afternoon’s stroll, this leg was thankfully (for me at least), more of a winding down session. Emerging from the trains at Bras Basah Station, we found ourselves right below what had been the school field all those years back, on which we would have had a good time at kicking footballs. These days, a glass bottomed pool serves as a skylight of sorts, sits right where the part of the field closest to the school had been on what is now SMU Green.

A skylight where we had once kicked footballs on a grassy field.

Aerial view of the former SJI and the SJI Field (c. late 1960s).

Once on street level we were welcomed by the familiar sight of the building which had been school, Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI) for four wonderful years of our schooling life. With its two curved wings which had always appeared to arms reaching out to protect us as school boys. These days, as the Singapore Art Museum, it still stands as a reminder to the many school boys who it nurtured over the years, and with the statue of Saint John the Baptist de La Salle serving to remind us of what the school had once stood for. There are of course the many jokes about the statue … one has it that La Salle in pointing in the direction of Stamford Road, is reminding the two boys standing beside him that if they are not diligent in their studies, they might end up in the rival school at the foot of Fort Canning Hill (which in our days, had a reputation for having producing boys who had female tendencies).

The former SJI building, which now houses the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), is a landmark along Bras Basah Road as it was back when we were in school.

Bras Basah Road (seen here in the 1950s) has been completely transformed over the last three decades. Three landmarks that are left along the road are the former SJI, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, and the former CHIJ.

The statue of Saint John the Baptist de La Salle.

We took the opportunity to wander into the courtyard where we had once had our assemblies. It had been a lot bigger in our school days, able to take in the 30 or so classes of 45, assembled in rows of two. The courtyard had been for many of us back in school, the focal point of the school, and most would stand around the courtyard during recess or before classes. A popular activity had been feeding the pigeons with kacang putih bought from the tuck shop, an act that the pigeons sometimes repaid by blessing a few unfortunate boys with the digested bits of the feed that were expelled from their perch on the rafters above.

Reflection of a courtyard which had once been where. as school boys, we had assembled.

The passage way that had once been a main thoroughfare to get to the courtyard and tuck shop, running by what was once the staff room.

The kacang putih seller, seen in an old school annual.

There were some familiar sights, the green louvered wooden doors seemed very much like it was back then, which I guess helped in bringing a few memories back to us, transporting us back some 30 years in time. Somehow, we could picture ourselves in the place as it was back then, seeing sights and hearing sounds that we were once familiar with. It is always nice to relive old memories from time to time, and I guess we as students of SJI and one of the few with the privilege to do so at leisure, primarily because of what the buildings that were the school is used as today.

Back to school seeing what was yesterday reflected in what is today.

Another reflection of what once was.

Familiar sights ...

and maybe some less familiar ... but even then, some things never change ... the school building has a reputation for ghostly apparitions ...

An unfamiliar sight in a familiar place.

Leaving the Art Museum, we made our way through the compound of the Cathedral, where mass was going on. We were of course very familiar with the cathedral as boys, having attended mass there many times in the white of our school uniform. It was always on the agenda as well for my family for our church visits for Maundy Thursday. I had in fact visit the cathedral on several occasions as a young boy with my parents for mass as well. Each Sunday morning that we were there, we would encounter this rather impossible person who was the warden in charge of directing cars parking in the compound, which even then always seemed to fill up. The warden, a certain Mr Prince, never failed to find himself as a source of displeasure to church goers in his attempts to convince them to park their cars in the tightest of spots. The Cathedral, a gazetted national monument, is these days sadly in need of repair, having been damaged by much of the construction activity including tunneling work for the Circle Line which runs underneath Bras Basah Road. It is quite sad to see part of the structure needing to be propped by wooden shoring, and hopefully the damage and be completely repaired.

The spire of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is now dwarfed by the buildings that have come up around it.

Shoring now supports part of the cathedral's structure which has suffered damage from all the construction activity that has gone on around the national monument.

Across Victoria Street from the Cathedral, what was the walled compound that used to house the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) stands. Back when we were school boys, much of what went on behind the walls was a big mystery to us. Looking at CHIJ then from the streets around it, one would have been confronted by what appeared to be a rather thick wall, almost as if it was some kind of fortification, parts of which were topped off by broken pieces of glass cemented in with sharp edges facing up. Along two sides of it, running along Bras Basah and North Bridge Roads, were rooms ventilated by small openings in the walls that I understand, had housed rooms which were used by the nuns who ran the convent. Along the Stamford Canal, another wall concealed much revealing only the secondary school building. The only glimpse we could get of what it was like beyond the walls was along Victoria Street, through the tall iron main gate, and perhaps by peeking through the small opening in the so called “Gate of Hope” close to the junction with Bras Basah Road.

From the outside looking in ... what was behind the walls were a mystery to many of us schoolboys.

The Gothic styled chapel dominated the compound.

A view of CHIJ as it was in its early days.

The view port on the Gate of Hope, where abandoned babies where left. The nuns ran an orphanage which took these unwanted babies in.

The wall of the former CHIJ along Bras Basah Road.

As boys we were always curious to know what was beyond the walls that swallowed up many of the pretty faces we had encountered each morning going to school, not being able to see beyond the magnificent structure of the Gothic styled chapel that proudly stood just behind the tall iron gate. I did have some first hand accounts from my sister who spent the first two years of her school life there before deciding that leaving for school at 5.30 each morning was something she could do without, but being at that age, she didn’t really have too much to share about the school. I did have an opportunity to see what did go on behind the walls, having been chosen to attend a girl guides campfire as a scout. I guess what the flickering glow of the campfire didn’t reveal much of the convent’s secrets as I do not not much of an impression of what was within the premises besides the field where the sunken courtyard we see today is, and the buildings that surrounded the field making it seem almost like a cloister of sorts.

The Gothic styled former chapel as seen on our recent walk.

The field that was behind the chapel ... now the sunken courtyard of CHIJMES.

Times have changed I guess, and the usage of the buildings of the former convent has as well. The convent moved to its present premises in Toa Payoh in 1982 before the complex of buildings were restored and transformed into what we see today … a dining, entertainment and shopping venue that in keeping with its past (only in name) has been named CHIJMES (pronounced “chimes”). So, now the once unadulterated grounds have been overrun by establishments that maybe serve some of what the nuns may have frowned upon. The complex is dominated by the sunken courtyard behind the former chapel that was once the school field, perhaps telling of how low the use of the premises has sunk to (from a spiritual viewpoint). That knowledge did not stop us from enjoying a couple of beers in the now unholy cloister.  What is nice about the place is that the sunken courtyard that provides a very Mediterranean feel about it.

The former cloister now houses food and entertainment outlets.

Mass being celebrated in the chapel.

The building that housed St. Nicholas Girls' School from 1949 to 1983.


The building today.

Although CHIJMES is today used in a manner that is perhaps not what the buildings were originally intended for, what is nice about it is that we are now able to see and appreciate efforts placed in giving us the magnificent examples of art and architecture erected to the “greater glory of God”. There is certainly an opportunity to savour what has to be some of the best examples of European style religious architecture in the this part of the world, works that were once only seen by those who lived and went to school within the closed compound. What must certainly stand out in this respect is the former chapel, built in the gothic style complete with flying buttresses that support the spire, which was completed in 1904. The chapel’s splendid architecture is complemented by what has to be some of the best examples of the medieval art of stained glass making in this region, made by a master craftsman, a certain Jules Dobbelaere, schooled in the Bruges tradition. Burges is a city which has received a lot of attention for some of the best preserved medieval edifices, in particular the many churches and the works of stained glass that seek to leave those fortunate enough to bathe in the glow in total awe. More information on the stained glass windows in the former chapel can be found on the CHIJMES website. On thing that would really be nice if the interior of the former chapel, now a private function hall, can be made accessible to allow the general public with an opportunity to have a close up view of the magnificence of the stained glass windows.

The stained glass windows above the altar area.

Stained glass in one of the side chapels.

Close up of the Nativity scene over the former altar area.

Stained glass above the entrance.

Another pane inside the chapel.

A pane at the entrance area ...

The chapel and the Neo-Gothic gallery flanking the chapel.

The grounds are full of delights waiting to be found … that in the brick and mortar of the buildings, in the glass work as previously described, and also in some wonderful pieces of ironwork that can be found in the gates and spiral staircases that lead up to what were the primary school classrooms above the Neo-Gothic galleries that flank the chapel. It’s certainly nice to have the opportunity to be able to discover all these and to savour the treat to the eyes that, for so long, the nuns at CHIJ had kept as a secret to the world outside.

Besides the wonderful chapel ... there's a lot more delightful work to be discovered ...

particularly in the Neo-Gothic galleries flanking the former chapel ...

including some delightful ironwork ...

on the spiral staircases ...

and floor tiles ... we had similar tiles when we were in SJI.





Schools, churches and a candlelight procession: Memories of Queen Street

18 02 2010

As a schoolboy in Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI), the sections of Queen Street that I was most familiar with were the two sections of the street closest to the school. These were the stretches that ran southwards past the Cathedral towards the Armenian Street end which led to the MPH book store, and the other that ran along the school canteen northwards towards the junction with Middle Road.

The part of the street that I most saw was of course the southern section, the all important route to MPH, the bus stop along Stamford Road to catch bus service number 166 home, the National Library, and the little place by the library where there were a few hawker stalls including a wan ton noodle stall and ice kacang. This ran from the Cathedral, past the Cathedral Rectory, the little garden with stone tables and chairs by the Rectory and grounds of the primary section of Raffles Girls School on the east side of the street, before coming to a little road bridge over the then open Stamford Canal at the junction with Stamford Road. On the west side of the street, was the fence of the SJI school field along which there was a row of trees from which flying foxes were frequently constructed by the scouts. The footpath along the fence would be the route to Fort Canning Hill for the occasional jog or cross country training held during P.E. lessons, which many of us returning from the jogs would use to race in a mad dash to the junction with Bras Basah Road.

The Armenian Street end of Queen Street in 1976 (looking at Armenian Street at the junction with Stamford Road). Notice the bridge over the then open Stamford Canal which you don't see today (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then and Now).

The view southwards today toward Armenian Street.

The site of the former Raffles Girls School (RGS) on what was Queen Street (now a section of the realigned Stamford Road with the construction of the Fort Canning Tunnel) near the junction with Stamford Road. The building that stands on the site is part of the Singapore Management University (SMU) campus. The wide walkway that can be seen on the bottom right of the photograph runs over what used to be an open Stamford Canal

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd along Queen Street.

A view of the south end of Queen Street looking North. Buildings belonging to the SMU campus stands where the SJI field was on the left and RGS on the right.

The next section of the street was where the building that housed the Brother’s quarters on the upper floors and the school canteen on the ground floor ran along. On the street side of the building there was a little door which the canteen stall holders would use to enter and exit the canteen. It was through this door that outsiders could make purchases from the canteen, with Char Kway Teow and Mee Siam being a popular choice. The Mee Siam seller also parked his cart next to the door, on which he would load his pot of gravy onto at the end of each day and continue his business along the streets.

The Brothers Quarters of SJI along Queen Street (as seen from the courtyard inside the school). The ground floor of the block housed the school canteen which had a back door to Queen Street from which outsiders make food purchase through. The Mee Siam seller parked his cart next to the door (Photo source: SJI 125th Anniversary Magazine).

Opposite the Brother’s quarters on the east side, there was the Kum Yan Methodist Church (which is still there) and the buildings that housed the Catholic High School, part of which was also housed across the street in the compound of the “Chinese Church”, the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Further along the west side there was this tall narrow building which housed Stamford College, a private college which was popular with students sitting for their GCE “A” Level examinations privately, which is now used as the Oxford Hotel. Sited next to this building was the Stamford Community Centre and its compound. With some of my schoolmates, desperate for a place to kick a ball around before school, I had on occasion, climbed over the gate which was opened only in the evenings to have our game of street football on the basketball court.

The former Catholic High School building.

The building that housed Stamford College.

The former Stamford Community Centre. I had climbed over the gate a few times with several of my classmates to play street football on the basketball court.

Close to the junction with Middle Road on the east side of the street is where the back entrance is to the beautiful St. Joseph’s Catholic Church which is also known as the Portuguese church, having been established by the Portuguese missionaries . The church was run by the Diocese of Macau up to 1999 when it was handed over to the Archdiocese of Singapore. Within the compound of the church, were St. Anthony’s Convent and St. Anthony Boys School. My memories of the church deserves mention in another post, but the reason I have brought the church up is that having been run in the Portuguese tradition, many of the practices have endured and on Good Friday every year, a candlelight procession is held in the church compound. Besides the participants within the compound, there would be many others who would gather beyond the wall of the church on Queen Street with tall lighted candles in hand. This evenings on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday) and Good Friday would probably be the time of the year when these two stretches of Queen Street comes to life. Besides the procession, on Good Friday where many candle vendors and hawkers would line the street, on Maundy Thursday when many local Catholics practice visiting of churches to say prayers, with the concentration of Catholic churches along the street, the street would be bustling with people as well as hawker stalls.

The beautiful Portuguese Church (St. Joseph's Church).

The building on the right housed St. Anthony's Boys School within the compound of the Portuguese Church.

The buildings that housed St. Anthony's Convent within the compound of the Portuguese Church.