Exposing the Convent

6 07 2013

Work has begun on a facelift which will see another significant change occur to a place I will always see as the convent, a lifestyle complex we now know as CHIJMES. The convent was one which dates back to February 1854, when three nuns from the religious order of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus arrived to set it up, with a French Catholic missionary, Fr. Jean Marie Beurel, who is also credited with work to establish St. Joseph’s Institution two years before that, instrumental in bringing them here, having purchased Caldwell House for the purpose. The current work, expected to be completed next year, based on news reports, is aimed at turning it into an upmarket venue and will see part of a wall which has featured through much of the convent’s history, come down to provide an almost full frontal exposure of the former convent – in particularly two of its buildings, the gloriously designed French Gothic style former chapel and Caldwell House, both of which have been gazetted as a National Monument.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the convent.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the former convent – both buildings have since 1990 been gazetted as National Monuments.

Based on the same news reports, the top part of the wall will be replaced by a grille. While this does permit a fuller exposure of the monument from Victoria Street, it does also mean that what little has been left of the character of the former convent, already significantly altered by the redevelopment on the side along Stamford Road as the SMRT Headquarters, and the digging of a huge hole in the ground behind the chapel to create the sunken courtyard, will soon be lost.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

While the attempts to restore and conserve many of the buildings of the old convent, once bound by walls along Victoria Street, Bras Basah Road, North Bridge Road and the side of Stamford Canal across from Stamford Road through its redevelopment as CHIJMES in 1996, should be commended, one of the unfortunate outcomes of it is that it does take much of the dignity as well as the soul of the place away – a dignity which will be eroded further with the lowering of its walls. The convent, which was forced out of it premises by land acquisition for urban redevelopment after some 130 years in 1983, had been one established to be of service to those in dire need – providing care and education for the numerous orphans, the unwanted, and the destitute. In its place today is a very different institution – one with which the aim is serve and reap profits for those already well off by the standards of the society.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

An artist's impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

An artist’s impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

The alteration to the boundary wall will very much change the way we see CHIJMES. What is a shame is the way conservation in Singapore does seem to focus not on the buildings in their environment, but on the individual buildings as it is the case of CHIJMES. With it this way, there will be little that we will remember, not just of what may the buildings what they were, but what it was that put them there.

A view of the Gate of Hope - and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

A view of the Gate of Hope – and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

A view of the offending wall through the arches.

A view of the offending wall through the arches of its walkways.

Another view through the archways.

Another view through the archways.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A hole where there wasn't - the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

A hole where there wasn’t – the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.


The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.

The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.






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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