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.


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The Chinese Church – another National Monument in need

24 05 2013

The Bras Basah Road area is one blessed with several monuments which date back to the 1800s. It was at the heart of an area where four of these monuments were erected largely through the efforts of the early French Catholic missionaries. Built to serve the needs of the growing Catholic community in Singapore, as well as to provide education for those in need, the monuments were not built to be functional but also were expressions of the love and dedication that they had been built with. While two of the four, the buildings of the former St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), have since been converted for uses other than what they had been attended for, the other two, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, are still used as they had been meant to be.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The two are also ones which are also badly in need of repair and restoration. The plight of the Cathedral, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church building,  is of course a more dire one. Its structure, ravaged by both time and nearby construction activity, shows obvious signs of damage. Repairs which are due to commence sometime this year will cost the Cathedral  some S$40 million, of which it has raised only a quarter of. The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the  second oldest Catholic church building, while less in need of repair, does still need to raise some S$10 million to have, among other work, its roof and termite infested wooden structures repaired.

An appeal for funds at the church's entrance.

An appeal for funds at the church’s entrance.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, built from 1869 to 1870, its steeple once featuring prominently in the area’s skyline alongside that of the Cathedral’s and the Chapel of CHIJ, and the dome of SJI, is one of several beautiful examples of the tropical adapted Neo-Gothic religious architecture the French Missionaries gave to Singapore (other examples include the CHIJ Chapel and Nativity Church). Built to house the growing Chinese and Tamil speaking Catholic community by a certain Fr. Pierre Paris (whose remains are buried in the church), the church also features some beautiful wrought iron work as well as stained glass panels (which are said to have been made by French artisans).

Ironwork at the church's entrance.

Ironwork at the church’s entrance.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the central panel.

A close-up of the central panel.

A stained glass rose window.

A stained glass rose window.

The church is also one I have had many interactions with through the days of my youth. My parents who often referred to it as “Chinese Church” did on occasion take me there for mass and it was in this church as well as the Cathedral where I, as a schoolboy in SJI, would attend masses organised by the school – the school’s chapel was too small to accommodate the school’s population of Catholics. The church is also one I often associate with Catholic High School – the school having been housed at buildings within the church’s compound (now 222 Queen Street) and across the road (now SAM at 8Q).

A view through the grills of  the building which once housed Catholic High School.

A view through the grilles of the building which once housed Catholic High School.

The grills of the stairwell - the building is now used as an arts centre.

The grilles of the stairwell – the building is now used as an arts centre.

That it was commonly referred to as the “Chinese Church” stems from it having housed the Chinese Mission which saw to the needs of the various dialect speaking groups including the large number of Teochew speakers who remained with the church after the other communities moved out. The other communities included the Hakka and Cantonese speaking congregation who would in 1910 move to the Church of the Sacred Heart in Tank Road, and the small Hokkien Catholic community who moved to the Church of St. Teresa in 1929. Interestingly, the church also housed the the Tamil speaking community as Fr. Paris who built the church, also administered to that community having had a command of the Tamil language. The Tamil community was the first to move when the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes completed in 1888 was built to house them.

Fr. Paris' remains are buried in the church.

Fr. Paris’ remains are buried in the church.

In silent prayer.

In silent prayer.

There are several interesting facts about the church. One is that it once housed a pipe organ built by the renowned 19th Century French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1877 which unfortunately fell into disrepair and was removed in the 1960s. Another is that the boundary wall is thought to have been paid for by Napoleon III based on a 1914 report attributed to the then Bishop of Malacca (the diocese of which included Singapore), Monseigneur  Emile Barillon who served as Bishop of Malacca from 1904 to 1933.  The building as we see it today is also one that has been enlarged – the transept, sacristy and sanctuary were added in 1891-92. More on the building and the history of the church can be found at:

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today - the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today – the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

A look down the nave - the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

A look down the nave – the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A view across the transept - the transept was added in 1891-92.

A view across the transept – the transept was added in 1891-92.

Another view down the nave.

Another view down the nave.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

A statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

And one of St. Paul.

And one of St. Paul.





A cross at a crossroad

15 04 2013

The long and somewhat winding road journeys of my childhood are ones I now look back with much fondness. They are ones that were to put in touch with a Singapore that I grew to love, and a Singapore we have long forgotten. One of these drives which would take place during the Chinese New Year and on the occasions we ventured to one of the “ends of Singapore” to indulge in seafood, was to Punggol. Punggol was then a world away where the livestock population would in all probability have outnumbered the area’s human inhabitants.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

Punggol for me began at the junction where we would have to make a left turn from a busy Upper Serangoon Road even then to Punggol Road. It was at this point that it felt we would leave the built-up world behind and turn-off into what could probably have been considered a countryside we no longer have. It was where coconut trees seem to dominate the landscape (that at least was my impression) – that I noticed them more than anything else was probably because of the curious sight of many of them without their lightning struck tops – a sight that was in fact common throughout rural Singapore.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

The junction was one which was marked by two structures. One was the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary and the other a beautiful church which seemed out of place in the environment around it. And while much of the landscape of the area has been altered beyond recognition – the trees and high-density dwellings of pigs and poultry have now been replaced by towering blocks of high-density human dwellings and the stretch of Punggol Road where the junction is has been renamed as Hougang Avenue 8, the two structures – now looking further out of place in the new environment, are still there to serve as reminders of a time and place we would otherwise have little memories of.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

The church, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Nativity Church in short, is one that is hard to miss, with its steeple rising high above the structures around it. One of several beautiful examples of a legacy that the French Catholic Missionaries left behind in South-East Asia, the church is of a form we seem to have forgotten to appreciate. Several examples of the style, commonly used in Catholic houses of worship built by the French missionaries in the 1800s and in early 1900s exhibit, do exist on the island. These include the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the de-consecrated CHIJ Chapel (now part of the CHIJMES complex) and the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, all of which now feature in the growing list of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of the French Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of Neo-Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics. The marble statue of Mary in the foreground is interestingly a gift from Sultan Ibrahim of Johor in 1946.

Built in what can possibly be described as a European inspired Neo-Gothic style adapted for the tropics, the buildings are very similar in appearance. Nativity Church which was completed in 1901, is however, the only one that was placed in a rural setting – pointing not just to a pattern of faith of the community in the area, but also perhaps of a pattern of immigration to and settlement on the island of Singapore.

The transept which was an addition to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The transept which was an addition made in 1933 to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The area is of course one of several rural areas in which the Teochew community, the second largest group of Chinese immigrants to Singapore, was dominant. The community, many of whom converted to the Catholic faith as well as to other forms of Christianity, were involved in fishing, in farming, as well as in the rubber (and before that pineapple) plantations through much of the countryside along the northern coast of Singapore. With the community and the adoption of faith, missionaries erected several houses of worship – and there are, as a result, several reminders of this in the form of churches, or in the absence of them, parishes which had their origins in these rural Teochew communities. These include the Nativity Church, the Parish of St. Anthony (now in Woodlands) which was previously based off Stephen Lee Road in Mandai, and also a church with a very distinct Teochew flavour in its architecture, St. Joseph’s Church at Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Seeing the light - the soft light illuminating the nave - part of the original structure.

Seeing the light – the soft light illuminating the nave – part of the original structure.

The background to the parish community, the church, as well as on the architecture of the beautiful building is well documented. Much of this information is available on the church’s website, as well as on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s page on the building. Being a Catholic myself, buildings such as these represent a time when architecture and much of what when on around the church, was dedicated to the greater glory of the maker. On a personal level, my interactions with the parish and church are limited, coming to the church only on occasion – the last time I did spend some time in it was on the occasion of my sister’s wedding at the church some years ago. The opportunity to step in to the church again came recently when I found myself nearby with some time to spare.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

The nave of the church.

The nave of the church.

Churches are always places where I find a great sense of peace in and in the quiet of the Saturday morning I was there, it was just that I found in stepping through the huge doors at the entrance, finding the interior bathed in the soft natural light of the morning streaming through the generous openings typically found in the tropically adapted Neo-Gothic church design. The church both internally and externally is a visual treat. On the insides, its high vaulted ceiling is accompanied by the rows of arches which would typically line the nave. Focus is drawn towards the Sanctuary bathed in the coloured light of stained glass a building such as this would look bare without.

Some of the church's stained glass windows.

Some of the church’s stained glass windows.

The interior with its adornments and furnishings, is a wonderful reminder of how Catholic churches used to be. The dark stained carved wooden pews is a rare find now with most churches around having been built in more modern times. The walls of the transept are where the statues representing the various saints are placed. These are typical of most Catholic churches and in the older ones it would be in purpose built niches as the ones found in this church in which the statues are placed. The windows, which can be opened, provide not just natural ventilation, but also light – typical of architecture adapted for the tropically environment which we do not see in modern buildings built to be air-conditioned.

A view down the aisle.

A view down the aisle.

A statue of St. Vainney placed in a niche at the transept.

A statue of St. John Vianney placed in a niche at the transept.

There is a lot as well that is interesting about the church’s history, including that a statue of Mary was donated by Sultan Ibrahim of Johor (the great grandfather of the current Sultan of Johor). Placed in a prominent position in front of the church, that is a reminder of the close ties bewteen the southern sultanate and colony which was once a part of it. The church today, while serving the needs of the parish community – which is still predominently Teochew, has also reached out to newer migrants – since the end of last year, it is also where the Korean Catholic community has been based at.

Coloured glass windows.

Coloured glass windows which can be opened allow the church to be naturally illuminated and ventilated.

The church in continuing to serve the spiritual needs of the evolving community does stand as a reminder of the purpose it was built to serve. Gazetted as a National Monument since 2005, it is one that will also stand as a reminder of the area’s past, a past which with the spread of the urban world to the area, is one which is increasing hard to remember.