Good Friday at the Portuguese Church

15 04 2017

Good Friday, which for believers marks the day Jesus Christ was crucified, has been commemorated in a very visible way on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Church for more than a century. Conducted  very much in the fashion of the Iberian peninsula, the elaborate procession takes place at the end of the church’s Good Friday service during which the crucifixion is reenacted using a life-sized image of Christ that is lowered and placed on a bier for the procession.

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The church, known also as the Portuguese Church due to its origin in the Portuguese Mission and it having been a parish of the Diocese of Macau until 1981, is the spiritual home of the Portuguese Eurasian community. The community is one of the oldest migrant linked communities in the region. It is on Good Friday, when the religious traditions of the community are most visible, that we are perhaps reminded of this. The procession, the holding of which goes back more than a century, attracts large numbers of worshippers from all across Singapore and at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, saw thousands packed into the church’s compound with many more spilling onto Queen Street.



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A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House

31 07 2016

In the shadows of clutter of structures that has descended on Victoria Street post 1970s, it is easy to miss the beautiful 104 year old Parochial House that sits just across the street from Bras Basah Complex. Built with a hint of old Portugal, the building speaks of its links to a old Southeast Asian community that has its origins in the days of the Portuguese conquest of Malacca.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph's Church.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph’s Church, was designed by Donald McLeod Craik.

Parochial House was designed by Donald McLeod Craik (who also designed the beautiful Moorish arched Alkaff’s Arcade in Collyer Quay, Wesley Methodist Church, the Masonic Hall and Jinrikisha Station) in the Portuguese Baroque style, and adorned with Gothic accents. Part of a rebuilding programme that involved its more noticeable neighbour, the current St. Joseph’s Church (also known locally as the Portuguese Church), it was completed together with the church in 1912. It replaced an older parish house that was also the headquarters of the Portuguese Mission. That had been given over to the Canossian Sisters in 1899 to allow the expansion of the convent at Middle Road that became known as St. Anthony’s Convent.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

The Mission, which operated under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau, first came to Singapore in 1825. It served a parish of Portuguese and Portuguese Eurasian Catholics until 1981, after which the Portuguese Church was transferred to the Archdiocese of Singapore. Links were however maintained until 1999 when the last Macau appointed parish priest completed his term.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

Along with providing a home to priests appointed to the parish, Parochial House also served as the residence of the Bishop of Macau on his visits to Singapore. A reminder of this is found in the still intact spartanly furnished room used by the Bishops on the second floor, last used in 1999. Also intact is the tiny chapel of the Bishop on the third floor. Based on an article in the 24 July 2016 edition of the Catholic News, it seems that bone fragment relics of the 12 apostles are kept in the chapel.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

The Bishop of Macau's room.

The Bishop of Macau’s room.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe, now placed in the Bishop’s room.

The Bishop's chapel.

The Bishop’s chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

Up until Parochial House was opened for the series of guided visits that were held on the weekend following the announcement of its conservation on 30 June 2016 (coinciding with the church building’s 104th anniversary), not many would have seen its wonderfully preserved upper floors. Many parishioners would however have seen its ground floor, where communal activities were held and where a canteen operates to serve churchgoers on Sundays since 1960. Some evidence of the type of communal activities are found in the room in which the church’s registers are maintained on the second floor across the hallway from the Bishop’s room. Items from the church’s past are displayed on an old wooden table here include film projectors used for the screening movies for the community.

A movie projector.

A movie projector.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

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The baptism record of the grandfather of Singapore National Swimmer Joseph Schooling.

The communal space on the ground floor.

The communal space on the ground floor.

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Encaustic floor tiles.

Several interesting features are found through the building. One is the grand staircase that takes one up from the ground floor to the upper levels, which is decorated with a carved wooden balustrade. There are also several instances of interesting tile work such as the encaustic floor tiles with patterns rich in religious symbolism. There also are nine sets of decorative tin glazed blue and white Azulejo wall tiles typical of the Iberian peninsula found both in the buildings interior and exterior. More information on the building’s history and architecture can be found on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Facebook Page.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

The stairway to heaven.

The stairway to heaven.

The other end of the second floor hallway - the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony's Boys' School next door.

The other end of the second floor hallway – the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony’s Boys’ School next door.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Gothic pinnacles decorated with crockets top the roof structure of the building.

Parochial House in 2010.

Parochial House in 2010.

Following its refurbishment this year.

Following its refurbishment this year.

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The PM seen in the roundel along Victoria Street refers to the Portuguese Mission.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A view out the window to St. Joseph's Church.

A view out the window to St. Joseph’s Church.

 





Good Friday at a slice of Portugal in Singapore

26 03 2016

The Portuguese Church, as the Church of St. Joseph’s at Victoria Street is referred to, is where the religious traditions of the Portuguese Eurasian community in Singapore are kept alive. It is every year on Good Friday, a day of fasting, reflection and prayer, that we see the most colourful manifestation of these traditions, in an elaborate service which culminates in procession illuminated by the light of candles carried by the sea of worshippers that crowd the church’s compound.

The sea of candlelight every Good Friday.

The sea of candlelight every Good Friday at the Portuguese Church.

The procession, would in the past, attract worshippers in their thousands, some of whom would crowd the compound just to see the procession pass. Worshippers would also spill out to Queen Street and in more recent times to the lower floors of the podium at Waterloo Centre. It was at Queen Street where many candle vendors would be seen to do a roaring trade, offering candles of all sizes. I remember seeing some on sale that were of such a length that they needed to be propped up by pieces of wood, which we no longer see these days.

The head of the procession with a bier containing a life-sized representation of the body of Christ makes its way through the grounds of the church.

The head of the procession with a bier containing a life-sized representation of the body of Christ makes its way through the grounds of the church.

Worshippers carrying candles follow the procession.

Worshippers carrying candles follow the procession.

While the candle vendors have been chased off the streets, the procession, even with the smaller crowds we see today, still adds much life and colour to the area. In keeping the traditions of a small and rarely mentioned community in Singapore alive, the procession also reminds us that what colours Singapore is not just the influences of the main ethnic groups but also of the smaller groups that have added to the flavour of Singapore’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

Another view of the procession through the grounds.

Another view of the procession through the grounds.

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A face seen in the clouds as the crowds gathered for the procession.

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More on the procession and the Portuguese Church:

 





The flicker of tradition

21 04 2014

It is in the flicker of the sea of candlelight that illuminates the compound of the Church of St. Joseph in Victoria Street, that we see a side of Singapore that seems lost to us, one that lies buried behind the narrow definitions that we now use to define the Singapore of today.

Candles lit for the annual Good Friday procession at the Church of St. Joseph.

Candles lit for the annual Good Friday procession at the Church of St. Joseph.

The flicker is of an annual procession, part of the commemoration of Holy Week, that borrows from the Portuguese tradition – the church was established by the Portuguese missionaries and came under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Diocese of Macau until as recently as 1981. And, it is in its very visible commemoration that we are made aware of one of the many cultural and religious influences that has given Singapore as a whole, a very unique flavour.

Participants in the procession fill the compound of the church in anticipation of the procession.

Participants in the procession gather outside the church in anticipation of the procession.

The procession comes at the end of a Good Friday service during which the Passion of Christ is commemorated through the Stations of the Cross, following which the crucifixion and the lowering of the body of Chirst  is reenacted. During the procession, a bier carrying the life-sized representation of the body of Christ is carried around the church, followed by a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows and the clergy and congregation as well as the many who have gathered holding candles outside the church.

The reenactment of the crucifixion inside the church.

The reenactment of the crucifixion inside the church.

The representation of the body of Christ being lowered.

The representation of the body of Christ being lowered.

The procession attracts many thousands of Catholics each year, and beside the 1500 or so who make their way into the church, and the many more who gather inside the compound, the crowd does also spill over to Queen Street and Waterloo Centre, the second floor of which does provide an excellent vantage point. It was on Queen Street, that we did once see many candle vendors, hawking long candles – some taller than the height of a person which had to be supported by a backbone of wood, adding to the colour of the occasion.

The bier being carried during the procession.

The bier being carried during the procession.

Members of the church dressed as Roman soldiers (Jerusalem was a colony of Rome during the time of Christ).

Members of the church dressed as Roman soldiers (Jerusalem was a colony of Rome during the time of Christ).

The procession, as well as the commemoration of Holy Week in this manner in Singapore, is thought to have had its origins in the early days of the church, which was originally established in the 1850s. It is one of several such similar commemorations that is seen across Asia where the religious influences of the Portuguese remain strong, such as in Macau and close-by in Malacca, which was a former Portuguese colony and where many of the Portuguese Eurasian community found in Singapore have their roots in. The Church of St. Joseph, which at some point was referred to as the Portuguese church,  is perhaps the last bastion for a community that is rich in tradition and one of the many that has made Singapore what it is today.

Altar boys at the head of the procession.

Altar boys at the head of the procession.

Archbishop William Goh.

Archbishop William Goh, followed by members of the clergy.

A member of the church playing Veronica showing the 'Veil of Veronica'.

A member of the church playing Veronica showing the ‘Veil of Veronica’.

Flower girls.

Flower girls.

The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Reflections of the procession in the rain.

Reflections of the procession in the rain.

The crowd seen through a reflection off a traffic mirror.

The crowd seen through a reflection off a traffic mirror.

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Work resumes at St. Joseph’s Church

9 09 2013

Great news delivered over the weekend – the much delayed work on the stained glass restoration at St. Joseph’s Church will be resuming today. The work will restart at the south (or west) transept where the first batch of stained glass windows were taken down in the second half of last year. Work on this batch of windows has in fact been completed and that does mean we shall soon have a first glimpse of some of the beautiful windows restored to its full glory when the windows are finally re-installed.

A look across to the west transept.

A look across to the west transept.

Part of the west transept seen to the right of the sanctuary.

Part of the west transept seen to the right of the sanctuary.

Close up of the window at the end of the west transept.

Close up of the window at the end of the west transept.





A one hundred year old beauty

26 06 2012

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.

St. Joseph’s Church, Victoria Street.

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 portico of the church with the marble statues of St. Joseph in the centre, flanked by St. John de Brito and St. John of God.

The rectory of the church seen through one of the arches at the entrance portico of the church.

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 interior of St. Joseph’s Church dressed up in red for Easter this year. Newspaper reports mention that ‘nearly every available space’ in the church was occupied for its opening solemnities.

Darkness and light – the beautiful illuminated interior of the church.

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 naturally illuminated by the soft green light that streams through the generously provided stained glass windows.

Windows on the south wall of the nave. The upper windows catch the light beautifully. The upper walls of the nave are lined with niches in which the statues of Saints are placed.

The statue of St. Sebastian on the south wall of the nave.

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.

The exterior of the south transept – even the exterior of the building catches the light beautifully at certain times of the day.

Closer inspection of a stained soft green glass window on the south transept, illuminated partially by another window across on the rear wall of the transept.

Stained glass panels in the Chancel – work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges.

Looking towards the east end of the nave – the gallery can be seen on the upper level.

Another view of the east end of the nave.

The central panels depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus flanked by Our Lady and St. Joseph.

A stained glass panel depicting St. John Berchmans.

A panel depicting St. Francis Xavier.

A panel depicting St. Agnes.

Five panel stained glass window at the end of the south transept.

Morning light streaming into the north transept.

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 stained glass of the Chancel and the high altar dedicated to St. Joseph.

The ornamented craved teak pulpit and canopy.

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

Seeing the light.

Darkness and light.

Statue of St. Anthony of Padua.

The nave windows of the church.

Floor tiles in the church.

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