Church of St Teresa
The Church of St Teresa is located at 510 Kampong Bahru Road. Established in 1929, it was the first rural Catholic Church in Singapore and the only one featuring Romano-Byzantine architecture. The church is also known as “the Hokkien church”, a reference to its early days when it catered largely to Hokkien-speaking Catholics. The church now serves Catholics living in the Kampong Bahru area, and is also the base for the Apostleship of the Sea that serves seafarers calling at the nearby port. The church was designated a national monument in 2009.
As early as 1910, the Bishop of Malacca, Marie Luc Alphonse Emile Barillon, reported to the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), a society of secular priests dedicated exclusively to missionary work, of the need to build a Chinese parish for the growing community of Hokkien-speaking Catholics originating from Fukien, China. In 1923, the parish priest of Singapore’s Church of Sts Peter and Paul, Emile Joseph Mariette, who was from the MEP, set about building the church.
The search for a site for the church was a protracted process and filled with many unsuccessful attempts. Mariette prayed to Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus for help and on the 21st attempt, acquired 2.1 acres of land on 21 November 1925, the day of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The costs of the land and expenses amounted to S$26,400 and were paid for with the money that the MEP received from selling its coconut estate in Changi together with voluntary contributions. The building of the church was also a prolonged affair because Bishop Barillon refused to commit to the building contract until S$202,000 of the estimated building cost of S$211,000 was raised.
Bishop Perrichon blessed and laid the foundation stone on Easter Monday, 18 April 1927. However, Mariette, the driving force behind the church-building project, suffered an untimely death during the building process that followed. He died from a fatal injury caused by a falling plank at the church worksite on 13 March 1928. The assistant priest, Stephen Lee, took over the building project and the church was successfully completed and officially opened on 7 April 1929 with a ceremony performed by Bishop Perrichon.
As the land was acquired through the intercession of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus, it was decided that the church should be named after her and that she be made its patron saint.
Features of church building
The church building was based on the sketches of the priest, J. M. Ouillon, who was inspired by the Romano-Byzantine design of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre in Paris, France, which also sits on a hill. Designed to accommodate 1,500 worshippers, Emile Brizay of Brossard Mopin & Co drew up the final architecture blueprints of the edifice while the general contractor Brossard Mopin Company Malaya Ltd completed the building.
The church building is 185 ft long by 55 ft wide and is made of ferro-concrete with a granolithic exterior. There are two belfries over the porch and a magnificent dome above the marble altar. The large windows below the dome allow sunlight to reach the altar. The stained glass windows at the back of the sanctuary were made in France, and chronicle the life of the patron saint of the church.
The five bronze bells in the belfries were made in 1927 at the historic Cornille-Havard bell foundry in Villedieu-les-Poeles in Normandy, France, and were tuned to different tones to create a harmonised musical chord when struck. Donated to the church by a devout parishioner, Joseph Chan Teck Hee, the bells were named after Chan’s five children.
The baptismal font was made of Indian marble from Jaipur. The marble St Teresa statue in the centre of the driveway was created in 1930 by Raoul Bigazzi, the renowned sculptor and decorator of Via Marbelli 6, Florence, Italy.
In 1930, the government acquired a portion of land in front of the church to make way for the deviation of Kampong Bahru Road and the Federated Malay States Railway. The church therefore lost more than 8,000ft2 of its frontage.
Stephen Lee, closely associated with the building of the church, became its first parish priest on 7 April 1935. He built a Carmelite convent and a Catholic settlement comprising six bungalows and ten barrack houses. He also acquired Hood Lodge to serve as a parish house. His concern for the children of the parish led him to start the St Teresa Sino-English School and to build St Teresa’s High School near the church in 1935.
In 1942, during World War II, nearby Bukit Teresa became the British military’s anti-aircraft nest. Together with the church’s proximity to the port, this caused the church to be attacked frequently by the Japanese. Both the church and the buildings in the Catholic settlement sustained damage during the bombings.
In 1983, a columbarium and a social and educational centre called St Teresa’s Centre were set up. In 1997, Hood Lodge was demolished to make way for an annexe to St Teresa’s Centre to serve as a presbytery and for other uses.
In 2005, the church was upgraded and received, among other things, a new altar, air-conditioning system and audiovisual equipment. At the same time, the remains of the founding father, Mariette, and the first parish priest, Lee, were installed near the entrance of the columbarium, below the statue of the Risen Christ.
Today, St Teresa Sino-English School and St Teresa High School are both defunct. At the site of the Catholic settlement stands CHIJ St Theresa’s Convent, which began as parish classes of the Church of St Teresa run by the sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus Congregation.
Over the years, the church has made many significant contributions to Singapore society. In its early years, the church provided much-needed educational services and opened its doors to the homeless. During the Japanese Occupation, the church was a place of refuge for women who sought protection against rape by Japanese soldiers. After the Occupation, it also cared for young boys via a school and an orphanage, although Lee frequently had to beg for food and seek funds to keep the orphanage going.
Later, the church sheltered many stranded Caucasians during the 1950 Maria Hertogh racial riots; provided relief and shelter to the many people made homeless by the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961, the biggest fire in Singapore history to date; as well as provided educational and social welfare services that continue today.
Today, the Church of St Teresa has a multi-racial population of 2,500 and has a number of organisations, such as the Society of St Vincent De Paul, through which it continues to contribute to society. It offers many facilities including a retreat centre that other churches can rent for a fee.
On 11 November 2009, the National Heritage Board gazetted the church building as a national monument, based on the social and historical significance of the church, its importance to the community as well as its architectural merits.
CHIJ St Theresa's Convent. (2006). School information: History of our school. Retrieved July 19, 2010, from http://www.chijsttheresasconvent.moe.edu.sg/info_history.htm
Church of St Teresa completes renovation. (2005, December). The Catholic News. Retrieved July 19, 2010, from http://www.catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=740:church-of-st-teresa-completes-renovation&catid=140:december-2005&Itemid=79
Commemorating 100th anniversary of the death of St Therese of Lisieux 1997. (1997). Singapore: Church of St Teresa.
Death of Father Mariette – Fatal accident. (1928, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved August 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
National Heritage Board. (2009, November 11). Six new national monuments and photography book contribute to preserving Singapore’s heritage [Press release]. Retrieved July 19, 2010, from http://www.nhb.gov.sg/WWW/pr/nov09/PRESS%20RELEASE%20gazette%20+%20book%20launch%20FINAL.pdf
New Catholic Church – Fine building at Tiong Bahru. (1929, April 8). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
New Catholic Church – Largest edifice in diocese of Malacca. (1927, April 20). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Phang, S. L. (Ed.) (2005). Monument of love: the Church of St Teresa. Singapore: Church of St Teresa.
(Call no. RSING 282.5957 MON)
Radin Mas: heritage trail: a tale of hills. (2009). Singapore: Radin Mas Citizens' Consultative Committee in collaboration with Central Singapore.
(Call no. RSING 959.57 RAD -[HIS])
Rev. Father S. Lee – Appointment to Church of St Teresa. (1935, March 18). The Straits Times. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
St Teresa Church. (2007). The church: Brief history of the church. Retrieved July 19, 2010, from
Untitled. (1928, January 3). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Church of St Teresa. (2010). Retrieved November 4, 2010, from Preservation of Monuments Board website: http://www.pmb.sg/
Wan, M. H. (2009). Heritage places of Singapore (pp. 149-151). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 WAN)
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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