Church of St Teresa

The Church of St Teresa is located at 510 Kampong Bahru Road. It was built on the eastern slope of Bukit Purmei (in Malay, “beautiful hill”).1 Established in 1929, it is  the only Catholic church featuring Romano-Byzantine architecture, which is recognised by the use of majestic domes, cupolas and arches on its facade.2 The church catered largely to Hokkien-speaking Catholics when built, as the dialect group had no church of their own then. It serves Catholics living in the areas of Kampong Bahru, Telok Blangah, Cantonment and Spottiswoode Park, and is also the base for the Apostleship of the Sea that serves seafarers calling at the nearby port.3 The church was designated a national monument in 2009.4

As early as 1910, the need to build a Chinese parish for the growing community of Hokkien-speaking Catholics originating from Fukien (Fujian), China, was brought to the attention of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), an organisation of secular priests dedicated exclusively to missionary work, by the Bishop of Malacca, Marie Luc Alphonse Emile Barillon.5 In 1923, the parish priest of Singapore’s Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Father Emile Joseph Mariette, who was from the MEP, set about building the church.6

The search for a suitable site for the church took almost two years. On 21 November 1925, the day of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the church acquired 2.1 acres (91,476 sq ft) of land at Bukit Purmei, which at the time was occupied by Malay squatters and Catholic families.7 The costs of the land and miscellaneous expenses amounted to $26,000, and were paid for with the money that the MEP had received from selling its coconut estate in Changi as well as from voluntary contributions. 

Pierre Louis Perrichon, Bishop of Corona and Coadjutor to the Bishop of Malacca, blessed and laid the foundation stone on Easter Monday, 18 April 1927.9 However, Father 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 1928.10 The assistant priest, Father Stephen Lee Boon Teck, 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.11 The cost of building amounted to over $250,000.12

As church members believed that the land was acquired through the intercession of St Teresa of the Child Jesus, it was decided that the church should be named after her, and that she be made its patron saint.13

Church architecture
The church building was based on the sketches of Jean M. Ouillon, the Procurator of the MEP in Singapore,14 who was inspired by the Romano-Byzantine design of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre in Paris, France, which was also  built on a hill. The general contractor, Brossard Mopin Company Malaya Ltd, appointed Emile Brizay as the builder and structural engineer for the church, which was designed to accommodate 1,400 worshippers.15

Measuring 185 ft long and 55 ft wide, the church building was constructed with ferro-concrete to give it a granolithic exterior.16 The French-made stained glass windows at the back of the sanctuary chronicle the key events in the life of the patron saint of the church, St Teresa of Lisieux, France.17

The two belfries rising over the porch house five bronze bells that were made in 1927 at the historic Cornille-Havard bell foundry in Villedieu-les-Poeles in Normandy, France; each tuned to a different tone 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 his five children.18

The baptismal font was made using Indian marble from Jaipur, India. The marble statue of St Teresa at the centre of the driveway was created in 1930 by Raoul Bigazzi, the renowned sculptor and decorator from Florence, Italy.19

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, resulting in the loss of more than 8,000 sq ft of its frontage.20

On 7 April 1935, Father Stephen Lee became the first parish priest of the church.21 He later built a Carmelite convent, and a Catholic settlement comprising six bungalows and ten barrack houses. On 16 November the same year, he acquired the adjacent Hood Lodge to serve as a parish house.22 Hood Lodge was previously leased by the Infant Jesus Sisters in 1933 to serve as a parish school (this school later became St Theresa’s Convent).23

In 1935, Father Lee founded St Teresa’s Sino-English Primary School to provide education for the children living in the vicinity.24 The school was renamed St Teresa's Sino English School when secondary students enrolled in 1965.25 The school later became St Teresa's High School, which closed in 1998.26

During the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), nearby Bukit Teresa became the British military’s anti-aircraft post. Due tothe church’s proximity to Bukit Teresa and the port, it was attacked frequently by the Japanese. Both the church and the buildings in the Catholic settlement sustained heavy damage during the bombings. When the war ended, Father Lee oversaw the task of rebuilding the church from the ravages of war.27

The church celebrated its silver jubilee on 7 April 1954 with a Pontifical Mass led by Bishop Carlo van Melckebeke,  Apostolic Visitor of the Overseas Chinese. In the following decades, the church continued to serve the needs of the growing Catholic community, and celebrated its golden jubilee in 1979. A columbarium, and a social and educational centre called St Teresa’s Centre were established in 1983.28

Renovation and upgrading works were carried out in 2005, and the church received, among other things, a new altar, air-conditioning system and audio-visual equipment. At the same time, the remains of the founding father, Mariette, and the first parish priest, Lee, were interred at the columbarium, below the statue of the Risen Christ.29

Over the years, the church has contributed to Singapore in various ways. In its early years, the church provided the much-needed educational services, and also opened its doors to the homeless. During the Occupation years, the church was a place of refuge for women who sought protection from 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.30

Later, the church sheltered many stranded Caucasians during the 1950 Maria Hertogh riots; gave relief and shelter to the 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 over the years.31

On 11 November 2009, the National Heritage Board gazetted the church building as a national monument in light of its social and historical significance, its importance to the community as well as its architectural merits.32 Today, the church has a congregation of about 3,000 parishioners, and endeavours to serve communities from new housing developments around the area.33


Gillian Lim & Neo Tiong Seng

1. Magdalene S. L. Phang, Monument of Love: The Church of St Teresa (Singapore: Church of St Teresa, 2005), copyright information page, p. 1. (Call no. RSING 282.5957 MON)
2. “Church of St Teresa,” National Heritage Board, accessed 13 November 2016.  
3. Phang, Monument of Love, 7. 81, 88; Frances Yong, “Apostleship of the Sea,” accessed 13 November 2016.  
4. National Heritage Board, “Six New National Monuments and Photography Book Contribute to Preserving Singapore’s Heritage,” press release, 11 November 2009. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 20091118006)
5. Phang, Monument of Love, 5, 7; “Magnificent Founders of Singapore Church,” Catholic News (February 2007).
6. Phang, Monument of Love, 7, 24.
7. Phang, Monument of Love, 8, 9.
8. Phang, Monument of Love, 8, 11; “Church of St Teresa,” The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, accessed 13 November 2016; “New Catholic Church,” Straits Times, 8 April 1929, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Phang, Monument of Love, 17; “New Catholic Church.”
10. “Death of Father Mariette – Fatal Accident,” Straits Times, 14 March 1928, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Phang, Monument of Love, 28; “New Catholic Church.”
12. “New Catholic Church.”
13. Phang, Monument of Love, 11.
14. National Heritage Board, “Church of St Teresa.”
15. Phang, Monument of Love, 14.
16. “Church Dedication,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 8 April 1929, 9; “New Catholic Church,” Straits Times, 20 April 1927, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Phang, Monument of Love, 39.
18. Phang, Monument of Love, 21–22; “Church Dedication.”
19. Phang, Monument of Love, 38–39.
20. Phang, Monument of Love, 38.
21. “Rev. Father S. Lee,” Straits Times, 18 March 1935, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Phang, Monument of Love, 28, 49, 56.
23. Phang, Monument of Love, 56; “Heritage@STC,” CHIJ St. Theresa’s Convent, accessed 13 November 2016.
24. National Heritage Board, “Church of St Teresa.”
25. St. Teresa's High School at Kampong Bahru Road, before 1976, 2009, photograph. (From BookSG)
26. St. Teresa's High School at Kampong Bahru Road, before 1976.
27. Phang, Monument of Love, 58, 60.
28. Phang, Monument of Love, 63, 72, 74.
29. “Church of St. Teresa Completes Renovation,” Catholic News (December 2005). 30. Phang, Monument of Love, 59, 60, 67, 68, 74.
31. Phang, Monument of Love, 62, 71.
32. National Heritage Board, “Six New National Monuments and Photography Book Contribute to Preserving Singapore’s Heritage.”
33. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, “Church of St Teresa.”

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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. 

Catholic Church--Singapore
Religious buildings
National monuments
Church buildings--Singapore