St Joseph's Church (Portuguese Mission)
St Joseph’s Church is located at 143 Victoria Street.1 It was built by the Portuguese Mission in 1853 to serve Portuguese and Eurasian Catholics in Singapore. A church of devotion that practises many Portuguese Catholic traditions, its building was declared a national monument on 14 January 2005.2
On 30 June 1825, Portuguese priest Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia arrived in Singapore and established the Portuguese Mission in the British colony.3 He was given ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Singapore by archbishop of Goa, Manuel de S. Galdino. At the time, there were only a handful of Catholics in Singapore, and he was the only Catholic priest in the colony.4
Maia conducted mass at the Beach Road residence of his friend Jose d’Almeida (Dr), until a 60 ft by 30 ft chapel on Bras Basah Road was blessed and opened on 9 June 1833.5
To cater to the growing Catholic population, Maia then went about building a church on a plot of land between Victoria Street and Queen Street, which he had acquired from Samuel George Bonham, assistant to the then Resident of Singapore.6 Prior to his arrival in Singapore, Maia was a professor at St Joseph’s Seminary in Macao. In addition, the land and houses he bought in Singapore were paid for with funds from the Portuguese Missions in China, whose procuration house was St Joseph’s College in Macau. Maia thus intended to name the church after St Joseph.7
Maia fell sick and died on 17 February 1850. His successor Vincente de Santa Catarina took over the project, and the church was blessed and opened in 1853. As the congregation continued to grow, two wings were added in 1868. However, it eventually became overcrowded as the Catholic population grew.8
On 21 August 1904, the foundation stone for a new church building was laid on the site of the existing church by bishop of Macau, Dom Joao Paolino de Azevedo e Castro, the impetus behind the project. Construction of the new building, however, began only after the old church was demolished in 1906. On 30 June 1912, the completed church was blessed and opened by Castro. The total cost of building the new church was estimated at S$85,000.9
On 1 July 1981, an agreement signed between Gregory Yong, archbishop of Singapore, and Arquiminio Rodrigues da Costa, bishop of Macao, became effective. The agreement entailed the transfer of the parish of St Joseph to the ordinary jurisdiction of the archbishop of Singapore. With this, St Joseph’s Church ceased to be a parish church and became a church of devotion. The entire congregation of 7,000 parishioners was incorporated into the Archdiocese of Singapore.10
To maintain St Joseph’s Church’s Portuguese character, the bishop of Macau had continued to post priests to the church. However, the bishop subsequently decided to stop sending missionaries to the church, and the last link with the Portuguese Mission was severed when rector, Benito de Sousa, ended his term in the church on 31 December 1999.11
Features of the church building
The Gothic-style St Joseph’s Church is in the shape of a Latin cross.12 It is 112 ft long with transepts of 144 ft, and features a 50-foot-wide nave. The height of the interior from the tiled floor to the hardwood roof is 62 ft. The church was built to accommodate up to 1,500 worshippers, based on the design by G. A. Fernandez & Co. The final architecture drawings of the edifice were by D. McLeod Craik, and it was built by Biley, Hargreaves and Co.13
The church’s exterior comprises a central octagonal belfry tower capped with a cupola dome and cross, flanked by two smaller towers. The west end was modelled after a chevet. The gabled ends of the transepts are plain-faced with a large five-light window each. Gracing the church’s portico is a large marble statue of St Joseph, flanked by St John of God and St John de Brito. The walls of the church are lined with Portuguese azulejos (decorated tiles) depicting the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima.14
Inside the building, the nave is uninterrupted by pillars and the transepts are without aisles. The apse resembles the five sides of an incomplete hexagon. There are five marble altars with the main altar dedicated to St Joseph. This altar and another dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes were crafted by the Italian firm of Fratelli Barttarelli of Milan. The altars of Our Lady of Fatima and St Anthony were crafted by the Italian firm of Bertelli. The Fatima statue was created by Portuguese sculptor Avelino Moreira Vinhas.15
Besides the altars, the statues of saints and their depictions on stained glass windows are also prominent elements of the church’s interior. Each stained glass window cost about $1,200. They were crafted by skilled artisans in Italy who took around a month to complete each window. The statues stand in canopied niches round the upper walls of the church and beside the altars. Other features in the church include a carved teak pulpit and canopy with wooden steps at the corner of the northern transept.16
Portuguese religious traditions and devotions
The church practises many Portuguese religious traditions. These include the Holy Week commemoration, re-enactment of the passions and death of Christ on Good Friday, and devotions to Our Lady of Fatima on the 13th day of each month. There are also devotions to St Joseph, St Jude Thaddeus, and the patron saint of Portugal, St Anthony of Lisbon and Padua. Attended by thousands of Catholics, the devotions are celebrated with candlelight processions around the church compound.17
As a church of devotion, St Joseph’s Church does not serve a parish with specific territorial boundaries.18
Over the years, St Joseph’s Church has provided educational services for parishioners’ children via St Anthony’s Convent for girls and St Anthony’s Boys’ School. In addition, the church provides help for the poor through the Society of St Vincent De Paul and St Anthony Bread Fund.19 It also contributed to fund-raising efforts such as the Fire Relief Fund for those affected by the Tiong Bahru fire in 1934.20
In March 1947, the church published its inaugural issue of Rally, a parish magazine that sought to gather parishioners to the Catholic Young Men’s Association, promote the Catholic faith and encourage healthy recreation. The magazine became a mission publication in the following year, and continued serving as an official organ of the Portuguese Mission in Malacca and Singapore until it ceased publication in 1990.21
Gillian Lim & Neo Tiong Seng
1. “Monument Open House 2012,” Preservation of Monuments Board, accessed 8 November 2016.
2. James Newton Boss, An Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore (1825–1999): Founding of St. Joseph’s Church (Singapore: Author, 2009), 118. (Call no. RSING 282.5957 BOS); “St Joseph’s Church,” National Heritage Board, accessed 8 November 2016.
3. National Heritage Board, “St Joseph’s Church.”
4. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, xi, 4.
5. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 10.
6. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 10; G. B. Endacott, A Biographical Sketch-Book of Early Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005), 30. (Call no. R 920.05125 END)
7. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 11.
8. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 12–13, 16, 20–21.
9. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 22–24; National Heritage Board, “St Joseph’s Church.”
10. “St Joseph’s Church,” The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, accessed 11 November 2016.
11. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, xvi.
12. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, “St Joseph’s Church.”
13. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 25, 29–30, 39.
14. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 26, 45–46.
15. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 29, 38, 44.
16. “Catapult Vandals Smash Windows,” Singapore Free Press, 16 July 1960, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 29–30, 39.
17. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 55–57, 67.
18. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 117–18; Ow Chee Kong Dominic, “The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore 1972–2001: An Examination of Its Pragmatic Institutional Development” (master’s thesis, National University of Singapore, 19 August 2014), 17.
19. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 71–73, 74–81.
20. “Fire Relief Fund,” Straits Times, 6 September 1934, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Boss, Account of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore, 108–11.
Alvin Tan, “Making the Invisible Visible: Restoring the Statues of St Joseph’s Church on Victoria Street,” BiblioAsia (Oct–Dec 2021)
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.