The Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator is located at 60 Hill Street.1 Completed by March 1836,2 the Armenian Church is the oldest surviving church building in Singapore.3 It was designed and built by colonial architect G. D. Coleman in 1835,4 with funding from the small but wealthy Armenian community.5 The Armenian Church has been described as “one of the most ornate and best finished pieces of architecture” in early Singapore.6 The building was gazetted as a national monument on 28 June 1973.7
The Armenian community in Singapore, which hardly numbered more than 100 at any given point,8 started holding religious services from the early 1820s.9 Reverend Ingergolie Eleazar was the first Armenian priest in Singapore.10 The Armenians were the first of the Christian communities to erect a permanent, brick-and-mortar place of worship in Singapore.11 With the arrival of the first resident priest, Reverend Gregory ter Johannes in July 1827, a temporary chapel was set up.12 The first service was held in a room behind John Little & Co.;13 by September, this makeshift arrangement had moved to a small rented room at Merchant Square.14
In 1827, the Armenians collected subscriptions to build a church for themselves. An appeal for land to build a church was made by 1833,15 and the sandy site at the foot of Fort Canning Hill was approved as an ideal site in 1834.16 Built at a cost of $5,058.30 Spanish dollars,17 most of the funds came from just 12 Armenian families,18 an indication of the community’s wealth then.19
The foundation stone was blessed by the Supreme Archimandrite, Reverend Thomas Gregorian, on 1 January 1835.20 Two Christian chapels buildings had been in existence by this time: one built by the London Missionary Society in 1824 and the other by the Roman Catholics in 1833.21 On 26 March 1836, the church was consecrated by Reverend Johannes Catchick in a three-and-a-half hour ceremony. It was dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator, the first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.22
In 1909, the church became one of the first buildings in Singapore to have electric lights and fans installed.23
During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), looters stripped the church of several invaluable items including a large embossed Bible, the priest’s vestments as well as hymn and prayer books printed in the mid-19th century.24 The Japanese also used the grounds as air-raid shelters. After the war, few Armenians remained and services were conducted only once a year by Father Aramais Mirzaian, who was not based in Singapore.25
Since the end of World War II, the church has not had a resident priest to conduct mass on a regular basis.26
Today, Armenian services are held only during significant events or when an Armenian priest is visiting – for example, in 1986, the 150th anniversary of the church.27 However, the church building is popular with other Christian groups who use it for quiet worship.28
In 1994, architectural firm Quek Associates led a project to restore the church.29 The works included waterproofing the roof, replacing the electrical system and lightning conductor, repairing cracks, replacing termite-infested windows, replastering parts of the building, treating the walls to prevent dampness, and repainting the building.30 The restoration was completed in time for a rare service conducted by the visiting Bishop Oshagan Choloyan to celebrate the Armenian Orthodox Christmas.31 The restoration project won an award for excellence in the building’s conservation at the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s inaugural Architectural Heritage Awards.32
In 2015, there were plans to set up an Armenian heritage museum in the two-storey house, formerly a parsonage, located within the church compound.33
The Armenian Church takes the form of an old Armenian cross.34 Considered Coleman’s masterpiece, it cleverly combines the symmetry of Palladian architecture with the practical details of Eastern architecture such as louvres and wide verandahs. Its original design is considered a close resemblance to the mother church of St Gregory in Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin) in northern Armenia.35 The architecture incorporated many distinctive features of traditional Armenian churches, notably the vaulted ceiling and the cupola, while the porticos helped the congregation withstand Singapore’s tropical climate.36
Complying with tradition, the chapel faces east but this meant that its entrance faced away from the main road.37 Although circular on the inside, the main building of the church is mounted on a square plan with porticos projecting out on all four sides to form a cruciform pattern. The circular vaulted ceiling is typical of Armenian churches.38 One of the building’s outstanding features, the porticos are held up by Roman Doric columns and pilasters.39 They were originally used to shelter the gharries of the well-to-do, but were later converted for pedestrian use with steps added to them.40
In 1847, the octagonal cone supporting a bell turret was replaced after the original dome was deemed unsafe.41 The turret and steeple were again replaced in 1853 with today’s pitched roof and spire,42 built by English architect George Maddock.43 Maddock’s spire is often criticised for hiding the church’s true Armenian features, but the church’s distinctive circular shape is still evident from the interior.44
Reflecting its original domed roof, the interior is a complete circle of 36 ft (about 11 m) in diameter with a semi-circular chancel 18 ft (5.5 m) wide on the east. A painting of the Last Supper can be found by the altar, while draped beside it are heavy curtains that are drawn during parts of the rites for Holy Communion.45 Despite its small size, the church has two vestries and two side rooms for staircases. The bell was cast by George Mears and Co. in 1861, but was likely hung only from 1883.46
The original parsonage, where the priest resided, was built on the northeastern side of the garden.47 However, this was demolished and a new parsonage built in 1905,48 designed by Tomlinson & Lermit and funded by Nanajan Sarkies in memory of her husband, John Shanazar Sarkies.49
The church’s Memorial Garden holds the tombstones, but not the actual graves, of well-known Armenians.50 They include Agnes Joaquim, who bred the hybrid orchid that bears her name,51 as well as Catchick Moses, co-founder of the The Straits Times newspaper.52
Bonny Tan & Joanna HS Tan
1. “Directory,” Armenian Church Singapore, accessed 21 March 2017.
2. “Consecration of the Armenian Church,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 31 March 1836, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
3. T. H. H. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1986), 72, 75. (Call no. RSING 720.924 COL.H); Yap Su-Yin, “Armenian Church Here Marks 170 Years,” Straits Times, 15 November 2005, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Lydia Aroozoo, “Shutters Up at This church,” Singapore Free Press, 15 October 1960, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Gretchen Mahbubani, “Return of … the Armenians,” Straits Times, 5 September 1981, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Nadia H. Wright, Respected Citizens: The History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia (Middlepark: Amassia Publishing, 2003), 85, 83. (Call no. RSING 305.891992 WRI)
6. “Armenian Church,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835—1869), 17 March 1836, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Preservation of Monuments Order 1973, Sp. S 228/1973, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 1973, 377 (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SGGSLS); National Heritage Board, “Preservation of Monuments Board Merges with the National Heritage Board,” press release, 8 July 2009. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 20090715004)
8. Wright, Respected Citizens, 44; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 355–360. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
9. Wright, Respected Citizens, 83.
10. “The Armenian Church,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 19 December 1887, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1996), 159. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
12. Wright, Respected Citizens, 83.
13. “The Armenian Church.”
14. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore: 1819–1867 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 283. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
15. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 283.
16. Lee Geok Boi, The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2002), 40. (Call no. RSING 726.095957 LEE)
17. Wright, Respected Citizens, 85; Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 74. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS]); Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 70.
18. Jane Beamish and Jane Ferguson, A History of Singapore Architecture: The Making of a City (Singapore: G. Brash, 1985), 39. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 BEA)
19. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 40.
20. Wright, Respected Citizens, 85.
21. Bobby E. K. Sng, In His Good Time: The Story of the Church in Singapore, 1819–2002 (Singapore: Bible Society of Singapore, 2003), 25, 33. (Call no. RSING 280.4095957 SNG)
22. “Consecration of the Armenian Church.”
23. Geraldine Kan, “Singapore’s Oldest Church Is New Again,” Straits Times, 25 December 1994, 17. (From NewspaperSG); Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 76; Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Armenian Church of St Gregory Preservation Guidelines, vol. 1 (Singapore: The Board, 1992), 5. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 ARM)
24. Wright, Respected Citizens, 87.
25. Wright, Respected Citizens, 87, 89.
26. Mahbubani, “Return of … the Armenians.”
27. Wright, Respected Citizens, 89–90.
28. “No Resident Priest since End of World War Two,” Straits Times, 30 December 1978, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Wright, Respected Citizens, 87–88.
30. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Recognising Quality Restoration, 1994–1998 (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1998), 28. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 REC)
31. Geraldine Kan, “Surprise for Armenian Bishop,” Straits Times, 25 December 1984, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “URA Qwards Recognise Contractors, Engineers,” Straits Times, 6 July 1995, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Plans Afoot for Armenian Museum Here; 110-Year Old Building May House Maps, Religious Relics,” Straits Times, 17 September 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
34. “New Life for Oldest Church,” Straits Times, 16 November 1947, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 70.
36. Wright, Respected Citizens, 86.
37. Wright, Respected Citizens, 86.
38. Yap, “Armenian Church Here Marks 170 Years.”
39. Hancock, Coleman's Singapore, 70.
40. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 160.
41. S. Pugalenthi, Singapore Landmarks: Monuments, Memorials, Statues & Historic Sites (Singapore: VJ Times International, 1999), 16. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PUB-[HIS]; Christopher Hooi, National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: National Museum, 1982), 3. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 HOO)
42. Hooi, National Monuments of Singapore, 3; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 283.
43. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 74; Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 366. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
44. Wright, Respected Citizens, 86.
45. “Consecration of the Armenian Church.”
46. Wright, Respected Citizens, 86.
47. Wright, Respected Citizens, 91.
48. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 40.
49. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 160.
50. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 41.
51. Yap, “Armenian Church Here Marks 170 Years.”
52. “Co-Founder Was he Straits Times’ First Editor,” Straits Times, 22 January 2011, 12; “Armenians Settled Here in 1820,” (1997, June 14). Straits Times, 14 June 1997, 11. (From NewspaperSG); Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 42–43.
Cheong Suk-Wai, (2015, September 17). “The Kardashian Connection,” Straits Times, 17 September 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
Gretchen Liu, Pastel Portraits: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage (Singapore: Singapore Coordinating Committee, 1984), 129–131. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 PAS)
M. Ong, “The Cross & The Steeple,” in Places and Faces (Singapore: Mediacorp TV, 2003), videodisc. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PLA-[HIS])
The information in this article is valid as at 2017 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.