“A discovery like this makes us feel connected to the past. It also inspires us to hang on to the faith and preserve the history of the Church,” said Vicar General Msgr Philip Heng, rector of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.
He was referring to the discovery of a 173-year-old time capsule found under one of the cathedral’s columns earlier this year during the ongoing restoration project.
The 18th and 19th-century artefacts in the time capsule include British, French and Spanish coins, a copy of The Singapore Free Press, the Straits Messenger, the Bengal Catholic Herald and the Madras Catholic Expositor. Of significance is the inclusion of the service booklet used during the laying of the cornerstone on June 18, 1843.
The time capsule was placed beneath this cornerstone on this date and discovered only on Jan 29 this year.
The pediment facing Victoria St had collapsed on Sept 3 last year, and the cathedral’s heritage consultant was asked to choose one of the columns that held the pediment to be reused for the newly planned landscape. The time capsule was found under the last column nearest to Bras Basah Road where the first cornerstone of the building was laid.
In total, 24 coins and five publications were found.
“This is very exciting because it captures the history of the Church in Singapore in a very concrete way. We have artefacts to show hard facts about the Church’s history,” Msgr Heng told CatholicNews.
Mr Jevon Liew, a volunteer at the Cathedral for about 13 years, said he viewed the discovery “as a way to connect back to our past and acknowledge the hardships our Catholic forefathers faced”.
“They faced a lot of problems trying to get firstly the land and the funds. At that time there was only a wood-and-attap chapel which they used,” he said. “Today we have about 30 parishes, all very lively and I’m sure if our forefathers could look at us, they would be really pleased with what we have achieved.”
According to a report in an 1843 edition of The Singapore Free Press available online, Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) Bishop Jean-Paul-Hilaire-Michel Courvezy presided over the cornerstone-laying ceremony.
Among those present were MEP Fr Jean-Marie Beurel and John Connolly, a merchant who offered great financial support to the building of the church.
As to why newspapers and coins were chosen to be in the time capsule, Mr Liew said, “It’s quite traditional in the laying of a cornerstone to put in newspapers and coins that are in circulation during the day. In a way it dates the event.”
He added, “What is interesting is that there are so many types of coins, not only East India Company coins but trade tokens used by local merchants bearing inscriptions in Jawi. There was also a Vietnamese coin. It shows the international outlook that our forefathers had.”
Currently, the cornerstone embedded in the bottom of the old column sits at the now vacated St Francis Xavier Major Seminary in Punggol.
Msgr Heng said he hopes to have the stone removed from the column and placed in the new heritage gallery of the Cathedral when the restoration is complete, together with the time capsule items.
The proposed date for the dedication of the Cathedral is Feb 14 next year.
Also in the works is the laying of a commemoration stone. Msgr Heng shared that he intends to put current newspapers, coins, Singapore dollar notes and perhaps “some of the old coins discovered in the original time capsule” into a brick-sized metal box which will be encased into the new column where the old one stood.
“In future years to come, maybe 200 years down the road, hopefully the discovery will be treasured by a new generation,” said Msgr Heng.