The major redevelopment of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is at its midway stage. The 167-year-old building has been undergoing renovation and reconstruction works since last November and is expected to be completed by January 2016.
The $40 million project covers three buildings: preservation of the cathedral, conservation of the rectory and reconstruction of a new annex block.
There is a fine line between preservation and conservation, but the authority’s guidelines are quite clear.
“Generally, the difference between the two is that very little modification is allowed in a preservation project while internal modification can be done in conservation work as long as it maintains the overall character of the building architecture,” explains Mr Leong Tatt Man, the architect and project manager for the cathedral’s redevelopment. Mr Leong works with 82 sub-contractors and suppliers.
The works being carried out on the cathedral building include structural restoration, like underpinning of walls and strengthening of the roof structure; air-conditioning; and the construction of a functional basement hall. The biggest challenge was to establish the correct construction method for underpinning works because of the inconsistent condition of some parts of the walls.
At the adjacent rectory (rector’s residence), underpinning work and reconfiguration of office and residential rooms are being carried out. Much of the work involves the repair of cracks.
The third structure – the Annex Block – will be completely new, with the demolition of the original building and construction of a contemporary three-storey block. To build, engineers had to establish a suitable substructure system due to the soft ground condition and its proximity to a reserved MRT line.
The three floors offer a gross floor area of 1,042.36 sq m and will house a Catholic Heritage Centre, a large prayer hall and several smaller prayer rooms.
But the centrepiece will still be the venerable cathedral, the icon of the diocese and the Archbishop’s church. When completed, the interior will have a new flooring, audio visual system, colour scheme and lighting. Worshippers can also look forward to sitting on brand new pews and praying in air-conditioned comfort.
One worshipper who is looking forward to it is 67-year-old Don Kingsley, whose family has been attending Masses at the cathedral for more than 30 years. “My wish is that once the old dame gets her much deserved, much needed grand makeover, it will cement her place as the Mother Church of the Catholic community here in every way,” said the retired banker.
Another cathedral regular, Mr Kenneth Ho, added, “I would like the restored cathedral to be a hub for the practice of our Catholic faith, an oasis in our thriving city where locals and visitors alike may feel the presence of God, be touched by His grace and love, and awed by His majesty and glory.”
Majestic and glorious would also describe the renovated building. But it will not be bigger. Due to preservation policies, the seating capacity could not be increased and is capped at 784, one less than the old capacity.
The only extension is the creation of a multipurpose hall in the cathedral’s basement, which will be used for smaller Masses. The floor area is about a quarter of the cathedral’s.
This basement – not located directly beneath the cathedral building but beside it – will be the only modish chamber amidst the matriarchal ambience of the Mother Church.
Everything else about the cathedral will be vintage and authentic, including the 102-year-old pipe organ, purchased from Bevington & Son, London, at the cost of 550 sterling pounds in 1912.
The antiquated organ, which broke down for a period in the 1970s, was delicately restored in 1983 by local pipe organ builder Robert Navaratnam.
Said the cathedral organist who has served under three rectors: “Over the years, windchests and pipes were added to bring out more volume and tonal variations.” When the cathedral reopens, the pipe organ will resume its pride of place and accompany the choir and congregation in their favourite hymns.
If this is music to the ears of romantics, the realists will be equally delighted to know that a Catholic Heritage Centre will be housed at the new Annex Block, complete with facts and artefacts of the early Catholic Church in Singapore.
“The purpose of the heritage centre is to bridge the past, present and future, so that current and future generations of Catholics can appreciate how the local Church began,” said Fr Adrian Anthony, who is tasked with overseeing the entire redevelopment project.
“We must remember how hard the early missionary Fathers and Religious Brothers and Sisters worked to lay the foundation of what we have around us today. It didn’t just happened overnight, you know?” enthused the 71-year-old priest who has personally experienced the humble beginnings of the early Church in the 1940s. “If we don’t know our past, then we might not have a future,” he cautioned.
Interestingly, history was prematurely brought to the fore last year when groundbreaking and digging at the cathedral site uncovered old rosaries and religious artefacts that were buried over the years.
While they tell little tales of past conventions, it was the architectural feature of the time that stood out. Preliminary archeology reports based on stylistic typology of the bricks suggest that they may date back to the 1825-1875 era, and may be the remains from a former convict prison.
Indeed, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church is a treasure trove of stories, made all the more enchanting when they are related by devoted servants who have walked its aisles and served faithfully under its imposing roof and steeple over the years.
Recalled Fr Robert Balhetchet, one of the longest serving modern-day rectors of the cathedral: “In every big city, the cathedral is always a focal point of sorts, especially for travellers who would normally not know of any other local church. Mention the cathedral and the taxi driver would know how to take you there.”
In his 30-year association with the cathedral – 22 as rector – he has assisted many tourists and migrants in their motley array of needs, from lost passports to seeking employment opportunities.
The experience resonates with Fr Anthony, who served as its rector until last year, and similarly, for Fr Eugene Vaz before him. “Ultimately, the cathedral must exist for the poor, the lost and the broken... from anywhere,” said Fr Anthony passionately.
Indeed, besides its stature as the prime church of a city, cathedrals around the world have a non-parochial, all-embracing cosmopolitan composition that welcomes people from any land.
Which is why it is uncannily significant that when it is completed, about 100 workers from various countries in the region would have spent 50,000 man-days in all-weather conditions helping to build Singapore’s Catholic Mother Church.
Some day, their brothers and sisters will pass this way and stop by the cathedral, feel a tingling, familiar bond... and know quietly that they belong.
Read more : $10 m still needed for S’pore’s Mother Church
Read more : $10 m still needed for S’pore’s Mother Church