- Which church was built in an area recorded in history as having tigers that "killed 365 people each year and 366 in a leap year"?

- Where is "Catholic Village" in Singapore?

- What do road names and even an MRT station have to do with the history of the Catholic Church in Singapore?

- When did CatholicNews carry advertisements of beer, cigarettes and women in bathing suits?

- How could Mount Alvernia Hospital be built on the salaries of nuns?

- Where is "The Gate of Hope"?

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The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on Bras Basah Road in 1961. Photo by MEP

The answers to these questions, some which may have crossed your mind but you did not know who to ask (and other captivating ones which you may not have thought about), can be found in Eugene Wijeysingha's "Going forth... The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004" (Photos are from other sources.)

Here, we draw some nuggets from the book on the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, which is celebrating its 160th anniversary.

Milestones

THE CATHOLIC COMMUNITY of Singapore "owes an incalculable debt of gratitude" to Father J. M. Beurel, acknowledged as the founder of the Church here. He also helped to establish the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus along Victoria Street (now CHIJMES), and a boys' school, St. Joseph's Institution (now Singapore Art Museum). Foundation stone laid: Jun 18, 1843 Building blessed and opened: Jun 6, 1847 Building expanded to seat 600, the largest seating capacity in Singapore: 1888 Building consecrated a cathedral: Feb 14, 1897.

(continued on page 2)

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St. Laurent Imbert was the inspiration for the name. Photo by MEP

What has the name got to do with St. Imbert?

THE DEDICATION of the church to the Good Shepherd stems from a note written by St. Laurent Imbert to his fellow missionaries, Fathers Jacques Chastan and Pierre Maubant, asking them to surrender to the authorities to save their flocks from extermination during a period of Christian persecution in Korea. He had written, "In desperate circumstances, the Good Shepherd lays down His Life for His Sheep". They did and the three of them were beheaded on Sep 21, 1839. (They were in the group of 103 Martyrs of Korea canonized by Pope John Paul II in Seoul on May 6, 1984.)

News of this and their martyrdom reached Singapore at a time when Father Beurel and company were considering an appropriate name for the church. Father Rene Nicolas, the current Procurator of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) in Singapore, discovered a little casket with the relics of Father Imbert all but forgotten on the first floor of the sacristy of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd when he was its Vice-Rector.

A proper memorial with the relics was installed on a wall of the Cathedral in the left transept of the building. It was felt that this was only appropriate as it was through Father Imbert that the first Catholic contact was made in Singapore. While on his way from the Penang College General to his mission in China, he visited Singapore in December 1821 and reported to the Apostolic Vicar of Siam that he had found a dozen Catholics here.

 

What "state funeral" was held at the cathedral during the Japanese Occupation?

IT WAS FOR Archbishop Adrien Devals. In 1943, the Japanese authorities decided on the partial evacuation of the civilian population of Singapore. Bishop Devals encouraged the Catholics to accept relocation in Bahau so as to avoid starvation. He went along with them. Their task was to clear an area of dense jungle and establish a self-supporting settlement at Bahau. However, it failed and disease took their toll. On Jan 17, 1945, Bishop Devals died in Seremban after an operation on a gangrenous foot. In Singapore, he had been highly regarded by the Japanese high command, because he had the courage to stand up to them so much so that they consulted him on various issues.

Manoru Shinozaki, a senior officer of the Japanese City Government in Singapore, wrote: "He was a noble and fearless man… He taught us to love our enemies. In spite of the fact that the war was still on, the Bishop's funeral was a very solemn affair… I kissed the corner of his coffin because I had always held him in respect as a God-fearing man." Bishop Devals, he continued, so commanded the respect of the Japanese hierarchy that they arranged for his funeral to be held in Singapore. On Jan 19, 1945, a requiem Mass was held at the cathedral, attended by all the top ranking Japanese officers. It was almost a state funeral.

(continued on page 3)

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The pipe organ is located in the loft of the cathedral.

Who repaired the pipe organ?

THE AGE OF THE CATHEDRAL necessitated periodic repairs and renovations from the beginning of the 20th century. The assistant Rector, Father René Nicolas, had to take on the responsibility. In his notes, Father R. Nicolas recounts an interesting anecdote regarding the organ in the loft. Installed as early as 1912 by Father Charles Nain and neglected over many years, it had become non-functional. Engaging a specialist, who would have had to be flown out of England, would have cost a fortune. As luck would have it, around 1981 a Belgian professional working in Singapore, who attended services at the Cathedral, volunteered to try his hand at repairing the organ.

Informed by the Belgian that his grandfather had been an organ builder and that he had learned some skills from him, Fr. Nicolas accepted his offer. It was, after all, too precious an item to be left idle and consigned to the debris of history. He worked over weekends for two long years and finally restored it to working order. He only mentioned that his personal outlay was twenty five dollars for the cost of the materials he used, after which he disappeared altogether.

Father Nicolas regretted that he did not obtain his name or other particulars about him. Perhaps, it was St. Joseph in disguise, the carpenter foster-father of Jesus, which brings to mind the story of the spiral stairway to the loft at the Loretto Chapel in New Mexico.

(Constructed in the 1870s, no provision was made for a stairway to the loft. A standard one would have taken up too much floor space and reduced the seating capacity, drastically. The Sisters of Loretta prayed to their patron saint, St. Joseph. Out of the blue, a man came along on a donkey with very ordinary tools and constructed a spiral stairway. He then disappeared before any payment could be made. They Sisters were convinced that it was the embodiment of St. Joseph.)

 

What happened to funds raised for the building?

THE BUILDING eventually cost 18,335.22 Spanish dollars to build. Most of the funds was raised by Father Jean Marie Beurel. But his superior, Bishop Jean Paul Courvezy, also played a part, including raising 4,000 francs from Queen Amelia of France and 3,000 Spanish dollars from the archbishop of Manila. Unfortunately, Bishop Courvezy proceeded to invest 3,000 Spanish dollars of the funds with Seth Brothers, a firm of Armenian merchants. This was to prove disastrous. Within days the firm collapsed. The investment went with it and Bishop Courvezy was blamed.

"The loss of the money caused trouble in the Catholic community and the most disagreeable misunderstandings between the Bishop and Father Beurel and the Catholic community and led many to believe that the church would never be built."

 

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