"Our Lady of Lourdes has one more church in her honour, Singapore has one more parish," remarked then Bishop E. Gasnier on the new church.
The parish arose out of a need to minister to Indian migrants, who came to Singapore following Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in 1819, and to labourers who came to work in pepper and gambier plantations. From 1825 to 1860, Singapore was a penal colony for Indian convicts and Indian prison employees and those supplying food, laundry and other services began to settle around the prison. When the jail closed down, these employees and ex-convicts remained in Singapore. Singapore’s population increase resulted in greater need for development work and this raised demand for Indian labourers. There was also as an increase in the arrival of Indian merchants and businessmen.
Those Catholics who did not speak English felt left out at Cathedral of the Good Shepherd where they atttended services and wanted a church of their own. Father P. Paris, who spoke Malay, Tamil and Chinese dialects, founded Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in 1869 when he was placed in charge of the Chinese and Tamil communities in Singapore.
Like the previous situation of Chinese Catholics who were not comfortable worshipping at the cathedral, Indian Catholics in turn felt out of place at the new church.
This discomfort became more pronounced when Father Paris died in 1883 and there was nobody there who spoke Tamil to care for them. Bishop E. Gasnier, meanwhile, was aware of the need to establish a separate parish for the Indian Catholics. Thus, when Father J. Meneuvrier arrived in Singapore in 1883, the task of caring for the Indian community was given to him and he began to study the Tamil language at once. He also began to collect funds to build a new church.
Metallic constructions – like how the Eiffel Tower in Paris was built – were deemed to be stronger and cheaper than bricks and mortar at that time. An architect in Paris was commissioned to draw the plans of an iron structure for the new church. But it ended up costing the church twice as much as an ordinary building of bricks and cement would have because of wrong measurements, expensive shipping costs, material and parts arriving from France in disorder (with some parts missing), the cost of hiring local engineers to assemble its frame and the cost of building walls all around.
Still, in May 1888, Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was completed.
Extensions to the church were added on by Father Meneuvrier and by the priests after him, who continued to minister specially to the migrant Indian Catholic community at the parish.
THIS MISSION to minister to migrant Indian Catholics gave the parish a unique legacy that carries on today. The parish’s mission has since broadened to the ministering of other migrant communities though Tamil migrants continue to make up the majority of parishioners.
"The history of the church started with migrants. When Father Meneuvrier started the church in 1888, funds came from migrants. Well-to-do Indians shunned away from OLL in the past," says parish priest Father Augustine Joseph (photo).
"Yes, today, our locals come and go too. But the overall development of migrants is what is being looked into."
"OLL will always be here for them as far as the government continues to bring in foreign workers," he added.
Changes have been made to the parish to better meet the needs of parishioners. A shed at the back of the church has been transformed into two parlours, a Thrift Shop set up on an empty piece of land in the compound, a Lourdes Souvenir and Gift Shop, and a Lourdes Piety Shop have also been set up.
The canteen, now "Lourdes Café", has a more modern look. A Catechetical Centre, Migrants Spirituality Centre and Lourdes Migrants Skill Centre are set up for English and Computer Literacy classes to integrate migrant parishioners into Singapore.
"We’re providing facilities for people who come to our church," Father Augustine remarks.
Today, Tamil parishioners – some of whom are migrant construction workers – participate in the liturgical celebrations. They are altar servers, wardens, communion ministers, choir members and church cleaners. They also organize many activities including the annual Advent funfair, carolling at Tamil Catholics’ homes, three blood donations a year, visiting St. Theresa’s Home for social service and holding Pongal celebrations.
Weekly Prayer services and praise and worships, and annual retreats are held. Once every three months, a Vigil Prayer is conducted by migrants to pray for all Tamils in Singapore.
"This is the place where they feel most at home," shares Father Augustine. "They have a shared culture here. OLL is also where they can come and formation is given to them. Weekends are the only time they can come so we do what we can to provide spiritual formation." -By Joyce Gan