Priests of the parish and members of the parish pastoral council making a toast during the anniversary dinner on Sept 9.Priests of the parish and members of the parish pastoral council making a toast during the anniversary dinner on Sept 9.The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary marked its 160th anniversary with an outdoor Mass, procession and consecration to Our Lady on Sept 9.

Look to Mary as an example of how Catholics can “live our vocation as disciples of the Lord”, Archbishop Nicholas Chia said during the Mass. He urged the 1,200-strong crowd to remember what she said at the wedding in Cana, “Do whatever He tells you.”

He also encouraged them to “enlighten people with the Gospel of love”, and thanked God for Mary’s inspiration and guidance to priests, Religious and laity in building up the historic church.

Archbishop Chia also reminded those present about the upcoming Year of Faith and encouraged them to focus on the new evangelisation.

The evening’s celebration marked the climax of anniversary celebrations. These included a community golf event in February, a Family Fun Walk in May, a Marriage Blessing Mass in July and a feast day carnival on Sept 2.

A range of souvenirs was also released such as a commemorative coin, rosary and book, and a model of the church.

The parish will continue to mark its 160th anniversary with a two-day seminar and a parish assembly and retreat later in the year.

Parishioners told CatholicNews of their emotional ties to the church.

“I feel proud to be in a church with so much history,” said Ms Amanda Soh, 23, a Teochew whose grandparents were also parishioners.

Ms Soh, who admires the church architecture, said she remembered playing in the church field in her childhood as well as the youth camps of her teenage years, which fostered lasting friendships.

Mrs Teresa Tan, 87, who was married in the church and whose children were baptised there, told CatholicNews that she appreciates the friendliness of parishioners.

At one time, men and women sat on different sides of the church, she recalled.

Mr Charles Teo, 60, said he is very attached to the church and even when he moved away from the area, he would still visit the church.

History

The present church serves about 1,600 families or about 5,400 parishioners. It traces its origins to Fr Ambrose Maistre, a Paris Foreign Missions priest, who built a church in the area after he arrived in 1852, after procuring a 40-acre (162,000 sq km) piece of land from the British East India Company.

According to the parish’s 160th anniversary book, the church was initially an attap chapel named Church of St Mary, which was later replaced by a brick building. Fr Maistre also built a small presbytery and a school.

Fr Maistre reached out to the Teochew-speaking community in the area, some of whom had already converted to Catholicism back in China. The church saw its first baptisms of converts on Christmas 1853. Today, a Teochew Sunset Mass is held at 4 pm weekly. About 500 people attend.

The first stone for the current church was laid in August 1898. Then parish priest Fr Casimir Jean Saleilles wanted a new building to cater to the growing church population. Another priest, Fr Charles Nain, designed the building in a Neo Gothic style.

With support from parishioners, the building was completed. It was blessed in December 1901.

By 1933, under Fr Edouard Becheras, the church building was extended to include side transepts, the sanctuary and sacristy, which doubled the size of the building. Parishioners donated three large bells that were installed in the belfry during the expansion.

Statues of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus were also placed in the prayer chapels within the church.

The building was gazetted as a national monument in 2005.

The parish has produced 51 Religious and 27 priests, including Archbishop Nicholas Chia. Its former parish priest, Fr Francis Chan (1946-1955), later became the Bishop of Penang.

By Darren Boon
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