Meeting the Lord at the Tent of Lourdes.

Michelle Tan

The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes’ 133rd anniversary took place amidst a riot of colour with red swathes of cloth, vases of cherry blossoms and Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling of the Tent of Lourdes, a temporary pavilion set up to shelter Mass-goers during the 12-18 months that the main church will be undergoing repair and refurbishment works.

Although the actual feast day was on Feb 11, Fr Mike, as he is fondly called by parishioners, decided to hold the festivities earlier so that the faithful could celebrate the eve of Lunar New Year with their families.

Albeit toned-down this year because of Phase 3 safety measures, celebrations began with a feast day Triduum from Feb 3-5 with Masses presided by parish priest Father Michael Sitaram and assistant parish priest Fr Paul Yeo for the English Masses, and Fr Nithiya Sagayaraj for the Tamil Masses. These and the feast day Masses on the weekend of Feb 6-7 were all livestreamed on YouTube for the benefit of the faithful who were unable to attend.

The highlight of the celebrations was the crowning of the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Volunteer Mary Rajadurai echoed the sentiments of many faithful when she shared, “The presence of Our Queen of Heaven was palpable, even in our humble surroundings.”

Fr Nithiya, who is from India, but has been serving in the Archdiocese for five years, pointed out that “Many people have an affiliation with Our Lady. Our parishioners come from all races and walks of life – we even have Hindus coming to pray for her intercession. Our blessed Mother is very much loved by all who know her.”

More migrant workers used to attend Mass, but with the onset of Covid-19 and the Circuit Breaker, many had to return home. For those who stayed, the church arranged for gifts and goodie bags sponsored by parishioners to be distributed to the workers in the dormitories. Now with Phase 3 in place, Mass attendance is rising again, notwithstanding the temperature-taking, hygiene and safe-distancing measures and Mass booking restrictions. Church worker Alex Joseph Pillai thanked God that “the parishioners are very obliging and they strictly follow the rules with no fuss or complaint.”

Fr Mike explained that, as the tented area could only allow a maximum of 60 attendees each Mass, “We now have six Masses in English and two Masses in Tamil every weekend, with daily weekday lunchtime Masses in English and evening Masses in Tamil,” he said. “On Ash Wednesday, we had six Masses, three in English and three in Tamil. We plan to air-condition the Tent of Lourdes soon, to make it more comfortable for parishioners to hear the Word of God, to receive Christ in the flesh and to continue the mission and the legacy of our church.”


Frs Michael Olçomendy and Arokianathan with parishioners in 1938-40. Photos: Fr Rene Nicolas, MEP

In this Catholic200SG year, we look back upon how OLOL sowed the seeds of faith in Singapore.

Roots

From 1825 to 1860, Singapore functioned as a penal colony for Indians. With the prison being located around Bras Basah Road, mainly Indian prison employees and service providers lived in the area. As Singapore’s population increased, more Indian workers were needed for public works development. So, when the Bras Basah Prison closed down, its former employees and suppliers who chose to stay on in Singapore turned to being cattle farmers and milk suppliers instead, living and working in the Serangoon area.

Tamil-speaking Catholics initially attended Mass at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, and later,at the Church of Sts Peter and Paul (SPP) after it was built. However, after Father Pierre Paris, parish priest of SPP and a fluent Tamil-speaking Frenchman, died, the Tamil-speaking community began to feel left out.

Upon Bishop Edouard Gasnier’s instructions, Fr Joachim Alexander Marie Meneuvrier, the first missionary sent to Singapore to be exclusively in charge of the spiritual welfare of the colony’s Catholic Indians, was tasked to build a church for his flock. After two unsuccessful applications, he eventually obtained a piece of land located at the bend of the Rochor River, which had become a muddy swamp after the river had been straightened out into a canal. Many months and hundreds of bullock carts of earth and demolition material were needed to carry out the extensive land-fill required to level up the ground. The foundation stone was blessed by Bishop Gasnier on Aug 1, 1886.

Situated on Ophir Road, OLOL was completed and blessed on May 13, 1888 to commemorate the apparition of the Virgin Mary to St Bernadette in Lourdes, France. It was modelled after the Basilica at Lourdes with distinctive Gothic architectural features like pointed arches, buttresses and spires.

Pastoral reach

In a letter expressing his joy dated May 24, 1888, Bishop Gasnier wrote, “Seeing the attendance made up of people from all races and nations, I couldn’t help emphasising the catholicity of the Church. Everyone, Catholics, Protestants and non-Christians had contributed to the building of this sanctuary to Mary. The Catholic Mission and the Indians have also given their share. All were happy to contemplate the reproduction of the Massabielle shrine…”.

OLOL looked after not only the spiritual needs of Singapore’s Catholic Tamil migrants living in Serangoon Road and Farrer Park areas, but also ministered to the spiritual welfare of the wider Indian community including Catholic Indians in South Johor, Malaya.

Singapore’s city areas were heavily bombed during World War II in 1942 and two bombs fell within OLOL premises. They damaged the parish school and the presbytery to the left and right of the church respectively, but the main church building itself remained intact. Under the Japanese Occupation (1942 -1945) however, the church was used as the Japanese Army’s headquarters.

In 1974, under the direction of the Roman Catholic Church authorities in Singapore, OLOL expanded its focus from ministering to the Catholic Indian community to ministering to all Catholics in Singapore, especially those living in the areas surrounding Ophir Road. This was a significant change because parishes used to be determined by ethnic or language groups rather than geographical territory.

The church was last renovated in 1987. It has a grotto with statues depicting Our Lady’s appearance to St Bernadette and stained-glass windows depicting the 15 mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary. OLOL was gazetted as a national monument on Jan 14, 2005.

Reproduced with kind permission from https://history.catholic.sg/

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