Three old Catholic churches have been named in the media as being slated for restoration. They are the Good Shepherd Cathedral, St Joseph’s Church (Portuguese Mission) and recently Sts Peter and Paul.
This is really good news for our Catholic community and generally resonates well in Singapore’s landscape. Old buildings are part of cultural heritage, rich in architectural content and, with the passing of time and history, will eventually have their respective appointments with restoration.
Churches, like other old buildings, are no exception.
In my trips to Rome years ago, I’ve had the privilege of seeing for myself the restoration work carried out at old cathedrals as well as the Sistine Chapel. Scores of sculptors, armed with hammers and chisels, spent laborious hours each day working on old structures on domes, pillars and masonry.
Work on the Sistine Chapel was entirely different. The teams there were involved in restoring the paintings by Michelangelo – priceless treasures. These restorers were truly a rare breed in terms of skill and talent. Each stroke was executed with bull’s eye accuracy. Those paintings never fail to leave the chapel’s visitors gasping in awe!
Collectively, these sculptors and artists are the impresarios of heritage restoration. Their skills, like ancient architects and masons, are truly gifts from the Divine.
Restoration in our churches here need not be as sophisticated as described. To ensure a job well done, certain prerequisites are vital. To name a few: knowledge of raw materials and labour costs, financial literacy, safety, strict supervision, an eagle eye on cost and expenditure, sense of history, good colour scheme, energy savings acumen, and keeping in mind the environment at all times.
Avoid becoming victims of con and deceit by contractors whose only motive is making money and more money. Do not forget that greed knows no limits.
Keep in mind the following red alerts:
Preserve all old church pews. Many of these come with carvings at both ends and have been around for hundreds of years. Have them revarnished. Modern pews today, like other current wooden products, are of inferior quality and do not last very long.
Preserve all other wooden structures. Confessional cubicles, doors, windows, wooden panels and staircases are some examples.
Do not tear down old pillars. Keep them. They are supreme structures and are indispensable icons in ancient architecture. They also complement the spiral staircase/s from which the priest delivers his sermon.
Preserve existing floor tiles. Most of these are mosaic or old ceramics with varying designs that carry memories of history and are no longer made the way they used to be. An acid wash or chemical cleaning will do.
Railings. If there are existing railings separating the congregation from the altar, please do not remove them. The wooden panel on top of these railings is too precious to be discarded.
Provide for elderly parishioners including those on wheelchairs. Ramps and maybe even lifts may be necessary. Include wheelchair-friendly toilets as well. The kindness shown by the various building committees will be felt by all.
Let me now share what has happened to a one-time masterpiece that is now no more. I am referring to St Joseph Church (Bukit Timah).
Rebuilt in the 1960s with a 2,000 capacity, it was widely touted as the largest church in Malaysia and Singapore. It is now over 150 years old.
Designed with high vaulted ceilings and port holes on all sides of the building, this enabled fresh air from all sides to pass through at all times, even when the church was locked.
Pews were of top quality as wood was in abundance then. The entire floor area was all made of terrazzo tiles which cannot be found today.
However, the church has undergone a massive renovation recently. All the pews and terrazzo tiles have been discarded. On top of these, aircon is now available. This is not a compliment.