Heritage Gem

174-year-old Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church keeps up with the times

The grey terrazzo tiles in the ground-floor sanctuary are a deviation from the Romanesque-style architectectural features in other parts of the building. Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, known as Gereja Keasberry (Keasberry's church) and the Malay
Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, known as Gereja Keasberry (Keasberry's church) and the Malay Chapel when it was established in 1843, has gone through three name changes and several shifts in its congregation.PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG
The grey terrazzo tiles in the ground-floor sanctuary are a deviation from the Romanesque-style architectectural features in other parts of the building. Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, known as Gereja Keasberry (Keasberry's church) and the Malay
The sanctuary on the ground floor of the church features elements of Romanesque architecture such as a high ceiling and thick walls with raised brickwork.PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG
The function of the original stones at the doors of the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church was to prevent horse carriages from damaging the doors.
The function of the original stones at the doors of the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church was to prevent horse carriages from damaging the doors.
The sanctuary on the ground floor of the church features elements of Romanesque architecture such as a high ceiling and thick walls with raised brickwork.
The grey terrazzo tiles in the ground-floor sanctuary are a deviation from the Romanesque-style architectectural features in other parts of the building.

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the latest in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

When the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church was first established in 1843, locals knew it as Gereja Keasberry (Keasberry's church).

It was named after Reverend Benjamin Peach Keasberry, a member of the London Missionary Society, who built the church in an area known as Kampong Bencoolen, which today covers Bencoolen Street and Albert Street.

The church was also known as the Malay Chapel, and some sermons were conducted in Malay. While its inaugural service was attended by more than 60 Malays and Straits Chinese, most of the Malay congregants had left the church by the mid-1800s.

Dr Lee Soo Ann, senior fellow at the National University of Singapore's Department of Economics and a preaching elder at the church, said: "The British became the protector of the Muslim faith when the Straits Settlements became a British protectorate in 1867. If the Malays converted to Christianity, they couldn't identify as being of the Malay race."

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After Reverend Keasberry died of a heart attack while preaching at the chapel in 1875, the church was taken over by Reverend J.A.B. Cook in 1886. As most of its congregation was then Straits Chinese, it was renamed the Straits Chinese Church.

But the Malay sermons continued for the Straits Chinese, who spoke the language, until the 1950s.

Notable early worshippers included Song Hoot Kiam and his son Song Ong Siang, who was the first Malayan Chinese to be knighted by the British Empire in 1936. Sir Song helped to compile a Malay hymn book, Puji-pujian, that was used by the church.

  • Transformation over the years

  • 1843: Reverend Benjamin Peach Keasberry builds the Malay Chapel in Kampong Bencoolen, using funds from local businessmen. It is informally known as Gereja Keasberry (Keasberry's church). 

    1886: Reverend J.A.B. Cook purchases the pro- perty for the English Presbyterian Mission, and the church is renamed the Straits Chinese Church. Teochews from a separate church, the Tekka Church, begin worshipping at the chapel. A house for the Tekka Church's preacher is built on the church grounds. 

    1904: A two-storey building is added to the church grounds. The upper floor houses the Widows' and Orphans' Home and the lower floor is used by the Chinese Christian Association. 

    1930: The original chapel is demolished.

    1931: The new church building, which costs $55,000 to construct, is completed. The church is renamed the Straits Chinese Presbyterian Church after it joins the Synod of the English Presbytery. 

    1947: The Tekka Church moves to new premises at 142, Prinsep Street. Its preacher's house is replaced by a two-storey Institute Hall for the activities of the Boys' Brigade, Sunday school and Girls' Brigade. 

    1955: The Straits Chinese Presbyterian Church is renamed Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church by referendum. 

    1959: The Institute Hall is replaced by a three- storey building with a manse and social hall.

    1989: The manse and social hall are rebuilt into a four-storey building with a multi-purpose hall, library, office and kitchen. 

    1996: The sanctuary receives air-conditioning and is expanded into the veranda. Glass panels constructed between the pillars act as walls.

The current sanctuary, designed by architect CJ Stephens from Swan & Maclaren, features deep-red bricks and raised brickwork on its tower and belfry. It was completed only in 1931, almost a century after the church was first established.

Before it was demolished in 1930, the original church was a one-storey brick building with verandas on either side and tall windows that could be tilted for ventilation. The current church was gazetted a national monument in 2000.

Besides the Straits Chinese, Teochew Christians also held services in the chapel until they moved to what is today the premises of the Singapore Life Church in Prinsep Street in 1947.

While students from the nearby Chinese Girls' School - established in 1842 - worshipped at the church in the 19th century, most of the early Straits Chinese worshippers were men. "No women dared to go to church because they had to travel around in carriages," said Dr Lee.

By the early 20th century, the area around the church had become a densely populated residential area with many young people, leading Scotsman James Milner Fraser to start the 1st Singapore Company of the Boys' Brigade in the church in 1930.

The formation of the Boys' Brigade led to a large number of young people joining the church. The 7th Girls' Brigade Company was formed in the church in 1950, drawing girls from schools such as Singapore Chinese Girls' School and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) in Victoria Street.

Gradually, the church began to consist mostly of worshippers from different Chinese groups, and was renamed Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church in 1955.

Assimilation of the Straits Chinese into other Chinese groups led to Malay services being discontinued in the 1950s, according to Dr Lee. Many descendants of the original Straits Chinese worshippers continue to worship there, with some women clad in sarong kebaya.

Reverend Peter Chan began worshipping at the church when he was 17 years old. Now 54, he recalls Sunday afternoons playing games in the courtyard with friends from the youth fellowship.

"It was like a second home to us," he reminisced. "Even at exam time, we would all study in the church."

It was the activities held by the Boys' Brigade and Girls' Brigade that brought many of these newer worshippers to church, where some eventually found life partners.

Today, the church also holds services for Filipino and Myanmar worshippers, and is one of the few churches in Singapore to hold services in the Mizo language.

The Mizo are an ethnic group of several peoples native to north-eastern India, western Myanmar and eastern Bangladesh. Currently between 30 and 40 Mizo, mostly foreign domestic workers, worship in a room on the first floor of the church.

"The church will continue to evolve," said Reverend Chan. "We will have to re-think and re-define: who is our community?"

Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2017, with the headline '174-year-old church keeps up with the times'. Print Edition | Subscribe