Heritage Gem

A refuge where all are welcome

The cathedral in the 1910s. Constructed between 1843 and 1847, it is Singapore's oldest Catholic place of worship. It was gazetted as a national monument in 1973. Doing God's work are (from left) volunteer Alexander Charles Louis; Father Adrian Antho
Doing God's work are (from left) volunteer Alexander Charles Louis; Father Adrian Anthony; Monsignor Philip Heng, current rector of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd; and Monsignor Francis Lau, assistant rector.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
The main hall of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd has a sombre yet peaceful atmosphere, offering members of the public a place to say a quiet prayer.
The main hall of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd has a sombre yet peaceful atmosphere, offering members of the public a place to say a quiet prayer.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
The cathedral in the 1910s. Constructed between 1843 and 1847, it is Singapore's oldest Catholic place of worship. It was gazetted as a national monument in 1973. Doing God's work are (from left) volunteer Alexander Charles Louis; Father Adrian Antho
The cathedral in the 1910s. Constructed between 1843 and 1847, it is Singapore's oldest Catholic place of worship. It was gazetted as a national monument in 1973. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE CATHEDRAL OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD

From places of worship to 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.

At the tender age of nine, he received his confirmation as a Catholic at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Queen Street.

Now 74, Reverend Adrian Anthony looks back on the church, his home, with great fondness.

He became its rector at age 59, and oversaw the massive three-year restoration of the cathedral , which reopened last year.

In 2015, he stepped down from the rectorship after more than a decade of service.

He still visits and participates in the cathedral's services.

"The cathedral has seen me grow up as a young boy. The priests guided me in my choices and values. Now, it sees me as an old man who has retired from active priesthood. The way it has taught me to love and care for the ill, needy and lonely has never left me."

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is Singapore's oldest Catholic place of worship. It was constructed between 1843 and 1847, initiated by the Reverend Jean-Marie Beurel. He was a priest from the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris.

The cathedral was gazetted as a national monument on June 28, 1973, and remains the seat of the local Roman Catholic archbishop.

It is famous for its tall steeple and distinctive Roman columns. It also houses Singapore's oldest functioning pipe organ, made in 1912.

More than anything, Father Adrian said that the church has been a sanctuary to him from his youth. He attended Sunday Mass there every week and priests from the cathedral often went to teach the students at his school, St Joseph's Institution.

"Even as a young boy, I was touched by the generosity and the kindness shown by the nuns and priests," he said. "They're not here for the dollars and cents - it's about love and compassion."

Moved by the work of the priests, especially in helping the less privileged, Father Adrian decided to do his part and started tutoring children in poorer areas when he was a teenager. "It was the first time I experienced and really saw such great poverty," he recalled.

His father, who was a civil engineer, had always wanted him to be an accountant. So, it was a shock to him when Father Adrian said he wanted to be a priest.

"In the end, my father told me, 'You can be a priest if you want but make sure you're a good one.'"

Being a good priest meant that he would not turn anyone away who needed help. "The doors are always open to anyone, regardless of their race, nationality or background."

He recalled how late one night, a Thai woman appeared at the gates looking for a place to stay. "She told us that she came here to work as a hairdresser but the people who brought her into the country took her to a brothel instead. She said she knew we would not harm her because we were priests in a church."

Father Adrian let her stay the night and then bought her an air ticket the next day so she could fly home.

"It's like coming full circle for me to have been the rector here and to carry on the good work of the priests," he said. "It all started here for me. This place is so inspiring and has been a great influence on me throughout my life."

Father Adrian has passed on the reins of leadership to Monsignor Philip Heng, 62. Under Monsignor Heng, the church worked to attract younger people. He began family mass to bring in young people with their families. He also started a group for young working adults, which grew from 30 to 135 people over several months.

To reach out further to them, the church took part in events such as the Singapore Night Festival 2017. It arranged candles to form messages such as "peace" on its premises.

The crowds visiting the cathedral lit more than 10,000 candles in a single night. "We were promoting the themes of peace and harmony - things that are needed so much in this current world," he said.

Monsignor Heng is supported by Monsignor Francis Lau, 84, who has been assistant rector at the cathedral since 2005.

Church volunteer Alexander Charles Louis, 62, is also helping to coach a younger generation who will be the "future of the church".

The retired lawyer has volunteered in the church for 40 years, since 1977. "Back then, I was in my 20s and everyone else was in their 50s. I worked with a whole line of priests. They're all gone now and I'm old. The youth are so important, with their vibrancy. I need to pass it down."

Mr Louis also donated $15,000 to save the cathedral's famous pipe organ in 1983, when the church did not have the funds to maintain it. "I had just started working then, but the church meant so much to me and God had given me so much, so I just said yes."

In 2005, he started working to train young volunteers in organ, choir and altar duties. Now, he has about 60 young volunteers, one of whom is 24-year-old Stephanie Koh-Thio who has served for 10 years.

"The youth group feels like family to me," she said. "The seniors advised, mentored and even tutored me when I was younger. Even though it meant giving up my weekends to volunteer at mass, I couldn't have spent my time in a better way."

Now a pricing analyst at a technology company, she still keeps going back to the place that gave her refuge in her teenage years.

"It's like a second home to me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2017, with the headline 'A refuge where all are welcome'. Print Edition | Subscribe