St George’s Church: A sanctuary in war and peace

Inside the sanctuary of St George's Church. New stained glass windows were installed in 1955 above the altar after the old ones were buried for safe keeping during World War II and never found. St George's Church, located off Minden Road in the Demps
St George's Church, located off Minden Road in the Dempsey area, offers respite from the heat with its barn-like structure. It was gazetted on Nov 10, 1978, as a national monument.ST PHOTOS: NIVASH JOYVIN

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history. This is the 27th in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems.

It can be sweltering in Singapore, but there is at least one place here where one can find respite, of both the physical and spiritual sort.

That place is St George's Church - located off Minden Road in the Dempsey area, a former British army barracks turned dining enclave.

It is 36 deg C on a Sunday when this reporter visits the church's 10am service - its second of three services - but the heat is forgotten as soon as one steps into the red-bricked, barn-like structure.

There is no air-conditioning, but the church, flanked by arches on its sides, lets the wind through. Inside, it is cool and shaded, and churchgoers get additional comfort from fans hanging overhead.

They sing, and their voices carry over to the forest outside: "Hosanna, hosanna. You are the God who saves us, worthy of all our praises!"

Behind one of the pews in St George's Church. The church, designed by architect William Henry Stanbury, was built in 1910.
Inside the sanctuary of St George's Church. New stained glass windows were installed in 1955 above the altar after the old ones were buried for safe keeping during World War II and never found. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

St George's may not look as grand as Paris' Sacre Coeur, Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia or even the local Church of St Teresa, given that it boasts no spires or towers.

But its hallowed halls contain their fair share of history. On Nov 10, 1978, it was gazetted as a national monument for its historical and architectural significance.

Designed by British architect William Henry Stanbury, the church was built in 1910 to cater to the spiritual needs of British soldiers living in the Tanglin barracks.

It is a broad, rectangular building, inspired by the basilica style that prevailed in many parts of 4th and 5th century Europe, composed of red bricks from India which were laid out in intricate but practical patterns that aided ventilation.

When it was completed in 1913, the 650-seater church was appropriately dedicated to St George, the soldier saint and patron of England.

Stained glass windows bearing the image of Christ and the badges of the various regiments and forces that fought for the British in Malaya and Singapore.
Stained glass windows bearing the image of Christ and the badges of the various regiments and forces that fought for the British in Malaya and Singapore. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

Some soldiers found it hard to reconcile their peace-embracing faith with their effort in the war. While a military parade service was compulsory, and therefore well attended, no more than 100 out of 800 in the garrison would attend the evening services. Chaplain Basil Copley Roberts wrote in his diary that "the work amongst the troops has been steady rather than exciting", according to St George's Church Celebrates One Hundred Years by David Jones and Anna Teo.

During World War II, the Japanese used the church as an ammunition store, and its British chaplain was taken as a prisoner of war.

He did not survive.

Another casualty was the church's stained glass windows, which were said to have been buried for safe keeping in a secret location by the same chaplain.

Despite attempts to find them - including a 1992 "expedition" in Upper Changi Road led by a former British military man - the windows have never been found. Replacements were installed in 1955.

The new windows - in bold colours of red, blue, green, yellow and orange - sit above the altar and bear the image of Christ and the badges of the various regiments and forces that fought for the British in Malaya and Singapore: the Gurkha Regiment, the Malay Regiment, and the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Corps, among others.

Inside the sanctuary of St George's Church. New stained glass windows were installed in 1955 above the altar after the old ones were buried for safe keeping during World War II and never found. St George's Church, located off Minden Road in the Demps
Behind one of the pews in St George's Church. The church, designed by architect William Henry Stanbury, was built in 1910. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN
 

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, swift efforts were made to re-establish ministry work at St George's. By early 1947, many expected church functions had been restored, including Sunday school.

In 1971, St George's was incorporated as a civilian church under the Anglican Diocese, after British troops withdrew from Singapore. It was then granted parish status as a community church with a dedicated pastor two years later.

A visible reminder of its military links stands outside the church: Many worshippers would walk under a lychgate, typically used to shelter a coffin until the pastor arrived for a burial. The gate is a replica of the one built by British POWs in Changi in 1942, reinstalled at St George's in 1952, then dismantled and moved to England, where it now stands at the National Memorial Arboreteum in Staffordshire.

There are other echoes of the past in St George's Church today: In the early days, a chaplain had no choice but to build new relationships with its congregation whenever a regiment or battalion was replaced.

Today, churchgoers may also be lost when their expat contracts end, although vicar's warden S.Q. Ong notes that Singaporeans now make up 60 per cent of the congregation, up from 40 per cent two decades ago.

"It started out as an 'ang moh', British church, but we are very multinational now," says Mr Ong, 67.

The church's diverse membership - President Tony Tan Keng Yam is said to be one of its 900 members - does not mean the community is any less tight-knit.

Many worshippers The Straits Times spoke to say they meet regularly in smaller groups, or serve in other church ministries such as supporting missionaries financially and through prayer.

One worshipper who has made St George's her spiritual base is Madam Rita Wright, an octogenarian who left Britain for Singapore a decade ago to be closer to her son.

"The fellowship and style of service here - it's almost like home," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2017, with the headline 'A sanctuary in war and peace'. Print Edition | Subscribe