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From a lone cat to 150 regular church-goers

Russian Orthodox Church had a slow start in 2007 but now has a good-sized following

A line of worshippers, heads bowed and clutching candles, emerged from a bungalow in Kovan at the stroke of midnight on Sunday morning.

The group of about 200 Russians and other expatriate Orthodox Christians gathered around Father Pitirim Dondenko, whose white robe glistened in the darkened church compound.

The priest carried a pristine white cloth over his head to represent the fabric that Jesus Christ's body was swathed in back in AD33.

Standing in the garden, the bearded priest chanted in Russian in a rich baritone: "Christ is Risen." The group responded in chorus: "Truly He is Risen."

Neighbours returning home for the night poked their heads out of their car windows curiously.

SERVING SPIRITUAL NEEDS

Our purpose isn't to proselytise or convert Singapore to orthodoxy. We are here to help fulfil the spiritual needs of the Russian community who desired to have a church set up here, and anyone else who comes. 

FATHER PITIRIM DONDENKO, on why there is the Parish of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Singapore.

The church's celebration of Easter is an unusual sight in the heartland neighbourhood.

While the Parish of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has been in Singapore since 2007, it moved into 110 Highland Road only two years ago. The bungalow does not bear any signage to indicate that it is a place of worship.

Apart from the few Singaporeans peeking out of windows and strolling into the church compound during Christmas, few are acquainted with its rites and rituals.

Father Pitirim, 37, who is from Ukraine, said: "We don't have advertisements, signs or information outside the building. We don't want to disturb our neighbours too much."

Neighbour Tara Lim, 17, a polytechnic student, who lives a few houses away from the church, said: "I know it is a church of sorts from the cars and the people who come by on weekends but I've not actually looked in."

To mark the end of fasting, the congregation broke fast after 3am with tea, coffee, Easter eggs and bread baked by parishioners and the two Russian nuns attached to the parish. Later that day, worshippers gathered at Labrador Park for a picnic.

Father Pitirim said the parish was set up to cater to the community of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Georgians in Singapore. Some had written to Russian Patriarch Alexey II to express the need for a local parish.

The parish was registered as a society in 2008 and operated from a rundown semi-detached house in Hillview, Bukit Batok.

In its early days, few turned up for services. Once, its appointed leader, Bishop Sergey Chashin, conducted a service with just a cat as the sole attendee. As people learnt about the services, they began to trickle in slowly, recalled Father Pitirim. Father Pitirim, who started attending the church as a layman soon after it was established, became involved in reading and chanting Scripture verses at services. "A year later, the Bishop told me they needed a priest and he said, 'this will be you'," he related.

Services are mostly conducted in Church Slavonic - an old church language - and English. The parish has about 150 regular members, many of whom are young individuals or young families.

Father Pitirim, who has completed his Bachelor of Theology at Odessa Theological Seminary in Ukraine and is taking his master's degree at St Petersburg Theological Academy in Russia, said: "Our purpose isn't to proselytise or convert Singapore to orthodoxy. We are here to help fulfil the spiritual needs of the Russian community who desired to have a church set up here, and anyone else who comes."

Church member Svetlana Kokova, 43, a translator who has been working in Singapore for the past 15 years, said she appreciates its establishment. She used to attend Catholic masses. On attending masses, she said: "It was a different experience. I missed aspects of these traditions that are spiritually important to me. For example, in the Orthodox Church, we stand throughout the service as reverence to Christ."

The Russian Orthodox Church here plans to construct a building to cater for the growing needs of the community.

The current arrangement is expensive to upkeep as it costs about $10,000 a month to rent the Highland Road property.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2016, with the headline 'From a lone cat to 150 regular church-goers'. Print Edition | Subscribe