Heritage Gems

129-year-old neo-Gothic church still a special place for Tamil Catholics

Father Michael Sitaram (in grey), the church's parish priest, with Father Nithiya SagayaRaj, the assistant parish priest, at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes' neo-Gothic design was heavily influenced by the archite
Father Michael Sitaram (in grey), the church's parish priest, with Father Nithiya SagayaRaj, the assistant parish priest, at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes.ST PHOTOS: JONATHAN CHOO

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.

Washed in immaculate white and affixed with a tiled roof in a shade of mahogany, the 129-year-old church stands out starkly amid a backdrop of gaudy residential buildings in Ophir Road.

One of the oldest Catholic institutions here, the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was built in the 19th century to cater to the needs of the growing Tamil Catholic community in colonial Singapore.

Its neo-Gothic design was heavily influenced by the architecture of its European counterpart, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, in France.

Former parish priest Ignatius John Aloysius said the structural likeness reflects the basilica, built to commemorate a series of 18 miracles that transpired in Lourdes over a five-month span in 1858.

"Lourdes is geographically distant and few Catholics are able to ever make the journey there," said Father Ignatius, who served as the church's parish priest between 1947 and 1955. "So the French missionaries probably thought it would be a good idea to have a church dedicated to Lourdes here."

The church opened its doors to its 400-strong ethnic Indian congregation in 1888, and also provided education and welfare services to poor and needy Indians.

RICH HISTORY

Although the church is now for all Catholics... it still has a special place for the Tamil-speaking Catholics because of its rich history.

FATHER AUGUSTINE JOSEPH, parish priest from 2005 to 2015.

Its location near Serangoon Road was deliberately chosen as the area had been an enclave for Indian immigrants since the 19th century.

In 1974, the church authorities opened it to Catholics of all ethnicities and languages.

The Indian influence on this church, however, is apparent as religious services are still conducted in both Tamil and English - with weekly Tamil masses held on Sunday at 9.30am and 6.30pm.

Said Father Augustine Joseph, who was the parish priest from 2005 to 2015: "Although the church is now for all Catholics irrespective of their race or nationality, it still has a special place for the Tamil-speaking Catholics because of its rich history spanning over 120 years.

"The church is very unique in this aspect. We simply cannot deny the Indian community."


The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes' neo-Gothic design was heavily influenced by the architecture of its European counterpart, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, in France. ST PHOTOS: JONATHAN CHOO

With a large proportion of its parish being migrant workers and expatriates from South India, the church has incorporated the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Vailankanni and the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal into its services.

The Feast of Our Lady of Vailankanni is a nine-day festival that commemorates three divine appearances of the Virgin Mary that were said to have occurred in 16th century Tamil Nadu.

Father Michael Sitaram, the current parish priest, said this annual celebration, held in September, is highly anticipated by a large proportion of its Tamil parish.

The atmosphere in previous years had been "very lively; churchgoers would offer flowers and the entire church would be decorated with lights and flowers".

"There was also a large crowd as the procession went round the church," said Father Michael.

The church's large migrant population has also led it to undertake various social initiatives aimed at helping these workers, such as the Lourdes Tamil Committee and the Welfare Committee for Tamil Migrants.


The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes' neo-Gothic design was heavily influenced by the architecture of its European counterpart, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, in France. ST PHOTOS: JONATHAN CHOO

The latter committee, established in 2006, organises free medical screenings and basic English literacy and computer classes for migrant workers, among other initiatives.

Said Mr Joseph Albert, 44, a project manager and the migrant committee's coordinator: "It is very common for migrants to feel lonely when they first get to Singapore and, through these activities, I hope that we can build a strong sense of fellowship and camaraderie."

It is a sign of the strong communal spirit at the church that workers will make the long commute from their dormitories in the western end of Singapore to the centrally located church every week without fail, said Father Michael.

"After dinner that is provided (by the committee after Sunday mass), the workers will stay at church and fellowship till about 10.30pm when the gates get locked," said the 62-year-old priest.

For others, the cathedral is not just a religious place of worship but also holds deeply rooted ancestral significance.

Procurement manager Adolph John Dorairaj, 58, who has attended the church since he was a young boy, is a third-generation member of the church choir. His grandmother and mother were active members as well.

"The church has been a home for us and many of us were brought up here. I remember together with other altar boys, we would play football and badminton in the church grounds after school instead of heading home," said the head of the church's choir, who has been an active part of the church since he became an altar boy in 1968.

Long-time member and IT consultant Stanislaus Arockia Xavier, 40 agreed: "There is a very warm and accepting community in the church. No one judges you based on the work that you do or where you come from and everyone is treated equally as a part of a family."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2017, with the headline '129-year-old neo-Gothic church still a special place for Tamil Catholics'. Print Edition | Subscribe