New life for 103-year-old St Joseph's Church

Professor James Boss, chairman of the church's executive pastoral council, will be doing a feasibility study on the church's redevelopment project.
Professor James Boss, chairman of the church's executive pastoral council, will be doing a feasibility study on the church's redevelopment project. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

St Joseph's in Victoria Street to be restored; plan for parish house, annex to be linked, redeveloped

For the past decade, the 103-year- old St Joseph's Church in Victoria Street, has stood - in a faded blue coat of paint - in the heart of Singapore's civic district. But it could soon be injected with a new lease of life.

In April, the Catholic Archdiocese tasked the chairman of the church's executive pastoral council, Professor James Boss, to undertake a feasibility study on its redevelopment.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Prof Boss said the project includes creating a new cluster of buildings.

The plan is to transform the church's three-storey, century-old, Parochial Parish House into a centre for the arts. It will house a public gallery with a collection of Vatican art, a black box performance theatre and facilities for cultural programmes and religious outreach.

The project will involve the redevelopment of the adjacent 141 Victoria Street premises, which comprises a reserved plot of land and a conserved annex building.

The site is currently occupied by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' (Nafa) Campus V. Its lease expires on Aug 31 next year.

This annex building, which used to house St Anthony's Boys' School, will be used for social enterprises such as cafes providing jobs for the needy. The two buildings will be connected by an atrium and the new cluster will be called the Pinacoteca.

Prof Boss said the purpose of the project is to integrate the church and the new buildings to "create an environment conducive for worship and cultural and artistic pursuits of the community".

The church's existing boundary wall, added in the 1970s, will be demolished to open up the space.

"The aim is to blend the old with the new and to get both the young and the old to better utilise our facilities in the civic cluster," said Prof Boss, who was awarded the papal Benemerenti medal for his service to the parish community and for his work on the redevelopment project.

On major feast days, the church is filled with 1,500 people. The monument also attracts tourists.

If the project is approved by the authorities, St Joseph's Church will be the third Catholic church to undergo works in the area. Its neighbours, the 172-year-old Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and the 145-year-old Church of Saints Peter and Paul, both in Queen Street, are undergoing restoration.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said 141 Victoria Street was leased to Nafa while its new campus extension at 80 Bencoolen Street is being completed. Nafa said this will be ready by the beginning of the second quarter of 2017. A Nafa spokesman said that, for now, it plans to renew its lease at 141 Victoria Street till 2018.

Prof Boss said he is working closely with the National Heritage Board's Preservation of Sites and Monuments to re-paint the church in its original colours.

For instance, the cupola dome's gold hue will be reinstated.

New lights will also be installed to highlight key features such as its central octagonal belfry tower and cross. Italian lighting experts have been hired for this task.

The painting and lighting projects are likely to cost about $800,000 and are expected to be completed by the first half of next year.

A $1 million restoration of its stained glass windows was completed last November to tie in with the 190th anniversary of the Portuguese mission in Singapore.

The church, which was gazetted a national monument in 2005, is also in talks with the URA about conservation of the Parochial Parish House. The Neo-Gothic collegiate- style building is currently the lodgings of the church's rector.   

Prof Boss said: "The rejuvenation effort will engage the youth yearning for some sense of identity in Singapore."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'New life for 103-year-old church'. Print Edition | Subscribe