St Joseph's Church stands tall with a dome

At the end of the nave within the church is the main altar dedicated to Joseph. An altar with Our Lady of Fatima can also be found to the left of the main altar. In 1950, painted porcelain tiles from Portugal depicting the various apparitions of Mary
The church in Victoria Street catches the eye with its pastel-blue coat of paint and neo-Gothic architecture that is marked by carved ornamentation of leaves, flowers or buds on its towers. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN
At the end of the nave within the church is the main altar dedicated to Joseph. An altar with Our Lady of Fatima can also be found to the left of the main altar. In 1950, painted porcelain tiles from Portugal depicting the various apparitions of Mary
At the end of the nave within the church is the main altar dedicated to Joseph. An altar with Our Lady of Fatima can also be found to the left of the main altar. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN
At the end of the nave within the church is the main altar dedicated to Joseph. An altar with Our Lady of Fatima can also be found to the left of the main altar. In 1950, painted porcelain tiles from Portugal depicting the various apparitions of Mary
In 1950, painted porcelain tiles from Portugal depicting the various apparitions of Mary at Fatima were installed on the exterior walls of the church. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN
At the end of the nave within the church is the main altar dedicated to Joseph. An altar with Our Lady of Fatima can also be found to the left of the main altar. In 1950, painted porcelain tiles from Portugal depicting the various apparitions of Mary
A worshipper in the pews of St Joseph's Church. The church was a gathering point for Portuguese Eurasians in Singapore when it was first established. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings here have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the 31st in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

Imposing in its neo-Gothic grandeur, St Joseph's Church has watched over Victoria Street since 1912.

But plans for the church were initiated some 70 years earlier by the first Catholic priest to permanently reside in Singapore.

Reverend Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia, a native of Porto, had founded the Portuguese Mission in Singapore in 1825 and conducted mass at the house of Dr Jose d'Almeida, a prominent doctor, until a small chapel in Bras Basah Road was consecrated in 1833.

This was the first Catholic place of worship in Singapore.

In July 1827, Father Maia secured the spiritual jurisdiction of Singapore from Pope Leo XII, upon which he was formally recognised as a leader of Catholics in Singapore in matters pertaining to the faith.

The octagonal central tower, which rises to nearly 20m, is capped by a dome rather than a sharp spire. Such domes are rarely seen in Singapore.

Father Maia managed to secure land and the bulk of funding for the church in Victoria Street but died in 1850, aged 65, before construction started.

His successor, Reverend Vincente de Santa Catharina, oversaw construction of the first St Joseph's Church. It was completed in 1853 and stood till 1906, when it was demolished to allow the construction of the current edifice, which is laid out like a Latin cross.

As St Joseph's Church was established under the auspices of the Portuguese mission, it naturally became a gathering point for Portuguese Eurasians in Singapore.

Many Catholics then could trace their lineage back to mixed marriages between settlers and the indigenous people in 16th century Malacca, which was a practice encouraged by the Portuguese administration.

Prominent Portuguese Eurasians such as Hermogenes Desker, eldest son of property magnate Andre Filipe Desker (the namesake of Desker Road), donated generously to the church.

In fact, the younger Desker's estate funded the marble flooring in the current church.

The church building was gazetted as a national monument in 2005.

In typical neo-Gothic style, the church is adorned with crockets (carved ornamentation of leaves, flowers or buds on an inclined surface) on its towers.

Carvings of leaves can also be seen along the exterior walls.

Reverend Ignatius Yeo, administrator of the church, told The Straits Times the garden theme was deliberate. "It is a reflection of the kingdom of God and the eternal Garden of Eden," said Father Yeo, who has been working at the church since 2013.

The octagonal central tower, which rises to nearly 20m, is capped by a dome rather than a sharp spire. Such domes are rarely seen in Singapore, he added.

"The eight sides of the tower symbolise the resurrection of Jesus Christ," he added, as Christians believe Christ rose from the dead eight days after entering Jerusalem. The garden theme extends to the interior, with carvings along the walls and on furniture such as the pews.

Stone fruit hang off the top of arched alcoves in which statues of the apostles reside.

The alcoves were built into the church's pillars to symbolise the apostles' pivotal role in the religion.

At the end of the nave (the central aisle-like walkway) within the church, one can find the main altar, which is dedicated to Joseph.

An altar with Our Lady of Fatima can also be found to the left of the main altar.

Our Lady of Fatima refers to apparitions of the Virgin Mary that appeared in Fatima, Portugal a century ago in 1917, on the 13th day of every month from May to October.

The apparitions were first witnessed by three children but the final apparition, called the Miracle of the Sun, was purportedly seen by tens of thousands of Catholics in the area.

Officially deemed a miracle in 1930, Catholics worldwide dedicate devotions to the Lady to this day.

The church was the first to promulgate the devotions locally, a reflection of its Portuguese heritage, though there are smaller-scale devotions at other churches here.

In 1950, azulejos - painted porcelain tiles, which in this case depict the various apparitions of Mary at Fatima - from Portugal were even installed onto the exterior walls of the church and its adjacent parochial house, itself a national monument that was gazetted last June.

The devotions remain well-attended; as many as 5,000 people turn up for the October procession.

A regular attendee is parishioner Marian Morier, 48, who is also pastoral coordinator at the church.

Her father's side of the family has long been associated with the church, and she is an alumna of St Anthony's Convent, which was located in the church's vicinity when she was a young schoolgirl.

"I feel St Joseph's Church is like home," she said.

In the meantime, the familiar landmark in pastel blue is set for change. Father Yeo said the current colour scheme was painted over the original white more than 15 years ago.

Come next year, the facade will be coated in deep shades of grey befitting of its distinguished history.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'St Joseph's Church stands tall with a dome'. Print Edition | Subscribe