Heritage Gem

Sultan's gift holds significance for church

The heavy brass bell in the belfry of the church in Hougang was hoisted in place more than a hundred years ago by its head priest - and still chimes every day to mark the start of mass. Mr Bernard Braberry, the church administrator, also conducts his
Designed by Charles Benedict Nain, a priest, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary spans 63m, and its neo-gothic features include a pointed arch and ribbed vault.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO
The heavy brass bell in the belfry of the church in Hougang was hoisted in place more than a hundred years ago by its head priest - and still chimes every day to mark the start of mass. Mr Bernard Braberry, the church administrator, also conducts his
Mr Bernard Braberry, the church administrator, also conducts historical tours of its grounds.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO
The heavy brass bell in the belfry of the church in Hougang was hoisted in place more than a hundred years ago by its head priest - and still chimes every day to mark the start of mass. Mr Bernard Braberry, the church administrator, also conducts his
The heavy brass bell in the belfry of the church in Hougang was hoisted in place more than a hundred years ago by its head priest – and still chimes every day to mark the start of mass.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO
The heavy brass bell in the belfry of the church in Hougang was hoisted in place more than a hundred years ago by its head priest - and still chimes every day to mark the start of mass. Mr Bernard Braberry, the church administrator, also conducts his
The heavy brass bell in the belfry of the church in Hougang was hoisted in place more than a hundred years ago by its head priest – and still chimes every day to mark the start of mass.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

From places of worship and 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.

Over a hundred years ago, Jean Casimir Saleilles, head priest of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, had to haul the heavy brass bell to the belfry when workers could not manage the task.

According to the church administrator - Mr Bernard Braberry, 62 - Saleilles hoisted the bell up with a rope. The bell remains there to this day, and it still chimes every day to mark the start of mass at the church in Hougang.

From its days as a tiny attap chapel serving a small rural community of 200 to 250 rubber tappers, fishermen and farmers, the 165-year-old church now serves almost 7,000 people.

While the demographic of its parish has changed, the essence of the church remains.

Father Kenson Koh, 54, the head priest, said the church still identifies with the area and its heritage.

He was fresh out of training for priesthood when he was first posted to the church 20 years ago. After four years, he returned to his studies in Catholicism.

Father Koh, who came back as head priest this year, said that although much has changed in the community over the years, the church has remained a constant.

CONNECTION TO THE PAST

The location and structure of each of our churches tells the story of the community which built it and the importance of faith in the lives of that particular community. Today, these edifices stand not only as places of worship, but a constant reminder of our roots, and worshipping in these churches connects us to our past.

SPOKESMAN FOR THE ARCHBISHOP'S COMMUNICATIONS OFFICE OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHDIOCESE OF SINGAPORE

Through World War II and the Japanese Occupation, many wives and mothers of soldiers came to pray in the church. Though most are no longer around, their stories live on, passed down through the church community.

One particularly memorable story tells of how a bomb landed in front of the church during the Japanese Occupation - but never detonated.

While the houses and land around the church were devastated by other attacks, the church remained unscathed.

When he first came to the church 20 years ago, there was a strong kampung spirit, with children running around and playing football outside while their grandmothers would be inside chatting, and complaining about the rising price of fish.

Father Koh said: "While there is a lot of pressure from the society around us to change, we must retain an element of the traditional and authentic."

Gazetted in 2005, the church is one of the earliest Catholic churches built in the suburbs of Singapore. It provides cradle to grave services for its community, from baby baptisms to weddings and deaths. It also contributes to the parish's non-religious needs.

Once, there were four schools in the church compound - Montfort Secondary, Holy Innocents' Primary for boys, Holy Innocents' (Chinese) Girls' School for the primary level, and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus primary school.

Today, the only school standing in its grounds is the Nativity Church Kindergarten.

Though the original chapel was erected in 1853, the church's current building was completed in 1933 when a sanctuary and a sacristy were added.

Designed by Charles Benedict Nain, a priest, the church building spans 63m, including the 34m-wide side transepts and the sanctuary. Its neo-gothic features include a pointed arch and ribbed vault.

The iconic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in front of the church's main entrance has a particularly interesting provenance.

In 1947, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor donated the marble statue to the church as a token of his friendship with Reverend Father (later, Bishop) Francis Chan, who was then its parish priest.

Today, the statue still holds much significance for the church community.

Mr Braberry, who is now the parish administrator and conducts historical tours of the church grounds, said people come to pray at the foot of the statue even at odd hours of the night.

Like every place of worship, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a living testament to the history of its community.

Acknowledging this, a spokesman for the Archbishop's Communications Office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore said: "The location and structure of each of our churches tells the story of the community which built it and the importance of faith in the lives of that particular community.

"Today, these edifices stand not only as places of worship, but a constant reminder of our roots, and worshipping in these churches connects us to our past."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2017, with the headline 'Sultan's gift holds significance for church'. Print Edition | Subscribe