Treasures hidden under layers of paint at St Joseph's Church

Workers set to repaint St Joseph's Church uncover century-old intricate plasterwork

Workers preparing to paint St Joseph's Church, which is over 100 years old, have uncovered intricate ornamental plasterwork dating back to the early 1900s.

The decorative plasterwork was unmasked about a month ago while workers were removing paint on the national monument's facade.

The floral and foliage motifs wrap round the church's column capitals, line its cornice, are on its spandrels, and punctuate its pinnacles.

Until recently, they had been obscured by thick coats of paint slapped on clumsily over the decades during ad hoc renovations of the Roman Catholic church.

Church rector Philip Heng, 62, said: "The original ornamentation, including three pristine and well-preserved marble statues of St John de Britto, St Joseph and St John of God, at the front porch, had appeared like shapeless lumps of plaster. Nobody gave them a second glance."

Now, they are exposed beautifully, said St Joseph Church's project co-coordinator Francesca Yong. "In a way, the layers of paint helped to preserve the original ornamentation. They are fine, sharp and look as good as new. They don't look a century old."

She added that the ornamentation varies in detailing as artisans had carved them by hand.

Ms Jean Wee, director of the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM) division of the National Heritage Board (NHB), said: "There are always interesting discoveries during any restoration, and this provides an impetus, if not an inspiration, towards understanding and preserving our collective heritage." She added that it is the only Roman Catholic church in Singapore founded by the Portuguese.

The church also uncovered the fleur-de-lis motif in the centre of its capitals after paint was stripped. The fleur-de-lis is basically a stylised lily which is prominently depicted with St Joseph.

Removing the decades-old paint have revealed the true beauty of the foliage motifs on the church's column capitals. PHOTO: ST JOSEPH'S CHURCH 

NHB gazetted the church in 2005, which was constructed between 1906 and 1912. It was initially designed by Messieurs G. A. Fernandez and Company. The building today was completed in the neo-Gothic style by Briton David McLeod Craik.

As a result of these new finds, the church will be closing its doors to worshippers from Tuesday for a restoration budgeted at $4 million. Monsignor Heng said the amount could go up and the restoration will take a year or longer.

St Joseph's Church is the last of a trio of Catholic churches in the heart of the civic district around Bras Basah to undergo restoration. Its neighbours and national monuments - the 1847 Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and the 1870 Church of Saints Peter and Paul - reopened last year following extensive restoration projects.

Ms Yong said that workers will spend the next few months stripping the old layers of paint from the exterior and interior surfaces of the church. They will also replicate missing and broken architectural ornamental details and latches, handles and hinges of the church's doors.

The three marble statues of Catholic saints. PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES 

Monsignor Heng, who last year oversaw the final phase of the $40 million restoration of the nearby Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, where he is also rector, said professionals such as conservation consultants and lighting specialists would have to be engaged to evaluate what needs to be done.

For instance, they will have to assess the condition of the floor, which has warped as a result of resettlement from tunnelling works in the vicinity. The team will also have to determine the final finish and colour of the church, in consultation with the NHB.

In the meantime, Monsignor Heng said that they are waiting for the structural engineer's report. He added: "This started out as a basic repainting project. Now, we need to come up with a set of priorities, a strategy and a budget, and look into the complex details of what exactly needs to be done for the church."

The church has received support from the National Monuments Fund, administered by the PSM division, in recent years. The funding supported works such as the restoration of its stained glass - a $1 million undertaking completed in 2014.

Monsignor Heng said that, for the time being, selected masses at St Joseph's Church - including the weekday 6.30pm, Sunday 1pm, and devotion to Our Lady of Fatima every 13th of the month - will be celebrated at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.

About 4,000 Catholics worship at the church every weekend.Its sacristan, Mr Neal Fernandez, 78, who has been with the church for 22 years, said: "It was so shabby and rundown for the past few decades. But I've a feeling it will be the most beautiful church in Singapore once its restoration is completed."

A laborious process demanding care

Since it was completed in 1912, the St Joseph's Church in Victoria Street has been repainted several times. Its walls, columns and ornamentation have been coated with at least 10 layers of paint.

Removing them is a laborious process done by hand. Contractors first scrape off any loose paint which is flaking off and then use a chemical stripper to moisten and soften the remaining layers of paint before removing them.

Work to remove the paint on the church's exterior took about six months.

Mr Wong Chung Wan, technical director of material specialists Maek Consulting, which is involved in the restoration project, said: "Care has to be taken not to cause unnecessary damage to the layer underneath, which could be the original plaster."

Removing the paint has revealed the detailed, floral-motif ornamentation adorning the church.

Mr Wong said: "It has been a pleasant surprise because a lot of them are in good condition."

A three-dimensional scan of good-condition ornaments were also taken, so a replica can be 3D- printed and used as a reference for artisans who may need to repair or recreate them later on.

There are between 400 and 500 ornaments, Mr Wong said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'Treasures hidden under layers of paint'. Print Edition | Subscribe