As a strategic trading hub even before the 19th century, the first Catholics in Singapore came from other mission lands in Asia, including Portuguese Malacca.
We begin our story against the backdrop of two missionary giants, the Padroado from the Iberian powers and Propaganda Fidei from Rome. Trace the development of the Church through the years as it reaches out to various communities in need of healthcare, education, social welfare, and God.
Read more about each section by clicking on the timeframes below.
Celebrate with the communities who grew, against the odds, large enough to build parishes, schoolhouses-orphanages and homes for the poor. Learn how various communities and leaders of the Church in Singapore faced the Japanese Occupation.
The Great Padroado-Propaganda Divide
Pre-19th Century – 1832
What happened when people believed the world was flat? Find out how Singapore found itself in an epic missionary tug-of-war culminating in a triple-excommunication in 1832.
Pope Alexander VI Divided the Newly Discovered World for Missionary Activities
In 1493, Pope Alexander VI divided the newly discovered world for missionary activities. The Holy See’s arrangement with Portugal was known as the Padroado. An extension of the Padroado eventually found its way to Singapore and was known as the Portuguese mission.
1622: Propaganda Fide
The Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Latin: Congregatio de Propaganda Fide or "congregation for propagating the faith") was a group of cardinals in Rome, in charge of Roman Catholic missions. Set up in 1622, as one of the reformations after the Council of Trent, the congregation (“Propaganda” for short) sent priests and bishops to minister to lands that had not been properly cared for under the Padroado. One of these missions which originated in France also found its way to Singapore; it was known as the Missions étrangères de Paris (MEP).
Image & Credit: Crest of Propaganda Fide by By Lalupa via Wikimedia Commons
The Padroado- Propaganda Divide in the 19th Century
It was on the tiny island of Singapore more than 300 years after Pope Alexander VI’s decree that the Padroado and Propaganda missions found themselves in disagreement and a three-way excommunication. This was known as the Padroado- Propaganda divide.
Image: Chinese Junk in Singapore
Fr Laurent Imbert's visit to Singapore
During his time as a replacement teacher in the College General (Penang), April 1821 to January 1822, the young Father Laurent Imbert was asked to make a visit to the island of Singapore. Mgr Esprit-Marie-Joseph Florens, the Vicar Apostolic of Siam, had been wondering whether to open a mission station in Singapore, but knew nothing of the circumstances there. Fr Imbert reached Singapore in December 1821, and spent about a week here. He wrote a report to Mgr Florens, about the pitiful state of the Catholics on the island.
First visit from the Portuguese Mission
Fr Jacob Joachim Freire Brumber was dispatched from the Portuguese Mission in Malacca, to visit Catholics in Singapore, some of whom may have been part of his congregation in Malacca and worked in Singapore. He ended his visits in 1824.
Catholics in Singapore continue to ask for a pastor
After Fr Jacob from Malacca stopped visiting in 1824, three Catholics had written to Mgr Florens in Siam, asking for another priest. The Bishop rejected them due to a lack of priests and the uncertainty of jurisdiction, seeing as there seemed to be already a Portuguese mission. In the meantime, Mgr Florens wrote to Rome seeking clarification on jurisdiction.
Fr Maia of the Portuguese declares Jurisdiction
In 1825, a priest from Macao (Portuguese diocese), Fr Francisco da Silva Pinto a Maia, arrived and declared himself the pastor of the local Church. Fr Maia held masses at Beach Road, in the house of a prominent merchant in Singapore– Dr Jose d’ Almeida.
Singapore given to the MEP Mission in Siam
Pope Leo XII issued a decree giving the MEP mission of Siam jurisdiction over Singapore. However because of a severe manpower shortage, it was only in 1830 that Mgr Florens sent his coadjutor, Mgr Barthelemy Bruguiere, to inform Fr Maia of the Papal decree of 1827.
As the document was not countersigned by the Queen of Portugal, Mgr Bruguiere was flatly rejected and later excommunicated by the self-declared vicar of Christians in Singapore– Fr Maia.
A Three-way Excommunication
When Mgr Bruguiere returned to Singapore in August 1832, he had been excommunicated by Fr Maia of the Portuguese Mission. Celebrating Mass on 21 August 1832 in Singapore, he effectively crystallised the split between MEP and the Portuguese mission.
On top of this, a Spanish priest named Fr Anselmo Yegros arrived in late 1832 from Goa, claiming to be head of the Portuguese Mission, appointed as Vicar General of Singapore and the Riau Islands by the Chapter of Goa. He was excommunicated by Fr Maia as well. By celebrating masses consequently in three different locations, the ecclesiastical trio excommunicated one another.