The foundation stone was laid on 14th December 1851, and the edifice itself was completed, blessed and opened in 1853.
The history of St Joseph’s Church is intrinsically tied to the Portuguese Mission in Singapore with the arrival of Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia who came from Macau in 1825. As he had no church or chapel, Father Maia said mass in the house of Dr Jose d’Almeida at Beach Road.
Sometime after his arrival, Father Maia managed to secure twelve lots of land between Victoria Street, Queens Street and Middle Road. Six were given by Governor Bonham to the Mission while he bought the other six. Sadly, Father Maia died before he was able to build a church for the Portuguese Community in the Colony. But he left his money and property for this purpose. It was his successor, Father Vincente de Santa Catarina, who undertook this task. The foundation stone was laid on 14th December 1851, and the edifice itself was completed, blessed and opened in 1853. The church was named after St Joseph earlier on by Father Maia for several reasons. One reason was because the money Father Maia used to purchase the land came from the funds of the Portuguese Mission in China, whose Procurator’s house was St Joseph’s College, Macau. However to the people of Singapore, it was simply the Portuguese Church.
In 1868, Father Vincente added two transepts to the Church and undertook extensive repairs in the parochial house. The building that stood at Middle Road was subsequently occupied by St Anthony’s Convent. From 1874 to 1888, donations from various people such as Americo Pereira and Joaquim Ferreira Patacas helped provide the church with items such as urns, plaster of paris images of various Saints, cruets and even an image of the Lord of Passos (carrying His cross).
By 1891, Father Baptista obtained his Bishop’s approval to organise a building fund for the purpose of enlarging the church. By 1906, the old church building was dismantled and work began on the erection of the new church. Progress was slow and it was not until 30th June 1912 during Father Francisco Bonito Branganca’s time as Vicar that the newly completed church was blessed and opened for mass. Built in the form of a Latin cross, the building is able to accommodate a congregation of up to 1,500.
In 1935, Dom Jose Costa Nunes, Bishop of Macau, suggested that a statue of Our Lady of Fatima be placed in a niche of the transept beside the altar of Our Lady of Lourdes. Simultaneously devotions in honour of Our Lady of Fatima were begun in the church. In 1950, eight Portuguese azulejos (decorated tiles) depicting the apparations of our Lady were installed to commemorate the visit to Singapore of the Pilgrim statue of Our Lady.
Besides the procession of Our Lady of Fatima, which is celebrated even till today, there are other unique church processions held at St Joseph’s Church. The most unique and important would be the Holy week processions that take place on Good Friday every year. Many will take part in the procession of the Dead Lord – once he is taken down from the cross – around the church. The Dead Lord’s bier is followed by the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows to call to mind the grief felt by our Lady.
With the promulgation of the decree dated 26th June 1981 by the Most Reverend Gregory Yong, Archbishop of Singapore, the 95-year old double judisdiction in the state of Singapore came to an end with effect from 1st July of the same year. The main change effecting St Joseph’s Church as a result of the promulgation, besides the transfer of the jurisdiction of about 7,000 parishioners to the Archdiocese of Singapore, was the cessation of St Joseph’s as a parish. It then became a Church of Devotion.
To maintain the Portuguese character of the church, the Bishop of Macau continued to post priests to the church until 1999 when Father Benito de Sousa ended term at the church and the missionaries were stopped.
On 14th January 2005, in recognition of its rich history and social and cultural importance, especially to the Eurasian community, St Joseph’s Church was gazetted as a National Monument by the National Heritage Board of Singapore.
This article was extracted and edited for brevity from the publication Glimpses and memories of St. Joseph’s Church and The Portuguese mission in Singapore, 1825-1999. (1999).Singapore: St. Joseph’s Church.