A Look Back in History – Roman Catholic communities in early Singapore

The earliest Catholics in Singapore were in fact quite a multi-cultural community despite the fact that the British colonial government tended to rank the various races according to certain perceived racial attributes.

This was one of the key findings shared by church historian and professional researcher Dr Marc Rerceretnam at a public talk, “Evolution of Roman Catholic Communities in Early Singapore” organised by the Chancery Records & Archives on 26 June 2019 at the Catholic Centre.

Dr Rerceretnam is an old boy of St Michael’s School and St Joseph’s Institution. Based in Sydney, he still maintains strong ties to Singapore, having published extensively on the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Singapore as well as related topics on the role of religion within colonial society and inter-marriage in 19th century Singapore.  He was awarded a 2019 Research Fellowship by the National Library Board and the topic of his research study was on the formation of early Roman Catholic communities in Singapore dating back to the 1830’s.

Dr Rerceretnam traced the arrival of Roman Catholicism in Singapore and the factors which led to the growth of the mission. He also discussed the prevailing socio-economic circumstances of the time along with the role of the priests which fostered a prevalence of intermarriages. These unions were particularly prevalent between newly arrived Teochew men from China and Peranakan Kristang females from Melaka. These intermarriages saw the creation of a Singapore-specific Peranakan bloodline under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. Other evidence of social mingling among Catholics can also be found in the church marriage registers where the names of the witnesses reflected a diverse racial mix. By the 1880’s however, the growth in population along with a more equitable male-female ratio and the building of new churches to meet the needs of the different ethnic groups, led to a decline in intermarriages with more people marrying within their own community.

Dr Rerceretnam also touched on how the missionary zeal and vision of the early MEP priests were instrumental in shaping the Catholic Church to become what it is today. Aside from welcoming new converts from all communities, their work in establishing Catholic schools also provided opportunities for social mobility through education. Their generosity in providing loans to promising young Chinese to launch their business ventures would also bear fruit. As these businesses took off and prospered, these men would repay the Catholic Church through philanthropic acts, funding the construction of new churches such as Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Church of the Sacred Heart and Church of St Teresa, as well as schools.

A major part of Dr Rerceretnam’s study was based on records from the Church archives. The Chancery Records & Archives regularly works with historians and researchers delving into various topics of church history. The Archives is always on the lookout for artefacts, photographs and stories (written or oral) that capture, preserve and illuminate our Catholic history and heritage.  Contact us at [email protected]

Researcher and historian Dr Marc Rerceretnam taking the audience through the evolution of the Roman Catholic community in the mid-1800’s.

Researcher and historian Dr Marc Rerceretnam taking the audience through the evolution of the Roman Catholic community in the mid-1800’s.

Know your Catholic Church history

Beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church in Singapore

  • In 1832, French missionary Rev Jean Baptiste Boucho (later Bishop) and Padre Anselmo Yegros obtain from the British colonial government a grant of rent-free land on Bras Basah Road for the purposes of worship.

The following year on 5 May 1833, the first Roman Catholic chapel in Singapore is consecrated. It is located on the front lawn of the former St Joseph’s Institution (1852 – 1988), presently the Singapore Art Museum.  The chapel was made of wood and attap, and measured a modest 18.3 m by 9 m in size. In a short period of time, the increase in the Catholic population would outgrow the chapel. After the congregation moved to the new Church of the Good Shephard just down the road, the chapel then served as the first premises of St John’s Boys School, later renamed St Joseph’s Institution.

Location of the very first Roman Catholic chapel. Later funds would be raised for the building of the Good Shepherd Church just down the road.

Bishop Jean Baptiste Boucho

Why was the church consecrated to the Good Shepherd?

Relics of Bishop Imbert at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd

In order to accommodate the growing Catholic community, there was a need to expand beyond the small chapel. By 1841, fundraising for a new church had begun and the Church (later Cathedral) of the Good Shepherd was blessed and opened in 1847. The decision to consecrate the church to the Good Shepherd was inspired by a note Bishop Imbert had written before his death in Korea, “In desperate circumstances, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep”. The Church of the Good Shepherd was later elevated to the status of a cathedral in 1888 when the Diocese of Malacca was revived.







Missionaries in the heart of the jungle

To cater to the increasing numbers of Teochew immigrants arriving from China who were already Catholics, Fr Anatole Mauduit was commissioned to build a new church in the rural area of Kranji in 1846. The chapel was dedicated to St Joseph. The church was later moved to Upper Bukit Timah in order to better serve and reach out to the plantation workers. Many Teochews worked in this area on gambier and pepper plantations.

Singapore and the Origin of Species?

  • Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the Theory of Evolution with Charles Darwin, did much of his research on the theory of natural selection in Singapore. He stayed at St Joseph’s Church with the MEP missionaries and used it as his base in his early research into natural evolution. The Bukit Timah area was the starting point for all of Wallace’s future research into the region that would ultimately lead up to his theory of evolution by natural selection.
  • In his book, “The Malayan Archipelago”, Wallace wrote: “I lived for several weeks at a time with the missionary at Bukit Timah, about in the centre of the island where a pretty church had been built and there are about 300 converts . . . . .  My friend at Bukit Timah was truly a father to his flock. He preached to them in Chinese every Sunday, and had evenings for discussion and conversation on religion during the week. He had a school to teach their children. His house was open to them day and night. If a man came to him and said, “I have no rice for my family to eat today,” he would give him half of what he had in the house, however little that might be. If another said, “I have no money to pay my debt,” he would give him half the contents of his purse, were it his last dollar. So when he was himself in want, he would send to one of the wealthiest among his flock and say, “I have no rice in the house,” or “I have given away my money, and am in want of such and such articles.” The result was that his flock trusted and loved him, for they felt sure that he was their true friend, and had no ulterior designs in living among them.”

The Catholic flock expands and more churches are built

  • By 1852 Fr Ambrose Maistre who had been assigned to tend to the Chinese Catholic congregation bought land in the Seranggong area and built a presbytery and a church dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
  • Fr Maistre’s successor was Fr Pierre Paris. He was quite a linguist, having learnt Malay in Penang and Kristang in Malacca. He could also speak at least two Chinese dialects and Tamil. Thus he was given charge not only of the Catholic community in Seranggong, but also the Chinese and Tamils in the Town area. By 1869, he completed construction of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul which was shared by both races until 1888 when Fr Meneuvrier built the Tamils their own church, dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes
  • Upon completion of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Fr Meneuvrier wrote to Fr Pean, a director at the MEP Seminary in Paris on 16 May 1888 . . .

Dear Father Péan,

At last! My church is finished and blessed! The Blessed Sacrament dwells in there, the Holy Virgin is in her grotto, St. Bernadette on her rock and my heart is relieved from a heavy burden. I’ll give you the details next time…

Demographics of the early congregation

  • The early Roman Catholic congregation was a diverse mix of migrants. There were the Melakan Peranakan Kristang families who moved from Malacca at the behest of Colonel Farquhar, seeking better economic opportunities; the second and third generation Eurasians came from Penang and Bencoolen; the first Teochew arrivals who were new converts and later Catholics from China fleeing religious persecution; lastly there were the Europeans, most of whom were either colonial government officials or businessmen.

Intermarriages: circumstance & convenience?

  • The prevalence of intermarriages in the early colonial period was due largely to the circumstances of the time. As a result of immigration and Singapore’s status as a ‘frontier’ town, the gender ratio was extremely skewed. At its worse there were 15:1 men to women in 1860. Due to their lack familial networks, many of the more promising Teochew immigrants looked to the Catholic priests to match them with marriage partners, many of whom were Peranakan Kristang females. Both communities had complementary interests – the Teochew men who were in business were highly sought after by Peranakan Kristang families who were seeking to better their socio-economic prospects. These inter-marriages led to the creation of a Singapore-specific Peranakan bloodline.
  • The multi-racial character of the Catholic Church was also evident through church marriage registers where the witnesses’ names revealed a diverse mix of ethnic backgrounds. The Church was also able to provide a means of social mobility for the local population by offering educational opportunities through the newly established mission schools.

Marriage Register of Church of the Good Shepherd: On 18 October 1841, the witnesses at the marriage of You-Tchou (groom) and Dominica Sybra (bride) are Bartholomous Jacob, Joannes De Rosairo and Thomas Cou

Faith vs clan affiliation

  • Teochew men who married into Peranakan Kristang families largely adopted Portuguese-type names such as Pedro, Joachim, Domingo and Joao. Many Teochew Catholics also chose to drop their clan names, in defiance against the Kongsis. Indeed, many Teochew Catholics identified more strongly with their Catholic faith than with their clan affiliation.
  • The success of the MEP priests in winning converts among the Chinese workers in Kranji and Bukit Timah eventually incited the anger and envy of the Chinese secret societies. A loss in membership meant a loss in revenue for the secret societies as the Catholics refused to pay fees for membership and protection.
  • Control over gambier and pepper plantations was another source of contention between the two groups. Chinese Christian plantation owners were not part of the plantation networks controlled by the secret societies and regarded as competing against the interests of the societies. The Christians were also believed to have illicitly smuggled opium onto their plantations, which infringed on the opium monopoly held by the secret societies.
  • Tensions eventually boiled over on 15 February 1851 when the secret societies launched a series of violent attacks on Chinese Catholics while both Frs. Mauduit and Issaly were away. These attacks became known as the 1851 Anti-Catholic Riots and lasted for 5 days, spreading throughout Singapore, most notably in the Aukang area as well. The tensions and differences between the Teochew Catholics and the Kongsis only started to dissipate from the 1870s onwards.

Church as protector

  • One of the reasons there were many converts to the Catholic faith was due to the Church assuming the role of protector, with parish priests often acting as intermediaries between the British authorities and their flock, in defence of human dignity.
  • The Catholic workers who tended to the fields in the jungle areas were always living in constant danger, particularly from the tigers. In one instance, parishioners had retrieved the body of a Chinese coolie who had been mauled to death by a tiger only to be ordered by the British Chief of Police to return the body to where it had been found. The Chief had intended to use the dead body as bait to lure the tiger back to shoot it. Fr Augustine Perie refused to follow the order, and instead told the parishioners to bring the corpse back to the church for burial. By his actions he demonstrated to his parishioners the value he placed on their dignity and self-worth.
  • The role of the Church as protector would continue throughout the Japanese Occupation where the parish served as a sanctuary for parishioners to hide from marauding Japanese soldiers.


The decline of intermarriages

  • The completion of St Joseph’s Church on Victoria Street by the Portuguese Mission in 1853 saw a large part of the congregation from the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, particularly the Peranakan Kristang community, leave to join the new church instead. As a result, marriages between the Teochews and Peranakan Kristang largely stopped after 1853. This also coincided with a spurt in growth of the population. From the mid-1850’s intermarriages became less frequent as men and women of marriageable age were able to find partners within their own communities.

Laying the foundations for growth: The mercantile Church?

  • The legacy of the Catholic Church today owes much to the early MEP priests who were visionaries who planned for the betterment of the populace as a whole. Besides the evangelization efforts, these early missionaries also established schools which they opened up to everyone, not just Catholics, thus providing one of the main avenues of social mobility for the local population.
  • The ongoing need to build new church infrastructure to cater to the needs of the growing population required a constant and reliable flow of cash. The Church was thus heavily reliant on local benefactors to meet its financial needs. For instance, Fr Pierre Paris had a good relationship with Pedro Tan Nong Keah, a wealthy merchant and Kangchu, and relied on his generosity.
  • There were also occasions when the priests undertook business ventures, some on their own and some in partnership with wealthy parishioners to generate much needed cash. In July 1848, Fr. Beurel made reference to co-owning a nutmeg plantation with a Christian Chinese (not named) to cover the costs of church expenses.
  • The MEP priests were also highly regarded for their willingness to extend loans to promising young Chinese men, such as Jacob Low Kiok Chiang, to start up their business ventures. Their generosity would eventually bear fruit. As their businesses took off and prospered, these men and later even their offspring would repay the Catholic Church through philanthropic acts, funding the construction of new churches such as the Church of Sts Peter and Paul, Church of St Teresa and Church of the Sacred Heart, as well as schools.
  • Find out more about the contributions to the Church by early philanthropists Jacob Low Kok Chiang and David Wee Cheng Soon