History of St John’s Chapel at Pulau Bukom – Part 2

History of the Parish of St John the Apostle on Pulau Bukom – Part 2

St John the Apostle was chosen as the patron saint of the chapel located on the Pulau Bukom Shell refinery due to his miraculous escape from a boiling barrel of oil.

After years of lobbying for a place of worship, the chapel was finally established in Dec 1958 just in time for the Christmas celebrations, and the Catholic community lost no time in establishing a vibrant parish life.

Aerial view of the completed Chapel of St John the Apostle

Turbulent times for the Catholic faithful

Last Mass in the first chapel on Bungalow Hill, celebrated by Bishop Carlo van Melckebeke. The oil tanks are visible in the background.

The joy of having their own chapel however was short-lived. Before the paint had even begun to dry on the chapel, the community was made to relocate as plans by Shell to expand the refinery required the hill on which the church was located to be levelled. On 24 July 1960, the last Mass was celebrated, bringing to a close the first chapter of the Chapel of St John the Apostle on Pulau Bukom.

The Catholic community returned to the former schoolroom for Mass until the end of October. Then in November 1960, the second chapter of the Chapel of St John the Apostle began with the completion and blessing of the new chapel by Bishop Melckebeke.  But the community continued to face many challenges. In April 1963, Shell announced plans for the gradual relocation of its island resident employees to the mainland. The already-small Catholic community was hard-hit. By the end of the year, 20 families had moved to Singapore. By 1964, another 10 families had been transferred out, leaving many empty pews in the chapel during Mass.


Despite the shrinking numbers, the faithful soldiered on. Sunday Masses continued to be celebrated, as were feast days and solemnities. The sacraments continued to be conferred, and there were even two weddings during this period!


By the end of 1965, the altar was turned so that the priest could face the community when celebrating mass. This was in line with the changes introduced by Vatican II.

Two weddings and a Jubilee
End of the road

Nevertheless, the community continued to dwindle as more plans continued to be made for the expansion of the refinery. By 1969, the chapel had become increasingly isolated. Not surprisingly, a decision was eventually made that the chapel be demolished to make way for the construction of more Shell units.

Thereafter, what remained of the Catholic community moved their worship services to the Chapel Hill residential area of the island where a ground floor flat unit had been repurposed to serve as a chapel. By then, only 14 Catholic families remained on the island – one Chinese, two English, three Dutch, and eight Eurasian. The move to Chapel Hill effectively signaled the end of the Chapel of St John the Apostle. The new space had to be shared with the Anglican community, and became known as the Chapel of St John and St James.


After the closure of the chapel, Mass was held at the Bukom Club

The march of progress continued to extract a heavy intangible cost. By 1971, only 7 Catholic families remained on the island. New construction in Chapel Hill led to the permanent closure of the chapel. Mass would be celebrated at one of the function rooms in the Bukom Club, the company clubhouse.

While Sunday Mass continued to be celebrated on Pulau Bukom for employees on standby duty over the weekend, the close-knit Catholic community was no more, a victim of redevelopment. Today the island barely resembles what it once was. Traditional attap houses and residential areas for employees have been replaced by towering oil storage tanks. But while its physical structures have been demolished, the chapel and the community it once served will continue to live on in the memories of those who once called the island home.


Location of the original chapel. To the right is Pulau Bukom Kechil, where there was a Malay community of fishermen and where the Bukom English School was shifted to for safety reasons


The congregation gathered outside the chapel after the opening & blessing ceremony by His Grace Archbishop Olcomendy on 4 Jan 1959


End of Part 2. To return to Part 1 click here