Our Catholic Neighbourhood: History of the Mission Grounds (Civic District)

The “Mission Ground” is the area in the downtown Civic District where the Catholic Church began its mission. We are fortunate that through the passage of time, many of the institutions that were built by the early Fathers still stand today. While a few have had to make way to progress and have been re-purposed from their original intentions, we can take heart that our Catholic history remains alive and relevant, continuing the work of the Catholic pioneers in building a vibrant, missionary and evangelistic Church.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd

What’s in a Name? – How the first Catholic church in Singapore got its name

St Laurent Marie Joseph Imbert [1796-1839]

St Laurent Marie Joseph Imbert [1796-1839]

In 1821, St Laurent Imbert, a missionary from France, came to Singapore at the request of Bishop Esprit Marie Joseph Florens to assess the state of the Catholics on the island. In Singapore, he found that there were only a handful of Catholics living miserable lives on the island. He wrote back to Bishop Florens, requesting a priest to minister to these Catholics and assist them.

St Laurent Imbert was later appointed Vicar Apostolic of Korea in 1836, which was undergoing a period of Catholic persecution at the time. He crossed over to Korea in secret and ministered to the Korean Catholics until his capture on 10 August 1839. He was tortured by the authorities and offered a deal: They would spare the people if the bishop surrendered himself. He agreed to surrender and wrote to his fellow missionary priests, Fr Pierre-Philibert Maubant and Fr Jacques-Honoré Chastan who were in hiding, urging them to do the same. In his letter to them, he wrote, “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” These words are inscribed on the floor at the entrance of the Cathedral.

Unfortunately, the Korean authorities reneged on their agreement and continued to persecute the Catholics, and Bishop Imbert was executed on 21 September 1839 at Saenamteo, Korea. News of his death reached Fr Jean Marie Beurel and Bishop Jean Baptiste Boucho who were at the time considering a name for the new church of Singapore. Thus it was that the Church of the Good Shepherd got its name.

Relics of St Laurent Imbert can be found at the front left side of the church.

Remains of the Archbishops and Bishops

Father Jean-Marie Beurel, MEP

Father Jean-Marie Beurel, MEP

On the side walls of the church, as well as in the ground in front of the alter and the crypt, the remains of Archbishops Olcomendy and Gregory Yong, and Bishop Edouard Gasnier, as well as a memorial plaque to Fr Jean Marie Beurel, MEP can be found.

Fr Jean Marie Beurel was the priest responsible for the building of the church. After the MEP missionary’s arrival in Singapore, he saw a need to build a bigger church to serve the growing Catholic population.  He asked for and obtained the land for the church from the colonial government and managed to raise enough funds to build the church. Fr Beurel opened and blessed the church on 6 June 1847. In 1888, The Church of the Good Shepherd became a Cathedral under the tenure of Bishop Edouard Gasnier (whose remains can be found in front of the altar of the Cathedral).


New Time Capsule

In 2016, the Cathedral underwent a major restoration project. A 173-year-old time capsule was found buried under one of the cathedral’s columns. It contained 18th and 19th-century artefacts such as British and French coins, a copy of the Singapore Free Press and a service booklet that was used during the laying of the cornerstone back in 1843.

When the Cathedral was re-opened following its restoration, Archbishop William Goh laid a new time capsule in the same column where the earlier one was found. In this new time capsule, they placed reports from the Catholic News, The Straits Times, and Hai Sing Bao about the cathedral, magazines on the cathedral’s history and restoration works, and current Singapore coins.

Homeless Jesus Sculpture

This was sculpted by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz. It depicts the figure of a homeless person, curled up under a blanket and sleeping on a park bench. His face and hands are obscured by the blanket, but crucifixion wounds on His feet reveal His identity as the Son of God. The sculpture calls to mind Matthew 8:20, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’

It also challenges us to consider Matthew 25:40, ‘In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’

The Role of the Cathedral in Singapore

The early years of the Cathedral, from 1847 to the mid-1900s, were an exciting time in Singapore’s history. Issues concerning society in Singapore at the time included the arrival of migrants and refugees. The socio-political landscape was also rife with many communist and secret society activities. The church in Singapore responded to these issues in various ways. Sometimes, the church also had to work with the local authorities, such as when the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd was vandalised, and the police has to be called in to offer protection. This was also a time that saw large increases in the Catholic population in Singapore.

As the first Catholic church in Singapore, the role of the Cathedral at the time was to cultivate and minister to the budding Catholic population as it grew, very much like a shepherd would. Fr Jean Marie Beurel, who built the Cathedral, was the trailblazer for many of the major undertakings of the Church during that time, such as the setting up of various mission schools to provide education to Singapore’s children.

St Joseph’s Institution (Former, now the Singapore Art Museum)

Sowing seeds – The humble beginnings of the first chapel in Singapore

In 1822, Padre Jacob of the Portuguese Mission obtained a site from Stamford Raffled to build a Roman Catholic place of worship. However, nothing was done with the site until the arrival of the French priest Fr Jean Baptiste Boucho 10 years later. The British colonial government granted him the land jointly with Padre Yegros of the Spanish Mission.

Fr Boucho worked together with the Spanish priest to build a place of worship at the ‘centre of the land’ on Bras Basah Road. There, the first foundation stone was laid and the chapel was completed on 5 May 1833. It was blessed on 9 June 1833. The chapel was a small construction of wood and attap, measuring only 60 by 30 feet with no spire or tower. Although the structure was not large, it was sufficient to service the early congregation. These were mainly members of the Portuguese communities from Melaka.

In 1840, Bishop Courvezy suggested enlarging the chapel. However, it was later decided that they would build a new church instead and use the chapel as a school. Thus, when the Church of the Good Shepherd was built in 1846, the chapel was converted for use as the first Boys School.

Nurturing the young – Setting up Mission Schools

The French priest Fr Jean-Marie Beurel was very committed to providing education, especially for the poor. Thus, on 6 June 1847, he announced to the Sunday congregation his intention to establish schools under the De La Salle Brothers and Infant Jesus Sisters.

Fr Beurel wanted the schools to be as liberal as possible so as to be open to everyone. They would welcome children of all religious backgrounds and no interference was made if they were not Roman Catholic. Religious instruction would be given only to Roman Catholics before or after school hours.

On 1 May 1852, St John’s Free School was opened with 3 teachers at Bras Basah Road, with 75 boys in its first intake. The teachers were Brothers Gregory and Switbert from Ireland, and Brother Liefroy from France. Classes were held in the old chapel and the students studied the English, French, Chinese and the Malay languages, mathematics, book-keeping, and drawing. Enrolment was free, and all school expenses were paid for by the Catholic mission in Singapore.

However, the path that Fr Beurel chose to tread was not an easy one. He faced many challenges and tribulations in the setting up and administration of the mission school. Despite the challenges, some of which involved conflicts with the De La Salle Brothers, he persisted and fought hard to recruit teachers, rally support from colonial authorities and local community and raise funds for the building of the school. He even poured his own funds into the school, and by 1861, the school owed him almost three thousand dollars.

Fr Beurel’s love and commitment extended to opening up his home as well. He lived in the Procure House at the corner of Queens and Bras Basah Road. Around 1853, he began taking in boarders into his house as day schoolers. In all, he received about 27 boarders from Manila and Macao. They grew so attached to Fr Beurel that when they were eventually forced to move away from him, they staged a walkout in protest.

Throughout the years, the school’s intake continued to increase. It underwent several reconstructions to accommodate the growing number of students. On 19 March 1855 which was the Feast Day of St Joseph, a new foundation stone for the school was laid. Later, in 1863, the school was officially recognised by the British colonial government and began receiving an annual grant. It began charging fees and was renamed St Joseph’s Institution.

The curved wings of the building were added in 1903 under Father Charles Benedict Nain, who was also an architect. These have long been regarded as a symbol of welcome, love, and warmness and echoed the love and commitment that Fr Beurel had for the children and mission under his care.


Aerial view of St Joseph’s Institution. The Church of Saints Peter and Paul and Catholic High School are also visible.

Town Convent (Former, now CHIJMES)

One for the Boys, and One for the Girls – Setting up a Convent School in Singapore

Once the setting up of a school for boys got off the ground, Fr Jean-Marie Beurel then turned his attention to providing education for girls. In answer to his call for nuns to serve in a school for girls, the Superior General of the Charitable Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus sent some of her Sisters to Singapore. In March of 1852, three IJ Sisters arrived in Singapore. However, to Fr Beurel’s great disappointment, they were redirected to Penang to set up schools there instead. To his further chagrin, half of the Christian Brothers were also assigned to go over with the Sisters.

The Sisters returned to Singapore in February 1854, with the arrival of Mother Mathilde Raclot, Mother St Appollinaire, Sister St Gregory Connolly and Mother St Gaetan. Finally, they were able to set up the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, opening a school, an orphanage, and a boarding school. This first CHIJ School was known as “Town Convent” due to its location in the city. Within just 10 days of their arrival in Singapore, the Sisters took in 16 orphans who were left abandoned outside the gate of the convent.

This gate became known as the Gate of Hope. As the word spread that the IJ Sisters would care for the babies left at this gate, more unwanted babies began to show up. Many of the children who grew up in the orphanage also went to the convent school. The gate that now stands to the side of the entrance at CHIJMES is a replica of the original Gate of Hope.

As the work of the IJ Sisters progressed over the years and the school continued to grow, Fr Beurel acquired several neighbouring plots of land stretching from Bras Basah Road to Stamford Road. In 1881, the government declared the convent a government-aided school. By 1902, the CHIJ orphanage had 200 children, and the school had 700 students registered.

A new Gothic chapel was also added to the convent. Completed in 1903 and consecrated in 1904, the chapel was designed by Father Charles Benedict Nain, who served at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.  Fr Nain was the same priest-architect who designed the curved wings of the SJI around the same time. Another of his architectural legacies is the Nativity Church, and he also installed the pipe organ at the Cathedral. The style of the chapel’s architecture was modelled in the Gothic style, with tall spires and shapes pointing up towards God in the heavens. The stained glass panels installed in the windows at the apse of the chapel depict events from the life of Jesus: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity of Jesus, the Presentation of Jesus, and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. The stained-glass panels above the windows on either side of the nave depict the Twelve Apostles. They were designed by the European craftsman Jules Dobbelaere. This chapel was the “centre of life” at the school. It was where the students prayed, sang hymns, and attended Mass.


Sketch of the Chapel Gate designed by Fr Nain (his signature is on the left).

When the First World War broke out, Fr Nain enlisted for military service and was posted to a medical unit. He later died of exhaustion on the battlefield in Vichy, France. A memorial plaque in his honour can be found in the Chapel, and his name is also engraved on the bronze plates at the Cenotaph in Esplanade Park.

In 1931, the convent bought over the former premises of Hotel van Wijk along Stamford Road. This became the Chinese section of the school named Victoria Girls’ School, and later renamed St Nicholas Girls’ School. This Chinese school was set up to cater to the increasing population of Chinese-speaking migrants.

Catholic High School (Former, now 222 Queen Street and 8Q SAM)

222 Queen Street was the site of the old Catholic High School, and the 8Q SAM building is what used to be the school’s classroom block. The school was founded in 1935 by Fr Edward Becheras, a French missionary, to provide education to the children from the Chinese community.

While Fr Becheras is most widely known and credited for the founding of Catholic High School, he did not do it alone. Another of the school’s founders is Teochew Catholic businessman Paul Lee. Mr Lee’s family fled from Swatow to Singapore between 1927 and 1928 to escape the persecution and political unrest in China at the time, after the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. His dream of setting up a Chinese mission school took its inspiration from the English mission school of St Joseph’s Institution.  He worked tirelessly to get the school off the ground, even interviewing candidates for the school’s principal’s post.

Fr Becheras, as the school’s supervisor, was credited for establishing the unique character of Catholic High.   In his words, “The way of the Catholic High School is a way made of two rails – Chinese and English, free from any entanglement, straight to its end. Happy are those who follow. They shall obtain the scope of a sound education”.  He invited the Marist Brothers to teach at Catholic High School in 1949. Four Marist brothers came over and, a year later, the Marist Brothers took formal responsibility for the administration of the school. In 1974, administration of the school was returned to the diocese.

In the 1950’s, the threat of communism loomed heavy over Southeast Asia. Many local Chinese-medium schools struggled with students who were sympathetic to the communist cause. Catholic High School’s student population was no exception and there were students who were susceptible to the left-wing communist ideology being spread from the ‘motherland’.  However, Fr Becheras’ stance against the communist threat was firm and unyielding. In 1954, he expelled 70 students for their involvement in subversive activities. The next day, he himself guarded the school, stationing himself at the gate. He must have made a formidable sentinel, with his long white beard and colonial helmet, armed with a chair and a cane!


Church of Saints Peter and Paul

When the Church of the Good Shepherd was opened in 1847 to service the Catholic community, masses were conducted in English, Portuguese and Malay. This soon posed a problem for the Chinese-speaking Catholic community, which was rapidly increasing in numbers. Hence, Fr Pierre Paris MEP, decided to build the Chinese-speaking parish to cater to the pastoral needs of this growing community. A prominent Chinese Catholic, Pedro Tan Neo Kah donated significantly to the construction of the church and also encouraged fellow Teochews such as Joseph Chan Teck Hee and Low Gek Seng to do likewise. Thus it was that the Church of Saints Peter and Paul was built and completed in 1870.

The architecture and façade of the church building itself is a fusion between Western and Chinese designs. While the architecture emulates the structure and design of the gothic style, subtle influence from its Chinese community can be observed. For example, the front façade of the church has detailing that depicts carved rows of eggs, which are a Chinese symbol of life and joy. The lotus designs of the oculi on the church walls are also features of Chinese architecture. Inside the church, the pattern of the tiles on the floor resembles that of an infinitely repeating patter. This is a sacred geometry, and represents how God is infinite. Most arresting in the church design are the statues of St Peter and St Paul. St Peter stands at the right side of Christ, holding the keys that symbolise his authority to govern the Church. St Paul holds the sword, which echo the words he wrote in his letter, that “The Word of God must cut your soul like a double-edged sword.”

At the front of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul are inscribed the Chinese characters “天主堂”.  The words 天主 (“tian zhu”) refers to God, and coupled with the word 堂 (“tang”), means that this place is a gathering hall for the family of God. These words were an ancient set of words used by the early missionaries in Chinese to symbolise God, whom they were preaching to the people of China. It is used exclusively by Catholics. Hence, any Chinese who sees these words knows it is a Catholic church, and not any other type of church.

Since the establishment of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, the parish priests had always been appointed head of the Singapore Chinese Catholic Mission, which saw to the needs of the various dialect-speaking groups. Many of the wealthier Teochews of the parish contributed generously to the building of other churches which were established for the other dialect groups, including Church of the Sacred Heart which was assigned to the Hakkas and Cantonese, and Church of St Teresa, which was assigned to the Hokkien Catholic community.  The Church of Saints Peter and Paul also at one time housed the Tamil-speaking community, who eventually moved to Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1888.

Carlo Catholic Bookstore

The Carlo Catholic Bookstore located next to Church of Saints Peter and Paul is named after CICM Bishop Carlo van Melckebeke, the former bishop of Nignxia, who in 1953, was appointed by the Holy See to be the Apostolic Visitator of the Overseas Chinese. Having been forced into exile from China, he set up his office in Singapore where he established the Singapore Catholic Central Bureau (now called the Carlo Society) for the diffusion of Catholic literature in Southeast Asia. Bishop Carlo was also the initiator of several Chinese Catholic publications, most notably the Hai Sing Pao, the archdiocesan Chinese newspaper.




St Joseph’s Church

St Joseph’s Church was built by the Portuguese missionaries and remained under the jurisdiction of the Portugal Catholic Church until 1981. Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia, a Portuguese priest, managed to get land from the British colonial government in 1825. He purchased the land using funds from the Portuguese mission in China, whose Procurator’s house was named after St Joseph, which is part of the reason that the church came to be named after St Joseph.

Unfortunately, Fr Maia passed away in 1850, and the task of completing the building of the church fell to Father Vincente de Santa Catarina, another Portuguese priest. The cost of building the church was paid for by Fr Maia’s money and property, as well as contributions from the King of Portugal and public subscriptions.

The foundation stone of St Joseph’s Church was laid on 14 Dec 1851, and the edifice itself was completed, blessed, and opened in 1853. In 1858, two transepts were added to the church by Fr Catarina.

In June of 1886, St Joseph’s Church was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Macau and the Portuguese Mission in Singapore was based at the church. It would be nearly a century later, in 1981, when an agreement was reached to place the church under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Singapore. Thus it remains so to this day.

Even as time passed and the landscape around the church was torn down and rebuilt alongside the country’s modernisation, some of the old Portuguese traditions and celebrations still remain.  An example is the procession of devotion to Our Lady of Fatima on the 13th day of each month. This procession commemorates the apparitions of Mother Mary in Fatima, Portugal. During the procession, the statue of Our Lady of Fatima is carried around the church. Twice a year, on 13 May and 13 October, worshippers participate in a candlelight procession. Another tradition happens on Good Friday when a life-sized statue of Jesus Christ is lowered and placed on a bier for a procession. Some parishioners have shared memories of how, after every Good Friday procession, the church grounds would be covered with so much wax that it looked like it had snowed. Children would play wax skating and one-legged tag on the wax-covered grounds after the procession, filling the church grounds with their laughter.

Former St Anthony’s Boys School & St Anthony’s Convent

On 1 August 1879, the Portuguese Mission opened St Anna’s School at Middle Road. It was a small little house with an enrolment of only 6 students. The school was founded by Fr Jose Pedro Santa Ana e Cunha, Assistant to the Vicar of St. Joseph’s Church. Later in 1881, Fr Nicolau Ignacio Theophilo Pinto took over the management of the school, and a new school building was completed in 1885 at the corner of Middle Road and Queen Street. This later became the St Anthony’s Boys’ and Girls’ School in 1886. In November 1893, the school was separated into St. Anthony’s Boys’ School and St. Anthony’s Convent, a girls’ school. The boys’ school was transferred to two old shop houses behind the Parochial House. St Anthony’s Convent was run by the nuns of the Canossian order. Over the years, new wings and a chapel were added.

During the Second World War, the St Anthony’s Convent was used as a shelter. All were welcome to seek safety there during air raids. In these fearful times, those seeking shelter would pray the Rosary and the Sub Tuum together, huddled in the convent as the sounds of bombs and bullet shells rained down upon the land outside. The roof of the Convent was a small place that was used as a dormitory for war orphans.

After the war, the priests of the Portuguese Mission handed the school over to the De La Salle Brothers and by 1961, all secondary students were transferred to St. Joseph’s Institution. St Anthony’s became a purely primary school. It remained within the St. Joseph’s Church grounds until May 1992, when it shifted to new premises on Bukit Batok Street 34 and became St. Anthony’s Primary School.

Catholic Centre

The Catholic Centre used to be located at the corner of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road, at the site where the NTUC Income Centre now stands. It was previously a two-story bungalow across the road from the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. The parish priest of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Rev Fr Rivet, founded the Catholic Club in this bungalow. After Mass, parishioners would cross the road and gather for fellowship and recreational activities at the Catholic Club. However, the government later acquired the land and the organisations operating out of the bungalow moved to the Catholic Young Men’s Association Building. It was then decided that the bungalow at 55 Waterloo Street, a one-story building that housed the Marist Brothers who ran Catholic High School, would be demolished. It would be replaced by an eight-story building. This building was named Catholic Welfare Centre and completed in 1982, before it was renamed Catholic Centre.

It is interesting to note that Waterloo Street was originally known as Church Street, named after Sir Thomas Church, the first Resident Councillor. However, as there was another Church Street near the downtown Telok Ayer area, the name was changed to avoid the confusion of having two streets with the same name.


Additional References