The construction of churches in Singapore began when the island was established as a British colony, to provide the influx of Christian immigrants with places of worship. Singapore’s churches are among the finest examples of colonial architecture in the city, and reveal the surprising diversity of the country’s earliest Christian population.
Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator
The oldest church in Singapore, built in 1835, is the Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. This compact, elegant white building on Hill Street is considered to be the masterpiece of George Coleman, an architect whose name is synonymous with colonial architecture in Singapore. Drawing on neoclassical influences, Coleman modelled the church after another church dedicated to St. Gregory in Echmiadzin, Armenia.
Step into the octagonal structure and you’ll be surprised at the sudden quiet, a sharp contrast from the busy street outside. The contemplative atmosphere extends to the well-manicured gardens around the church, where you can stroll around the tombstones of many prominent Armenians – although none were buried on the church grounds, and the tombstones were brought to this church from the Bukit Timah cemetery. Notably, one tombstone belongs to Agnes Joaquim, the horticulturalist creator and namesake of Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid.
Cathedral of the Good Shepherd
Consecrated in 1847, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on the corner of Victoria Street and Bras Brasah Road is the seat of the Archbishop of Singapore. The Good Shepherd to whom its name refers is St. Laurent-Marie-Joseph Imbert, a French missionary in Asia whose relics are housed in the Cathedral. The Cathedral also houses two organs and the ground holds the residence of the Archbishop and a Rectory built in the early 20th century.
St. Joseph’s Church
St. Joseph’s Church was built on Victoria Street in 1826, with funds bequeathed to the Portuguese Mission in Singapore by its founder, Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia of Porto. The first church built on this site was the Church of São José, but that was pulled down in 1906 to build the present St. Joseph’s Church. This was built in the Gothic Revival style, and is instantly recognisable by its octagonal domed tower and pale blue and white facade.
St. Andrew's Cathedral
One of the most striking churches in Singapore and the largest Cathedral in the country is St. Andrew’s Cathedral, the centre of the Anglican Diocese in Singapore. Designed by Ronald MacPherson and constructed by Indian convict labourers, the Neo-Gothic Cathedral sits on a large square near City Hall MRT. It was built after the original cathedral (designed by George Coleman) was deemed unsafe and demolished after repeated lightening strikes.
St Andrew's is renowned for its towering spires, and its three large stained glass windows dedicated to prominent colonialists: Sir Stamford Raffles, John Crawfurd and Major General William Butterworth.
The site is also custodian to several notable artefacts: the Coventry Cross, made from two silver nails taken from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral; the Canterbury Stone, bestowed by the Metropolitan Cathedral Church of Canterbury; and a portion of the carpet used in the coronation of Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey.
St George's Church
St. George’s Church's in Dempsey Hill stands on an open grassy hill and was originally built for British troops quartered in the nearby Tanglin Barracks (which is now home to a number of stylish bars, restaurants and shops). The architecture of the church is simple, with no spire — just red brick and a simple white cross against the surrounding greenery. Dempsey Hill itself is a great way to spend an afternoon in Singapore, and St. George’s is a peaceful way to usher in the evening.
Back in the CBD, Chijmes is the church that isn’t really a church anymore. It was originally a convent, started by four French nuns in Singapore in the 1850s, and was called the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. Today, the courtyards and cloisters house restaurants and shops, and the original Gothic Chapel is still standing; with its dramatic arched ceilings, fine plaster work and stained glass, it is one of Singapore’s most dramatic event venues.
The architectural exploration of Singapore’s past doesn’t stop with churches. Check out other colonial buildings
, bridges and shophouses
to catch a glimpse into Singapore’s history.