Painstaking work on priceless stained glass

Painstaking work on priceless stained glass
Ms Swati Chandgadkar working on some pieces; and restorer Suresh Pednekar working on the Madonna and Infant Jesus panel. Every precaution is taken to protect the glass, in line with strict international conservation guidelines, said Ms Swati.

For the past year, an award-winning expert from Mumbai has been painstakingly removing layer after layer of dirt and grime from 16 stained glass panels from the oldest Roman Catholic Church here.

Ms Swati Chandgadkar uses distilled water, for instance, to clean the glass.

The 58-year-old's work is part of a $40 million effort to restore the crumbling 172-year-old national monument - the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. The work is scheduled to end in the middle of next year.

Built between 1843 and 1847 and located at the junction of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road, the cathedral is the first permanent place of worship for Catholics here.

It was gazetted as a national monument in 1973. But underground tunnelling nearby for new developments took its toll.

Cracks started appearing on its walls, floors and columns in 2006. The church's bell tower became crooked and the building suffered corrosion, water damage and crumbling plasterwork.

Poorly done renovations in the past had caused the church's stained glass panels to buckle.

Ms Swati, whose projects in India have picked up three Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards, is no stranger to Singapore's churches. She worked on the conservation of St Andrew's Cathedral's stained glass windows several years ago.

Every precaution, she told The Sunday Times, was taken to protect the glass, in line with strict international conservation guidelines. "We used the minimum intervention approach, where every attempt is made to preserve the original glass, paint and lead that are in good condition," she said.

The parts that could not be fixed, such as the biblical Joseph's missing lower right arm, have been carefully reconstructed and replaced by Ms Swati and her fellow restorer-artist Suman Wadaye.

"My main objective is to give a new lease of life to these priceless windows," she said.

The panels, now stored in a studio in Tai Seng, will be ready by October and are likely to be housed in new timber frames.

A set of 14 faded oil paintings, more than a century old, depicting the events of Jesus' crucifixion is being restored by Indian- born and European-trained art conservator Chandrahasa Bhat, 46, who has worked in conservation institutions such as London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

A 103-year-old pipe organ belonging to the church is being repaired in the Philippines to the tune of $500,000.

Work to restore the cathedral and its two-storey rectory, and build a new three-storey building that will house a function hall, prayer and counselling rooms and a heritage centre, started in November 2013.

The project is helmed by a team of architecture, engineering and conservation experts from Singapore.

Currently, giant steel brackets are on site to hold up the cathedral as a concrete foundation is being laid. This costs $3 million, but Father Adrian Anthony, 72, the priest in charge of the restoration, said it helps ensure that the church "remains standing for future generations".

The cathedral's project manager, Mr Leong Tatt Man of architectural practice Architects61, said there have been several surprise finds along the way.

Mr Ho Weng Hin, an architectural restoration specialist consultant from Studio Lapis, discovered at least seven varieties of coloured cement encaustic patterned tiles from England. The tiles had been partly hidden beneath the carpeting of the rectory, which was built in 1912.

The decision was made to keep the tiles. Each had to removed, restored and then put back. A fifth of the tiles were damaged beyond repair, so replicas were made at a factory in Vietnam.

The extra work was well worth it to preserve the original ambience of the house as intended by its architect, the late Father Charles Benedict Nain, said Mr Ho.

The cathedral, which has no fixed parish but caters to tourists, visitors and foreign workers in the vicinity, is still short of $10 million. But Father Anthony remains hopeful that it will be able to raise the sum.

This article was first published on May 3, 2015.
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