Crown jewel of Bukit Purmei

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings here have been gazetted as national monuments.

This is the latest in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

In the afternoon sun, the Church of St Teresa glows on Bukit Purmei - which means "beautiful or picturesque hill" in Malay.

From afar, the stunning building is impossible to miss. Its exterior ivory walls, rendered with fine granite chippings, conceal the interior of steel-reinforced concrete.

Two towering belfries house five bronze bells, each with its own history. Weighing between 118kg and 965kg, each has its own distinct tone and was made at the Cornille-Havard bell foundry in Normandy, France, in 1927.

The five bells cost close to 3,500 Straits dollars in total then, and were donated by parishioner Joseph Chan Teck Hee that year to the church, which was then under construction.

Each of the bells has a name inscribed on it - Teresa, Joanna, Francisca, Catharina and Rosalia - the names of Mr Chan's five children.

The church's imposing dome, sitting like a crown jewel, completes its Romano-Byzantine style.

The design was inspired by the iconic Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre, Paris, which is also on a hill.

Said volunteer church worker Joseph Silverayan, 76: "Unlike the more modern churches, the Church of St Teresa has retained the typical church architecture since 1929."

Inside, the church's centrepiece is its baldachin, or canopy.

Hewn out of solid granite, it is crowned by a round dome, also known as a cupola.

Behind the baldachin, three columns of six stained glass windows adorn the plain white wall.

As sunlight pours in and accentuates the striking colours of the window images, each depicting an event in the life of St Teresa, come to life.

She was born as Marie Francoise Therese Martin and entered the Carmelite Convent at age 15 after numerous attempts.

She died of tuberculosis in 1897 at age 24.

She was canonised in 1925 and made the Patroness of Foreign Missions in 1927.

These window panels have been part of the church since they were donated by parishioners in 1931.

Meanwhile, its front altar rails and pews have been there since 1929.

The church's stately design is a huge draw for weddings, and as many as two marriages take place there almost every Saturday, said Mr Silverayan, who has been with the church for more than 60 years.

Ms Veronica Tan, 53, who has worshipped at the church since the mid-1970s, said: "I formed friendships that last till today, met my husband and married in this church.

"Being part of the church community is like being in a kampung. We worship, learn, play, and celebrate together."

The idea to build the church was floated in 1910, to serve Hokkien- speaking Catholics from Fujian, China, and those living in Kampong Bahru, Spottiswoode Park, Cantonment and Telok Blangah.

However, it was only in 1923 that Father Emile Joseph Mariette, the parish priest of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, began planning for the Church of St Teresa's construction.

The plot of land on which it sits was bought in 1925 for 26,000 Straits dollars.

As it was believed to have been bought through St Teresa's intercession, the church was named after her.

The church officially opened on April 7, 1929, nearly two years after its foundation stone was laid.

Tragically, Father Mariette was killed by a falling plank in March 1928 during its construction.

Since it opened, the church has served as a place of both worship and refuge.

During World War II, it housed women who sought protection from Japanese soldiers in Hood Lodge, an adjacent building which the church bought in 1935.

After the Japanese surrender, it housed an orphanage for 85 boys, aged between six and 14, who were affected by the war.

The church also provided shelter to stranded Caucasians during the 1950 Maria Hertogh riots.

And it later provided accommodation to those affected by the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire.

Today, close to 3,000 parishioners attend the church, which was gazetted as a national monument on Nov 11, 2009.

Reflecting on its history as a sanctuary, Mr Phillip Tan, a 62-year-old parishioner, said: "The church welcomes everyone, Catholic or non-Catholic. It is a gathering place where people of all faiths can eventually come together to understand and appreciate each other without prejudice."

This article was first published on April 13, 2017.
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