Heritage steeped in history

The Mar Thoma Syrian Church in Singapore celebrated its 80th anniversary with a dinner at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel on Feb 11.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was the guest-of-honour at the event attended by about 500 people.

They included Bishop Terry Kee of the Lutheran Church, and other church leaders from Singapore, Malaysia and India.

Mission partners, past vicars of the parish and other well-wishers, were also present.

After the opening prayer by the past vicar of the parish, Reverend George Koshy, DPM Tharman lit the traditional lamp.

He congratulated the Mar Thoma community and praised the work done by the church.

Church member and parish representative on the National Council of Churches in Singapore George Joseph provided an insight into the Syrian Christian diaspora in Singapore.

He said the pioneer members of the Marthoma community in Singapore integrated and adapted to their new surroundings while remaining "true to our faith and practices".

He added that the community played a role in contributing to the social and economic development of Singapore.

Read also: First official heritage trail of Little India launched

The church has been active in providing support to various communities, including migrant workers and lower-income Indian students.

In 2008, it started an outreach ministry for migrant workers, in collaboration with the Tamil Methodist Church.

Two years later, it worked with the Anglican Church and St Andrew's Community Hospital to provide medical care to the workers.

The launch of the commemorative book, The Journey In God's Green Pastures, with (from left) Rev John G. Mathews, DPM Tharman, Mrs Rachel Roy and Mrs Sangeetha Mariamma of the editorial committee.
Photo: Singapore Parish Archives

These milestones and the history of the church are recorded in a 500-page book titled The Journey In God's Green Pastures, which was launched by DPM Tharman at the event.

The book traces the founding and the early history of the church in Kerala, to the migration of the first Marthomites to Singapore in the early 20th century and up to the recent history in 2016.

Vicar Rev John G. Mathews felicitated Mr Tharman with a "ponnada" (traditional honouring of the guest with the draping of a shawl).

Later, Rev Kee released a music CD of 11 songs - Blessings - produced by the Mar Thoma Syrian Church choir.

It includes the anniversary anthem Rejoice, Renew, Redeem, which was written and put to music by church member James Kuruvilla.

Said Vicar Mathews: "This 80th year has been a time for the Mar Thoma community in Singapore to Rejoice, Renew and Redeem -- which is also our chosen theme for this anniversary - to rejoice in God's providence on our community and our country, to renew ourselves in our faith and mission as disciples of Christ and to be co-redeemers in the Creation that God has made us stewards of.

"We look forward to our mission in the days ahead with a sense of humility, enormous responsibility and thanksgiving, carrying together our parish, our community, our mission partners and our fellow Singaporeans."

For its 80th birthday, the church partnered non-profit health group Sata (Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association) CommHealth to run a mobile medical clinic on its premises on Upper Thomson Road.

The clinic, in operation since last August, provides residents with free health check-ups once a month.

It also worked with the Methodist Mission Services in Timor Leste to pick and sponsor a missionary to teach English to students there.

Said the vice-president of Singapore's Mar Thoma Syrian Church, Mr Abraham Thomas: "Over the last 10 to 15 years, we have seen a more active part being played by the church and its members in the wider Singapore context. We have been doing legal, medical and food aid programmes for the less privileged in Singapore.

"These outreach activities are being done by young and old. It not only brings us closer together as a community but also allows our members to be inextricably linked to what is happening here."

The church's celebrations will culminate with a thanksgiving service on March 4.

Age-old history

Mar Thoma Church at Mar Thoma Road (1955 to 1990).Photo: Singapore Parish Archives

The Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India, has had a relatively long presence in Singapore.

The first Syrian Christians arrived in Singapore in 1912 from Kerala, and in 1936, the church organised its first congregation.

As more Syrian Christians arrived in Singapore, a Marthomite priest was sent from Kerala to see to the spiritual needs of the growing community in 1936, and the parishes in Malaya and Singapore were established.

The first church in Singapore was built in 1953 at an unnamed road off St Michael's Road.

This road was subsequently named Mar Thoma Road in 1956.

Drawing on the Mar Thoma Church's long tradition of service through education, St Thomas School was established in 1955 along the same road.

The school was started to provide education for over-aged students who had missed school during the war years and its immediate aftermath.

Current church at 29 Jalan Keli.Photo: Singapore Parish Archives

The church and school were relocated to Telok Blangah in 1982 and 1991 respectively, when the original plots of land were required by the Government for the building of the Central Expressway. The school was closed in 2000 as a result of falling enrolment and the church was relocated to Jalan Keli on Upper Thomson Road in 2004.

Despite the closure of the school, the church, which currently has about 700 members, has remained active in the education scene, having partnered the Singapore Indian Development Association to offer scholarships and bursaries since 2011.

Among other charitable activities, the church also reaches out to Singaporeans through free legal counselling clinics at Telok Blangah CC and Thomson CC, and Food Aid programmes in partnership with the Telok Blangah, Henderson and Thomson CCs.

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