Orthodox Church in Singapore: Staying low-key with focus on spirituality

Father Pitirim Dondenko leading parishioners in prayer. He is dressed in black to mourn the death of Jesus Christ. An embroidered cloth that represents the burial shroud of Jesus is at the bottom left-hand corner of the picture.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Orthodox Church is one of 3 major Christian groups here and Easter is its biggest event

Easter might have long passed as far as Singapore's official calendar goes, but for Orthodox Christians, the most significant event of their faith took place last weekend.

The day on which they celebrate Easter, also known as Pascha, is calculated based on an ancient Orthodox tradition.

The activities which spanned the last week of April this year - their Holy Week - retrace the events leading up to Jesus Christ's crucifixion and resurrection in AD33.

They culminated in services on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Easter bunnies and chocolates are not the focus of the celebration; instead, congregants assemble to chant the Scripture after a 40-day fast.

Father Pitirim Dondenko of the Russian Orthodox Church Singapore said that, to them, Easter is more important than Christmas.

"The resurrection is the centre of our faith and our key focus rather than the birth itself because through Christ's resurrection, we have promise and hope of our own resurrection if we live like Him," he said.

The Orthodox Church is one of three major Christian groups. The others are Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

It retains the seven sacraments or rites such as baptism and confession.

The church is led by patriarchs and bishops. Married men can choose to be ordained as priests and deacons.

A special practice of Orthodox Christians is their veneration of saints and holy icons, or religious images. Followers kiss them, bow and burn candles before them, to honour the persons they represent.

Metropolitan Konstantinos Tsilis of the Metropolitanate of Singapore said that few know about the Orthodox churches here because they do not advertise themselves.

The title of metropolitan is equivalent to an archbishop.

He said: "It's never our policy to proselytise and our evangelistic efforts are low-key.

"We're not so visible because our emphasis is on spirituality rather than politics, power and appearance. That was the target from the beginning. Not political power or money.

"We've survived 2,000 years and are still here," he said.

From a lone cat to 150 regular church-goers

Russian Orthodox Church had a slow start in 2007 but now has a good-sized following

A line of worshippers, heads bowed and clutching candles, emerged from a bungalow in Kovan at the stroke of midnight on Sunday morning.

The group of about 200 Russians and other expatriate Orthodox Christians gathered around Father Pitirim Dondenko, whose white robe glistened in the darkened church compound.

The priest carried a pristine white cloth over his head to represent the fabric that Jesus Christ's body was swathed in back in AD33.

Standing in the garden, the bearded priest chanted in Russian in a rich baritone: "Christ is Risen." The group responded in chorus: "Truly He is Risen."

Neighbours returning home for the night poked their heads out of their car windows curiously.

The church's celebration of Easter is an unusual sight in the heartland neighbourhood.

While the Parish of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has been in Singapore since 2007, it moved into 110 Highland Road only two years ago. The bungalow does not bear any signage to indicate that it is a place of worship.

Apart from the few Singaporeans peeking out of windows and strolling into the church compound during Christmas, few are acquainted with its rites and rituals.

Father Pitirim, 37, who is from Ukraine, said: "We don't have advertisements, signs or information outside the building. We don't want to disturb our neighbours too much."

Neighbour Tara Lim, 17, a polytechnic student, who lives a few houses away from the church, said: "I know it is a church of sorts from the cars and the people who come by on weekends but I've not actually looked in."

To mark the end of fasting, the congregation broke fast after 3am with tea, coffee, Easter eggs and bread baked by parishioners and the two Russian nuns attached to the parish. Later that day, worshippers gathered at Labrador Park for a picnic.

Father Pitirim said the parish was set up to cater to the community of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Georgians in Singapore. Some had written to Russian Patriarch Alexey II to express the need for a local parish.

The parish was registered as a society in 2008 and operated from a rundown semi-detached house in Hillview, Bukit Batok.

In its early days, few turned up for services. Once, its appointed leader, Bishop Sergey Chashin, conducted a service with just a cat as the sole attendee. As people learnt about the services, they began to trickle in slowly, recalled Father Pitirim. Father Pitirim, who started attending the church as a layman soon after it was established, became involved in reading and chanting Scripture verses at services. "A year later, the Bishop told me they needed a priest and he said, 'this will be you'," he related.

Services are mostly conducted in Church Slavonic - an old church language - and English. The parish has about 150 regular members, many of whom are young individuals or young families.

Father Pitirim, who has completed his Bachelor of Theology at Odessa Theological Seminary in Ukraine and is taking his master's degree at St Petersburg Theological Academy in Russia, said: "Our purpose isn't to proselytise or convert Singapore to orthodoxy. We are here to help fulfil the spiritual needs of the Russian community who desired to have a church set up here, and anyone else who comes."

Church member Svetlana Kokova, 43, a translator who has been working in Singapore for the past 15 years, said she appreciates its establishment. She used to attend Catholic masses. On attending masses, she said: "It was a different experience. I missed aspects of these traditions that are spiritually important to me. For example, in the Orthodox Church, we stand throughout the service as reverence to Christ."

The Russian Orthodox Church here plans to construct a building to cater for the growing needs of the community.

The current arrangement is expensive to upkeep as it costs about $10,000 a month to rent the Highland Road property.

Orthodox Christians led by a Greek archbishop

It might be led by a Greek archbishop, but the sea of faces worshipping at the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Christian Cathedral is largely from here, with more than 40 of its 70 regular worshippers Singaporeans.

Its readers, chanter and choir are also mostly Singaporean while the remaining attendees are from countries such as Australia, Romania and Serbia.

Services are conducted in English by Metropolitan Konstantinos Tsilis, 44, who was a print and radio journalist.

Some of the church's Singaporean congregants left Protestant churches in search of an organisation which has the same teachings and worship practices as the Apostles centuries ago.

Explaining the trend, Metropolitan Konstantinos said: "The Orthodox faith attracts Protestant groups and also those from outside the Christian faith. We have an answer for those searching for the roots of Christianity and wanting to learn about the tradition of the Christian faith.

"They might come to know about us from visits to Orthodox churches while travelling overseas. A handful of them come because of mixed marriages."

Metropolitan Konstantinos was ordained head of the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Singapore and South Asia to oversee Orthodox Christians in the region in 2011. About 30 clergy from the region are under his charge.

His seat and the headquarters of the church in Asia are in Singapore.

"Here we can worship freely. It's a good base point with the rest of the region as well," he said.

One of the Singaporeans attending the church, Mr Jeremiah Ong, 39, a foreign exchange trader and music teacher, grew up a Methodist and attended Anglican services before he joined the Orthodox Church early last year.

Mr Ong said: "I was wondering why services of the past differed from what is practised today, so I started reading about the beliefs and practices of the early church online."

He said he was moved by the services."I liked the focus on scriptures... All my senses were evoked by the use of religious icons and incense for instance."

Last Friday morning, worshippers gathered at the cathedral's small hall, housed within the Catholic Archdiocesan Education Centre in Upper Serangoon, to decorate Jesus Christ's "tomb" with flowers.

The "tomb" was made from a wooden table and domed canopy.

The day on which Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, also known as Pascha, is calculated based on an ancient Orthodox tradition.

Later, at 3pm in the afternoon, worshippers streamed in, kissing an icon of Christ that was nailed to the cross.

Towards the end of the Holy Friday afternoon service, Metropolitan Konstantinos removed the icon from the cross to symbolise Christ's death and burial.

He then wrapped it in a white shroud and took it into the holy area behind the iconostasis - a wall of icons and religious paintings separating the nave from the sanctuary in the church.

In the evening, during the last service of the day, the Metropolitan led a "funeral" procession around the compound accompanied by the sombre tolling of bells.

The 200 or so Orthodox Christians in attendance sang softly. Then, one by one, they bowed and stepped under a shroud embroidered with the image of Christ and the Bible, to symbolise receiving blessings from God.

"His death is not the end but it is the beginning of hope and the salvation of our lives," added Metropolitan Konstantinos.

Services in S'pore for Copts started in 2002

The Copts, or Egyptian Christians, usually gather once a month for services at the Armenian Church in Hill Street. Their group, comprising about 10 to 15 expatriate families who hail from the fields of medicine, IT, oil and shipping, is a small one and always in flux since they are not based in Singapore for long.

There were no services in Singapore for the Copts until 2002, when the late Egyptian Pope Shenouda the Third decreed that the Coptic Church in Singapore come under the jurisdiction of the Coptic diocese in Australia. It meant the establishment of structured services here, where a priest from Australia flies in to conduct services on the first weekend of each month at the Armenian Church here. A nominal rent is paid for the premises.

This Easter, Father Jonathan Ishak flew in from Australia and performed a short re-enactment of Christ's resurrection. Lights dimmed, a deacon, acting as Jesus, knocked on the door. The priest asked who it was and the deacon answered: "Christ."

This was followed by joyful hymns celebrating Jesus' resurrection. A deacon is one of the orders of clergy assisting in the service. Church representative Sami Aziz, 63, an engineer and banker who has been based here since 1998, said: "Coptic Christianity is old and traditional and Easter is the crux of the religion so we are very elaborate in our services."

melodyz@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 5, 2016.
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