The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is the oldest Roman Catholic church in Singapore. Established in 1832 by missionaries from the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, services were first held in the house of Denis Lesley McSwiney until 1833 when a modest wooden chapel on the site of the former Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI) along Bras Basah Road was completed. As years passed, the chapel became too small and the cornerstone of the present church was laid in 1843. The church, designed by McSwiney, was blessed and opened by Father Jean-Marie Beurel on 6 June 1847. Father Beurel was also responsible for the founding of SJI and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.
The Good Shepherd
Saint Laurent Imbert was the first Roman Catholic missionary to visit Singapore in 1821. The dedication of the church to the Good Shepherd stems from the note written by him to his fellow missionaries asking them to join him in surrendering to the authorities to save their flocks from extermination during a period of Christian persecution in Korea. He wrote: “In desperate circumstances, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” They surrendered and the three of them were beheaded on 21 September 1839. News of this and their martyrdom reached Singapore when a name was being considered for the church and “Good Shepherd” was chosen. Today, the Cathedral houses the relics of Saint Laurent Imbert.
A National Monument
The Cathedral’s architecture is reminiscent of two London churches – Saint Paul’s, Covent Garden and Saint Martin-in-the-Fields. Its neo-Palladian porticoes and steeple are its most prominent features. Adorning the interior walls are 14 large antique oil paintings of the Way of the Cross that help the viewer meditate on the final moments of Jesus. The Cathedral also houses Singapore’s oldest pipe organ, a Bevington and Son instrument blessed in 1912.
During World War II, the Cathedral was used as an emergency hospital and continues to be a centre for peace and refuge from the buzz of the city today. For its social, historic, cultural and architectural significance, the Cathedral was gazetted a national monument in 1973.
This is Singapore’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, the seat of the Archbishop and a gazetted national monument since 1973, but through the 2000s the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd was being shaken at its foundation, literally.
Uneven soil settlement beneath its foundations was made worse by underground tunnelling nearby for the mass rapid transit system and construction work on the Singapore Management University campus next door. By 2006, there was no escaping the inevitable: the Cathedral was crumbling and desperately in need of repair. The plans were put on hold for another 7 years due to a lack of funds and because more time was needed to decide on the restoration, renovation, design and other work to be done.
Finally the Cathedral closed its doors at the end of 2013 for repairs and renovation work on the main Church and the Rectory. A three-storey annex building and a basement would also be added to house prayer rooms, meeting rooms, a heritage centre and a crypt. There would be new communal space in a pedestrianised ground-level area and the grounds would be landscaped suitably too. The renovated Cathedral would be fully air-conditioned, with a new flooring, pews and colour scheme, and its prized pipe organ would be fully restored too.
It was not an easy task to raise $40 million earmarked for the project but Catholics across Singapore had generously given their support through a variety of fund-raising drives. The restoration project was completed by end of 2016 and the Cathedral reopened on 20 November 2016.