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The Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator is located at 60 Hill Street. Designed and built by G. D. Coleman in 1835 with funding from the small but wealthy Armenian community, it is the oldest church building in Singapore. The church was gazetted as a national monument on 6 July 1973.
The Armenian community in Singapore, which hardly numbered more than 100, held religious services from the early 1820s. With the arrival of the first resident priest Rev. Gregory ter Johannes, in July 1827, a temporary chapel was set up. The first service was held in a room behind John Little & Co. and by September, this makeshift arrangement had moved to a small rented room at Merchant Square.
The Armenians collected subscriptions to build a church for themselves in 1827. By 1833, an appeal was made for land to build a church, with the sandy grounds at the foot of Fort Canning finally approved as an ideal site in 1834. The foundation stone was blessed by the Supreme Archimandrite, the Rev. Thomas Gregorian on 1 January 1835. On 26 March 1836, it was consecrated by Rev. Catchick in a three-and-a-half hour ceremony. It was dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator, the first monk in the Armenian Church. Built at a total cost of $5,058.30 Spanish pesetas, most of the funds came from just 12 Armenian families, an indication of the prosperity of the community. In 1909, the Church became one of the first buildings in Singapore to enjoy the benefits of electricity when it had electric lights and fans installed.
During World War II, looters stripped the church of several invaluable items including a large embossed Bible, the priest's vestments and hymn and prayer books printed in the mid-19th century. The Japanese also used the grounds as air-raid shelters. After the Japanese occupation, few Armenians remained and services were conducted only once a year by Father Aramais Mirzaian, who was not based in Singapore.
Since the end of World War II, the church has not had a resident priest to conduct mass on a regular basis. Today, Armenian services are held only during significant events or when an Armenian priest is visiting, such as during the 150th anniversary of the church in 1986. However, the church building is popular with other Christian groups who use it for quiet worship.
In 1994, architecture firm Quek Associates led a project to restore the church, including waterproofing the roof, replacing the electrical system and lightning conductor, repairing cracks, replacing termite-infested windows, replastering parts of the building, treating the walls to prevent dampness, and repainting the building. The restoration was completed in time for a rare service conducted by visiting Bishop Dr Oshagan Choloyan to celebrate the Armenian Orthodox Christmas.
The church is considered G. D. Coleman's masterpiece as it cleverly combines the symmetry of Palladian architecture with the practical details of Eastern architecture such as louvres and wide verandahs. Its original design is considered a close resemblance to the mother church of St Gregory in Etchmiadzin, Vagarshapat in northern Armenia. Complying with tradition, the chapel faces east but this meant that its entrance faced away from the main road. The porticoes are regarded as one of its outstanding features, held up by Roman Doric columns and pilasters. Originally serving to shelter the gharries of the well-to-do, it was later converted for pedestrian use with steps added to it.
In 1847, the octagonal cone supporting a bell turret was replaced after the original dome was deemed unsafe but the turret and steeple were again replaced in 1853 with today's pitched roof and spire, built by George Maddock. Maddock's spire is often criticised for hiding the church's true Armenian features, but its distinctive circular shape is still evident from the interior.
Reflecting its original domed roof, the interior is a complete circle of 36ft or about 11m in diameter with a semi-circular chancel 18ft or 5.5m wide on the east. By the altar stands a painting of the Last Supper, while draped beside it are heavy curtains that are drawn during parts of the rites for Holy Communion. Despite its small size, the church has two vestries and two side rooms for staircases. The bell was cast by George Mears and Co. in 1861 but was likely hung only from 1883.
The original parsonage, where the priest resided, was built on the northeast side of the gardens. However, this was demolished and a new parsonage was built in 1905, designed by Tomlinson & Lermit, funded by Nanajan Sarkies in memory of John Shanazar Sarkies, her husband.
The Church's Memorial Garden holds the tombstones, but not the actual graves, of well-known Armenians including Agnes Joaquim, who discovered the hybrid orchid that bears her name, as well as Catchick Moses, co-founder of The Straits Times.
Bonny Tan and Joanna HS Tan
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(Call no.: SING 726.095957 LEE)
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Religious Buildings
Armenian church buildings--Singapore