Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Places around P.E.E. (2) - St Joseph Church, Bukit Timah

For a small estate of 200 households, there was an exceptionally large proportion of Catholics living at Princess Elizabeth Estate. Most of them attended the nearby St Joseph Church. It was usual to either walk to church through the Lorong Taluki kampong or by bus to the Salvation Army bus stop at Hillview Road and walk the short distance to church.

St Joseph Church, re-built by Fr Teng in 1965.
For administrative purposes, the Catholic church is divided into dioceses, each run by a bishop, and further sub-divided into parishes for easy administration. So the parish priest would be the one you may be most familiar with as he tends to the area where you lived.

P.E. Estate came under the domain of St Joseph Church at Upper Bukit Timah Road. The parish priest at that time was a dominating larger than life figure called Fr Joachim Teng. With his booming voice, he sent shivers through many parishioners and really scared the hell out of a lot them! (In the process I guess saving them for heaven).  Children ran away at his sight. Yet Fr Teng tended his flock zealously, going round his parish that once stretched from Jurong to Woodlands. Older parishioners will recall him riding his British Matchless motorbike in his cassock!

Fr Teng was renowned as a church builder. He is credited with building St Francis of Assisi at Boon Lay, St Anthony at Mandai, St Stephen at Aljunied, and of course, the re-building of St Joseph at Bukit Timah.
For all his efforts, the government awarded him the Public Service Star. Fr Teng died in 1984.

Fr Joachim Teng

St Joseph Church at Bukit Timah has a long and illustrious history. It was built in 1846 by French missionaries to tend to the rural catholic population.  St Joseph used to own huge plots of land around the church at the Chestnut/Cashew area. Boys Town & the CHIJ convent were all built on land previously own by St Joseph Church. It was also one of the few churches that had its own cemetery by the church.

I had blogged once before about St Joseph (article here). The famous explorer and naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace also used St Joseph Church as his base in his early research into natural evolution (see this article here)

St Joseph Church. c.1905.

My earliest recollection of St Joseph as a child around 6 or 7 years, was of the doric columns and the huge  statue of St Joseph at the door way. At the main door there were two giant clam shells which was used to hold holy water. I recall playing on the stone steps leading up to church. They were covered with moss wherever there was a joint or crack. One scary thing for a child was being told that the graves of the early parish priests were buried in the aisle of the church. We were always afraid of stepping over their grave stones!

The church was already at that time getting old and run down. This church that I attended as a child was actually the second St Joseph church building that was erected in 1905 to replace the original wooden building.  Fr Teng initiated the 3rd re-building of a new St Joseph in 1963 and was completed in 1965.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Catholic practices, the Catholic Church is 'universal'. It is the same church wherever you go. It has the same beliefs, the same rituals and the same dogmas whether you are in Singapore, Australia, Africa or anywhere. Your 'membership' comes with your faith and baptism. Catholics may attend any church in the world and the only difference may be the vernacular.

A dilemma arose for Catholics in Princess Elizabeth Estate in the early 1970s when another Catholic Church was built at the other end of Hillview Ave on Old Jurong Road. That will be in another blog....

Related posts: History of St Joseph Church Bukit Timah
                       The cemetery at St Joseph Church


  1. I did see the workers taking out the coffins from the graves along the aisles of the old church. They first had to use a sledge hammer to crack the granite tombstone. In the process some of the beautiful square ceramic tiles were damaged. I believe the depth was more than 6 feet. Some of the bricks from the old church were "transfered" as bricks for the present church.

    The construction of the present church was built in 2 stages. The altar area was the first to be built and was behind the old church.. The front of the old church (with round pillars) were demolished first to enable bricks to be used for the present church. After the old church was completely demolished, the 2 wings were added to the new church.

    James not sure you are familiar with this church helper named Ah Choon who was an orphan and worked in the church.

  2. Hi Peter.
    Even as a child I still remembered the reconstruction of St joseph. I remembered the separation of the church into 2, as you mentioned, the front and back, which were built in stages, and I can remember the piles of bricks from the old church which Fr Teng recycled. There was an Eurasian gentleman who assisted a lot with the rebuilding, I am struggling to recall his name but he lived at Jln Jurong Kechil.

    In the early 70s, I played the organ during the time of Fr Challet and Fr Khoo, assisted with catechism and also helped as the stand-in sacristan for Andrew Soh and Moses Yap, if you can recall them. They were schoolboys studying at Boys Town VI at the time and lived in that house by the parish house. I believe Ah Choon also lived in that house.

    In the 70s, some of the old church pews, completely wooden one with the ornate carvings, were kept at the choir loft. I wonder if it is still there. They also kept the old harmonium and all the old latin mass chant mass books up there. Would be a treasure if they are still there now. I took one copy of the old latin mass chant book called the 'Liber Usualis' and kept it till just last year when I donated it to the Franciscan Library at Bukit Batok.

    I recalled Ah Soon, who managed the orchid garden in front of the church and Ah Soon's mother who cooked for the priests. Ah Soon rented the land from Fr Teng and as a service always donated all the flowers for the feast days. I've been up the church tower many times in those days and even rang the bells 5 fives before the 6.00pm evening Mass. Although I took many pictures from the bell tower, I am sad that I don't have any of the photos now. I will try to ask Andrew Soh who is a now a warden at St Mary and we are still in touch, if he still have those photos.

    Was Ah Choon the one that adopted Cecilia? I might have known Ah Choon only by face and not by name.

  3. The name should be Ah Soon. He was a great help when we were serving as altar boys. Still reminded Lucas Leow (later joined the priesthood) who taught us those Latin verses/procedures for altar boys during service. I think we were in Primary 5 then. Wore those robes - white with a red band on normal mass service, red robes during St Joseph Festival (and going around the estate). Somehow never wore black robes for funeral rites.

    One day I saw Ah Soon helping out in the room by arranging the Holy Hosts (is that what yo call them) in this golden cup for the priest during Holy Communion rituals. I think Fr. Teng must have "conned" us young kids to believe there was God's magic to turn water and wine into bread. Most of us believe in that until we saw what Ah Soon did. LOL

    Cecilia was she the little girl adopted by Fr. Teng?

    2 years ago someone arranged for a reunion of Boys Town students. Gosh we did not meet for almost 45 years.

    Did u make a pic of that chant book? Would like to see it.

    I am very familiar with Fr. Teng who always tested me whether I wanted to be a priest. Told him I got "earthly desires" and I think he finally agreed bcos during those Confirmation Class when we were 12 yo, he saw me eyeing this CHIJ girl. I shall not mention her name bcos after 45 years we spoek for firts time over the phone but she didnt want to meet bcos "out of shape". LOL

  4. What happened to Fr. Him (the 2IC). He was a well liked priest. He presided over my mum's funeral rites.

  5. Hi Peter.
    Do you mean Fr Simon Yim? Sadly, he passed away many years ago.
    There was a photo I took of him conducting a funeral at the cemetery at the back of the church.
    It was a very nice shot that he asked for a copy and I made a 10x8 framed copy for him.
    I also have a picture of the young altar boys taken with Fr Felix Brygier somewhere, I'll look for it and post it here for you when I find it. Maybe you are in it too? ha ha.

  6. Yeah I would like a photo of Father Him (you can email me. I drop u a mail soon). Botak hair cut and a very nice fellow. My sister was buried at the back of the church. Hmmm I think at one time when Father Teng was away, there was a stand-in Kwei lo priest (bearded maybe if my memory is still intact).

  7. Ouf, this blog entry really resonates with me. So many memories. My late father, Raymond Ong, was the principal of Assumption English School for a number of years, and -- truly -- that church is where I received my first exposure to the faith I later adopted and which I profess today. His funeral mass was held at St Joseph's, even though his "parish church" (de facto) in the last years of his life had been St Mary of the Angels. It makes me want to pay a visit to the church and see if I can find any Gabrielite brothers who can still remember my father, who died in 1995!

    Very warmest regards,

  8. Hi Sharon,

    You might be interested in an article written by my friend Peter (Chan) about AES and St Joseph.
    Here is the link which will actually take you to Lam Chun See's Good Morning Yesterday blog where Peter guest writes.

  9. Thank you, that means a lot to me. :)

  10. AnonymousJuly 31, 2012

    Thanks James for the memories.
    Grew up in the area; lived across the street from the church. Played soccer with Fr John Khoo on Sundays after altar boys meeting; climbed up the bell tower to look for pigeon eggs for Fr Simon Yim; played chess with Fr Felix Brygier; attended the overflowing funeral mass for Fr Joachim Teng. Much has changed since then.

  11. Dear James,
    It was great reading the blog. It is so funny, but I guess most would not think so. Fr Teng, Fr Yim and Fr Khoo all had served in St. Stephen Church too. Fr Teng last assignment was there, Fr Yim last assignment was there. Fr Khoo is now in CTK. Now a former parishioner of St Stephen is serving in St Joseph as Asst Parish Priest. You may say, it goes round. God Bless....