Thursday, August 9, 2012

Places around P.E.E.(6) - The Cemetery at Chestnut Drive.

The St Joseph Church Cemetery. 1846 - 1984.

Few people know of this small cemetery at Chestnut Drive.
It was created in 1846 with the construction of St Joseph Church at Bukit Timah.

This cemetery is actually the second oldest Christian cemetery in Singapore, predated only by the Fort Canning Cemetery. It is much older than the former cemeteries at Bidadari and Kandang Kerbau.
Though still in existence today, it is no longer used for burials. It was closed in 1984 after nearly 140 years in use. It was estimated to have more than 400 burials there but no one knows for sure.

In fact, ever since Fort Canning Cemetery had been completely exhumed and is no longer a cemetery, this small burial ground at Chestnut Drive is now the oldest existing Christian cemetery in Singapore.

Forgotten graves at the old cemetery.

One reason it survived till now is that it is located on privately owned land. Another being that it was used solely for church members (i.e. for the parish community) and was not opened for public burials. Sadly, developments have been creeping up and it is probably only a matter of time before Singapore looses yet another heritage site.

The land was bought from the English East India Company by the Catholic Church in the 1840s.
This was still jungle territory at the time and the only road that led to the area ended at Bukit Timah Village (near today's Beauty World). To reach the church at Upper Bukit Timah meant trekking a further 5km through forested areas. These areas were being cleared at the time for gambier and pepper plantations. Among the plantation workers, there was a large number of Catholics who had migrated to Singapore to escape the persecutions in Indo-China.

The french Catholic priest who built St Joseph Church, Fr Anatole Mauduit, was a missionary from Indo-China, and was assigned to look after the growing Catholic community in the then tiger infested jungle area of Bukit Timah.

The first recorded burial at this cemetery took place on 7th November 1846. The grave is probably still there. The last burial was in 1984 under the tenure of Fr Simon Yim who was the parish priest at the time.

In my youth during the 1970s, I was a fervent parishioner at this church and used to visit the cemetery very often. I really liked the ambience of a small parish cemetery and even had a wish to be buried there at the end of my life! I guess that won't happen now that the cemetery is closed.
At that time, the church had employed a kebun (groundsman) whose duty partly included digging the burial graves and maintaining the cemetery where possible.

Yesterday, I visited the old cemetery. I was there to see the renovations that were done to St Joseph Church and decided to look at the graveyard where once my grandfather and uncle were buried.

St Joseph Church Bukit Timah, Aug 2012. After the renovations.

The cemetery today is in a very sad state of deterioration.
After its closure in 1984, many graves were exhumed for re-interring at columbariums. These included my grandfather and uncle's graves as well.
What is left are presumably those whose relatives are no longer around. These forgotten graves are starting to deteriorate and crumble. I noticed that even some of the graves near the entrance to the cemetery have been exhumed and the land turned into car parking spaces! It was quite sad to see that, i.e. losing our heritage in the name of progress.

A century old grave at the cemetery.

What saddened me most was something I saw while exploring through the graveyard.
It was the grave stone of Fr Anatole Mauduit hidden under some grass.
I was lamenting the fact that it was not being preserved or even looked after with better care.

I remembered that there was once a special monument made for him. This monument had his tomb, together with the tomb of another priest, Fr Belliot, who was a long serving parish priest from 1878 to 1934. This monument had also contained the remains of Archbishop Michael Olcomendy, the 1st Archbishop of Singapore and that of another missionary.

The remains of Archbishop Olcomendy were exhumed many years ago and re-interred at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd at Bras Basah Road.
I suspect that during this exhumation, the other tombstones were removed and re-sited as the monument can no longer be found. Fr Mauduit's grave marker lies forgotten at the cemetery. I tried locating but couldn't find the tombstone of Fr Bellios.

The grave stone of Fr Anatolius Mauduit, 1st parish priest at St Joseph. He died in 1858.
Sadly, this monument is weathering badly in the open and was covered by overgrowth.

To see more pictures of the cemetery which I took during my visit, please visit my photo blog here.
Sadly, the pictures shows the deteriorating and neglected graves, some of which are more than 100 years old. Some of the tombstones of early missionaries are also badly strewn around.

I do hope if any parishioners of St Joseph Church reading this blog can bring this to the attention of their parish priest. It is really sad to see our heritage just going from dust to dust. It should be treated like a treasure found in the field, as Christians say. It should be preserved to ensure our continuing connection with the past.

Related links:  The French Connection
                        The Anti-Catholic Riot of 1851
                        St Joseph Church Bukit Timah


  1. 1st Pic.

    I can see and remember the bucket system toilet inside Boys Town English School. It was a small concrete building with 2 toilets (bottom left of pic). The toilet directly faced my Pri 3 classroom but because it was on higher ground, we never got to see the disgusting sight. Behind the toilet was the Science Laboratory which stood behind the parish priest's house.

  2. The church kebun was a chinese man - remembered his name as "Ah Chek", very skinny, can see his chest skeleton. He also got a goatee. Very fierce guy. I think he spoke Teochew and held out at the church during Father Teng's reign.

  3. Hi James

    I was one of 6 families living near the cemetery. In fact when I walked to our toilet at night I can see some of the tombs and it was very creepy. At times we can hear people weeping there. I didn't know there is such rich history in this small cemetery. We used to challenge ourselves during the mid autumn festival by carrying our lanterns and walking through the tombs at night. What a playground we have.
    Thank you for the write up.

    Seow Ting Peng

  4. Thanks for the wonderful write-up. I used to live along Chestnut Drive, across from the St Joseph's Sino-English School. There was a little wooden plank across the drain next to the small shop run by a Chinese family (used to play tikam there). From that plank, we took a short-cut past the school toilets (to the right and the lower block of the school and the school field (to the left). Further up along the path, past the upper block of the school was a long attap house which was divided into two or three units - vaguely remember a woman name Victoria living in one of those units. Stepping up the embankment would bring one directly to the back of the church with the cemetery immediately on the right. St Joseph's Church was interesting in my childhood. The men use to occupy the left side of the church and the women on the right, if I remember correctly.

  5. AnonymousJune 24, 2015

    Thanks for the memories! It is interesting for me to be reading this. I used to walk past the cemetery to get to St Joseph's Church each morning with my Catholic neighbour. We would pray before going to the convent school at Chestnut Drive.