Friday, August 24, 2012

The French Connection

This post is a follow up to my earlier article about the century old cemetery at Chestnut Drive.
I want to focus on the early pioneers living around Upper Bukit Timah area from where eventually my old village Princess Elizabeth Estate would be a part of.
In particular this is my tribute to Father Anatole Mauduit and Father Jean Marie Belliot, two giants who built the pioneering community around the area.

In the early days of Singapore, even before the Raffles founding of 1819, there were already Chinese immigrants working on gambier and pepper plantations on the island. Gambier was a plant that was used with the chewing of betel nuts and was also used for dyeing and tanning of leather.
It was the cash corp of its day.

A gambier plantation.
Gambier and pepper plants grew on the same vine and had a symbiotic nature.

This is an antique map of Singapore in 1852 showing areas of pepper and gambier plantations around the northern Upper Bukit Timah region.
Click on map for a detailed enlarged view.
The plantations were organised under a land tenure system called "kangchu"(  港主 ) in the Chinese Teochew dialect. Each kangchu (translated as 'river master') was led by a headman whose name gave rise to the area. The kangchu obtained his grant directly from the Temengong of Johor, which gave him the right to farm the river side lands.

In the above map you can see kangchus marked and named as Leem Chu Kang, Chu Chu Kang, Lau Chu Kang, Tan Chu Kang, Nam To Kang and Chan Chu Kang.
Some of these areas are still known by these names today like Yio Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang and Lim Chu Kang. That was how the term 'chu kang' ( 厝港 ) meaning kangchu settlements came about.

While Raffles was a visionary who planned for the commercial success of the island, there was another group of men who had an equal vision for the betterment of the populace. These were the French missionaries from the society called Missions Etrangere De Paris or MEP.

Besides evangelisation, they reached out to the early settlers through building of churches and schools. Father Jean Beurel, who was head of the local mission then, built the Church of the Good Shepherd at Bras Basah, St Joseph's Institution, the Church of Ss Peter and Paul at Queen Street and the CHIJ Convent at Victoria Street.

He sent Father Anatole Mauduit to set up St Joseph Church at Kranji in 1846 where there were about a hundred Catholics working in the gambier plantations.
Initially, Father Mauduit, with the assistance of Fr Adolphe Issaly, started the church at Kranji at a village called Boko Kang but moved to the present location after Fr Beurel bought 30 acres of jungle land from the English East India Company. This new location was about 3 miles south from Kranji along Bukit Timah Road.
The title deed from the East India Co. for the purchase of the Bukit Timah land, 26 Aug 1851.

They built a church of wood on the hilltop, which was known locally known as Tek Ko Swa, with space reserved for a cemetery at the rear. (Tek Ko Swa is Teochew for bamboo hill). The church was completed in 1853.

The 1st St Joseph Church in Bukit Timah built by Fr. Mauduit and completed in 1853.
( Photo c.1901 - Source: Rev Fr Rene Challet MEP)

It was to this small wooden church (pictured above) that the famous explorer and naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, came to in 1854 to study the fauna and flora of the region. Alfred Russel Wallace was later to co-found the Theory of Evolution with Charles Darwin, based in part on the studies he made around Bukit Timah.

Father Mauduit died in 1858. For the next twenty years, the french MEP missionaries continued the work of ministering to the people in the rural northern regions. In 1878, came Father Jean-Marie Belliot, who was to stay on for the next 54 years at St Joseph.

In 1905, Father Belliot re-built the church, replacing the wooden building with a new paladin style church that would last till 1965.  Fr Mauduit and Fr Belliot both died in Singapore and were buried in the small cemetery behind the church that they built.

The church built by Father Belliot in 1905. ( Picture taken around 1960.)

Here is an extract from the book "The French in Singapore" by Maxim Pilon & Daniele Weiler. It tells of the hardships faced by the early missionaries in the tiger infested and Chinese gang controlled region of Bukit Timah.
"Life on the plantation was harsh: the workers were poor, and the dangers constant. An MEP report states: At Singapore, the Chinese Church is within the forest. The zeal of Father Mauduit had overcome all the obstacles and his little flock is increasing everyday. His catechumens are admirable, full of simplicity and fervour. They are poor, and their priest even poorer than them all; he considers himself lucky when he gets enough rice and plantains for his meals."

MEP missionaries who served at St Joseph Church
Dates indicate period at St Joseph Church Bukit Timah.
Anatole Mauduit, 1846-1858*
Adolphe MF Issaly**, (curate),1847 - 1853,
Ambrose Maistre, 1858-1860
Augustin Perie, 1860-62, 1868-1870
Adolf Issaly, 1864-1866 & in1871
Jean Pierre Remes, 1863-1864
Peter F Sorin, 1866-1868
JM Eugene Roussereau, 1870-1871
Elisee F Delouette, 1872 – 1876*
C J Saleilles, 1877-1881
Jean-Marie Belliot, 1878-1934*
L J Galmel, 1883-1885
Rene Challet, 1972-1977
Felix Brygier (curate), 1974-1982***
Louis Amiotte-Suchet, 1982-1986.

Other MEP Missionaries buried at St Joseph Church cemetery
Christopher Mazery *
Joseph Alibert*
Gustave Derenne *
Alexandre Blanchet *
Claude C Tisserrand *
Rene Girard*

*   Buried in the Cemetery at St Joseph Church Bukit Timah.
** Fr Issaly is buried at Church of Ss Peter & Paul,Queen Street.
*** Fr Felix Brygier is interred at the St Teresa Church, Kampong Bahru.

Related links: The cemetery at Chestnut Drive.
                       The Anti-catholic Riot of 1851
                       St Joseph Church Bukit Timah 1965
                       Alfred Russel Wallace
                       Photos of St Joseph parish cemetery


  1. James. Thank you very much for this lesson in history.

  2. Dear Mr James,
    God bless you for having documented the MEP Priests journey in Asia.
    I am parishioners of church of the immaculate conception, Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
    We are sourcing for fr. C j Saleilles photo or even any of the MEP priest photos.
    Would appreciate very much if you could send us a copy via email for our church records.

    Thank you.

    Have a Blessed Chirstmas.

    Eugene P. K

    1. Hello Eugene,
      I am happy to hear that parishioners in M'sia too have not forgotten the contributions of the MEP priests!
      The best people who may help you with CJ Saleilles would be from the Nativity Church at Serangoon being built by Fr Saleilles himself. I do have some pictures of the past MEP fathers which I will forward to you once I retrieve them from somewhere in my archives ha ha!

      Here is what it says about Fr Saleilles in the MEParchive record:- (Google translate from French)
      SALEILLES Casimir (1852 - 1916) [1302]
      SALEILLES Casimir, John, was born March 29, 1852 at Cruéjouls, in the diocese of Rodez (Aveyron).
      He entered the Seminary of Foreign Missions, September 23, 1873.
      Ordained priest on 23 September 1876, he moved to the Mission of Malacca on 2 November.
      He began first to study Chinese, speaking it with ease which became practical all his life in missionary Chinese environment.
      Spent 4 years at Bukit Timah from 1877 to 1881, and while there he also took care of the Johore ministry.
      He was named pastor of Serangoon in 1881. The ministry had a lot of school children, boys and girls, and Christians population increasingly in numbers.
      He built a great church that was blessed by Mgr. Fairy, December 8, 1901.
      In 1908, he added a floor to the old disused church and it became the rectory.

      At Johore, which he never ceased to care, as he built a small church, which opened May 29, 1883, and a modest parsonage.
      In 1904, he went to Ponggol from Serangoon which already had 3000 Christians, there he built a house chapel.
      In 1909, Father Saleilles felt his strength decline and he gets a vicar in the person of Father Lawrence.
      In 1911, he had to return to France for treatment.
      Returning to the mission in 1913, he retired to Ponggol.
      This is where he died June 15, 1916.
      His mortal remains were transported Serangoon and buried in the beautiful church he had built.

  3. Hi, I'm doing a blog on places of interest to the Teochew community in Singapore. Given your insightful introduction above, I would to ask if St Joseph Church had or still has strong Teochew representation in its congregation?


    1. Hi Jason,
      Perhaps the best people to answer your question would be the parish staff at St Joseph Church itself?
      I moved away from St Joseph parish long before the new estates of Choa Chu Kang and Bukit Panjang were established so the demographics may have changed significantly since.