Saint Andrew’s Cathedral
Seated on the fringe of Singapore’s civic district – amongst the concentration of some of the oldest conserved buildings – is a church that houses Singapore’s oldest Anglican place of worship and oldest musical institution. Saint Andrew’s Cathedral (St Andrew’s Cathedral) was named after one of the apostles and the patron saint of Scotland, largely because majority of the benefactors to the 1834 building fund were from the local Scottish community.
The church has fascinating beginnings, with the involvement of a diverse and significant mix of figures. The church was built on land donated by Syed Sharif Omar bin Ali Al-Junied – one of the earliest Arab settlers in Singapore. He made his fortune as a trader and land owner, and contributed to the building of several mosques through his charity and set up one, Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka which still stands today.
The original church was built in 1835-6 by George Coleman, widely acknowledged as modern Singapore’s first architect. He was behind some of the earliest infrastructure and oldest buildings – such as the original Coleman Bridge, Armenian Church, Government House at Fort Canning Hill, and several residences including one that was enhanced and expanded into today’s Arts House at the Old Parliament.
Engineer and surveyor John Turnbull Thomson later added elements including a spire and a tower to the church. These elements would appear in several images and early paintings, including one titled The Esplanade 1847 by Thomson himself, who was an avid painter.
The church was rebuilt in 1857 after its demolition in 1855. It was deemed unsafe from lightning damages. The new building was designed by Lt Col Ronald MacPherson, a Public Works Department officer who was influenced by the design of the iconic Salisbury Cathedral, an Anglican cathedral in Salisbury, England.
Major J.F.A. McNair employed convict labour for the construction, and a plaque at the church today acknowledges their contributions. It was Coleman who first introduced the use of convict labour in the construction of these infrastructure and buildings with his role as the Government Superintendent of Public Works, after the combination of the Public Works and Convict departments.
Convict labour was sourced from the former Bras Basah Jail, which stood at present-day Singapore Management University compound at Bras Basah Road from the 1830s to 1880s. The jail functioned with a classification system and convict labour formed the bulk of the third class of convicts.
The building’s original smooth and glossy facade was a result of polishing the surfaces with rock crystal or rounded stones followed by dusting with fine soapstone powder. Madras chunam, a plaster mixture made from shell lime, egg white, coarse sugar and water was used in its finish.
The church was gazetted as a national monument in 1973 and an underground extension was completed in 2005 to accommodate a growing congregation. The church strives for inclusion, with services conducted in many languages including Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Cantonese, Hokkien and Tagalog. On weekends, the compound becomes a welcoming space for picnicking workers.