Sunday, May 21, 2006

Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, Singapore

The Armenian Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator stands as a monument to Singapore’s earliest days. When the East India Company established their presence in Singapore in 1819 it was only natural that members of the Armenian community, mostly from Calcutta, would follow. The Armenians were some of the most influential merchants in India and their ties with the East India Company dated back to the late 1600s.

This church, Singapore’s first, was completed in January 1836 with half the funds coming from Singapore’s 12 Armenian families and the remainder from overseas Armenians and other local merchants. The architect of the building was none other than George Drumgoole Coleman, who besides being Singapore’s most important architect was also Overseer of Convicts and Superintendent of Public Works. The adjacent street linking the Church with City Hall is named after him.

The church has a cruciform shape and resembles the Church of Echmiadzin in Northern Armenia. However it’s also magnificent for incorporating many elements of colonial British Neo-classical architecture. Timbre-louvred windows allow ventilation while preventing rain or direct sunlight. The high ceiling allows the pews to stay relatively cool while enhancing internal acoustics. The steps to enter the church were a late addition, as originally the porches accommodated horse-drawn carriages to be drawn right alongside. And the pedimented porticos and Doric columns very much reflect the architecture of the day.

The church interior is beautiful and meditative in its simplicity. There are few ornaments and no icons of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the 14th century monk that brought Christianity to Armenia. Perhaps in tribute to its patron saint, in 1909, the church became the first building in Singapore to boast an electric lamp (surely, the living patrons were also instrumental).

The tombstones in front of the church are a recent addition, moved there only in 1988 after their original burial grounds were exhumed. On the stones you’ll find the names of Singapore’s most influential Armenian families. The Sarkies’ brothers (Arshak, Aviet and Tigran) built and operated South East Asia’s grandest hotels: the Raffles in Singapore, E&O in Penang and The Strand in Rangoon. Catchik Moses was a leading merchant, shareholder in the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company and founder of Singapore’s newspaper, The Straits Times. Agnes Joaquim, daughter of a local diamond merchant, discovered a hybrid orchid that is now Singapore’s national flower and is named after her.

Today, Singapore’s Armenian community is largely gone – many left after World War II – and regular services are no longer offered. But thankfully the church has been preserved and remains one of Singapore’s most peaceful locations. Next time you're in the neighborhood, take a moment to step into the church to admire this contemplative space and all the changes that have enveloped it over the last one hundred and seventy years.

10 comments:

liz chater said...

For anyone interested in Armenian genealogy in Singapore there is a good book by Nadia Wright called "Respected Citizens, The History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia". Her website is http://www.amassia.com.au. the front cover has a picture of the Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Singapore.

free agent said...

I believe some members of the (very small) Armenian expatriate community still use the church for certain religious/cultural events.

And there are still Singaporeans of Armenian descent (some with Armenian surnames) in Singapore...

Anonymous said...

is Aviet an Armenian name

Anonymous said...

Congratulations for this job.
I´m armenian from Argentina. I´m very proud about what the armenians did
in southeast of Asia long time ago.

Nadia Wright said...

Dave and Stefan are right to encourage tourists to visit this tranquil oasis in busy Singapore. However their article contains some errors which I feel should be corrected.
St Gregory introduced Christianity to Armenia in the 4th not 14th century.
Electricity had been available in Singapore since the 1890s, the Church was not the first building to have an electric lamp.
Most of the tombstones were moved to the Church grounds in the early 1970s.
The tombstones of the Sarkies brothers do not lie there.
Agnes Joaquim's father was not a diamond merchant.
Agnes bred the hybrid: she did not find it in the garden.

Yes, Aviet is an Armenian name.

Dave and Stefan said...

Dear Nadia,

Thank you for your reply and your clarifications on this entry. It's an honor to have an expert on the regional Armenian community visiting our blog! Our primary source for most of the errors you address ( besides the date of Christianity's introduction to Armenia) was Lee Geok Boi, Faiths of our Forefathers; The Religious Monuments of Singapore, 2002.

Out of curiosity, do you know if the Armenian Church was the first religious building to have electricity in Singapore? Also do you by any chance know what was the the occupation of A. Joaquim's father? If these answers are covered in your book I'll happily go read it!

We also feature the Armenian Church in a mobile phone audio guide we have developed for the Singapore Biennale. I will check our script tonight to see if any of your clarifications need to be incorporated.

Thanks again for your feedback!

Regards,
Stefan

Anonymous said...

I have just visited this heritage site. Some interesting points found :

- there are two person names with their trip to Hong Kong and died there

- Galstaum Edgar (30th Jan 1887), Bedros Aved Setian (Sept 6, 1886)

- How are these two related to Hong Kong ?

Anonymous said...

Forever Armenia And its people

Anonymous said...

Re Edgar and Setian and Hong Kong.

The Setian family was related to the Edgar family by marriage. The Setians migrated between Singapore and Hong Kong for business and marital reasons. Bedros had relatives living in Hong Kong. There was a Setian family in Canton then Hong Kong for many years in the 19th century forward. I am a descendant of Samuel Seth originally from Hong Kong. He migrated to British Guiana and stayed there but one son "went back" to Hong Kong.

Joy Seth

Guangzhou Travel Guide said...

I have just visited this church, the memorial garden includes the tomb stones of famous Singaporean Armenians such as Catchick Moses, co-founder of Straits Times,very beautiful.