The Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator (Singapore)
Built in 1835, the small, carefully restored Church of St Gregory the Illuminator, is the oldest Christian place of worship in Singapore. Recognised as George Coleman’s masterpiece and the finest landmark of early Singapore, St Gregory’s Church was gazetted as a national monument on 28 June 1973.
For over 165 years, St Gregory’s Church has bonded the Armenian community of Singapore and helped preserve its identity.
The church was named for St Gregory the Illuminator and consecrated on 26 March 1836 - the anniversary of his death.
The Singapore Free Press glowingly praised the completed building, its only criticism being that the main entrance was at the rear of the church, not facing Hill Street as Coleman had intended, but custom decreed the chancel had to face East.
The paper described the design of the church, noting that the interior comprised a thirty-six foot circle with a semicircular eighteen-foot chancel at the Eastern end.
There were four small rooms: two for vestries and two for staircases, so that the body of the church formed a square. On three sides, offering shade to the windows and entrances, plus shelter for carriages, stood porticos each with six Doric columns. All this was topped by a balustrade.
In the centre of the flat roof rose a truncated cone twelve foot in diameter and ten foot high. On top of this was an eleven-foot bell turret comprising eight arches and eight Ionic pilasters. These supported a six-foot dome which was topped by a ball and cross the top of which was fifty foot high.
The design incorporated many distinctive features of traditional Armenian churches, notably the vaulted ceiling and the cupola, while the three porticos helped the congregation withstand Singapore’s tropical climate.
However, major changes soon had to be made to the roof. The bell turret and cupola were considered unsafe and in the 1840s were demolished and replaced by a square turret with four Doric pilasters and a short, pointed square steeple.
Around 1853, George Maddock removed the turret and steeple, and built the pitched roof that exists today. He added the east portico to the chancel and on top of this, constructed the present tower and steeple. Maddock’s changes have led to the criticism that the church does not look Armenian. But a glance inside dispels this notion.
Except for a few minor alterations, the church has remained unchanged since the 1850s. The bell, which was cast in 1861 by renowned founders George Mears & Company of London, was donated by Seth Seth, but may not have been hung until 1883.
A rare surviving description of the church in 1887 noted that it was set some way back from Hill Street and surrounded by trees. The building was painted a pale blue, which turned darker in the rain, and the shutters and doors were painted a bright green. Inside the church, a picture of the Last Supper hung behind the altar upon which were placed thirteen lighted candles and the large embossed Bible.
The church lost some of its land in the 1980s, when the Government widened Hill Street. A further slice was acquired in 1993. Although this meant a noticeable shortening of the land in front of the church, the monetary compensation received was a welcome contribution to the Armenian Church Trust’s meticulous restoration of the church, parsonage and grounds. Initiated by Helen and Jon Metes, and carried out by the architectural firm of Quek Associates, the church restoration won an Urban Redevelopment Authority Architectural Heritage Award in 1995.
The presence of the Church today truly vindicates the words of the Singapore Free Press in 1836:
This small but elegant building does great credit to the public spirit and religious feeling of the Armenians of this settlement; for we believe that few instances could be shewn where so small a community have contributed funds sufficient for the erection of a similar edifice.... the Armenian Church is one of the most ornate and best-finished pieces of architecture that this settlement can boast of.
Respected Citizens: the History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia