The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of the earliest Catholic churches built in the suburbs of Singapore. Over the years, the church has faithfully served the spiritual needs of the predominantly Teochew-speaking Catholics living in Hougang, which at a point in time outnumbered the non-Catholic community. It now stands as a living testament not only to the spread of Catholicism, but also to the many contributions of Catholic missionaries in nineteenth-century Singapore.
Catholic Mission in Hougang
The history of the Catholic mission in Hougang began in 1852 with the arrival of Reverend Father Ambroise Maistre, a priest from the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP). With the approval of his superiors, Father Maistre established an attap chapel in Hougang to minister to the rural population of rubber tappers, fishermen, and farmers living in the vicinity. The Chinese Catholic community in the area – comprising mainly Teochews – grew rapidly, and soon, a bigger and sturdier brick structure was built to replace the little mission chapel. The new church was then dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Father Maistre named it the Church of Saint Mary.
After Father Maistre was assigned to Penang and Province Wellesley, Reverend Father Pierre Paris, MEP, helmed the church. Father Paris and his confrere Reverend Father Marie F. Issaly were also responsible for the founding of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in the town area in 1870.
New Church for the Teochew Catholics in Hougang
The Teochew Catholic mission in Hougang continued to grow, and it became apparent that a new church had to be constructed to accommodate the crowd. Under the supervision of Reverend Father Casimir J. Saleilles, MEP, the present church was built between 1898 and 1901 on the site of the former Church of Saint Mary. The church was blessed on 8 December 1901, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and was renamed the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Father Charles B. Nain, the same priest who designed the Former Chapel of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the curved wings of the Former Saint Joseph's Institution, prepared the building plans. He was later killed in combat in France during the First World War, and his name is inscribed on the bronze plates on the Cenotaph.
In 1933, the church underwent a major expansion project to cater to the ever-increasing number of Catholics living in the area. The current side transepts, sanctuary, and sacristy were added to the original building, effectively doubling its size.
Architecture and Furnishings
Designed in the Neo-Gothic style, the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary initially had a simple rectangular plan. When the transepts were added, the ecclesiastical edifice took on a cruciform plan, similar to that of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and Saint Joseph’s Church in town. Rising above the entrance porch is the towering belfry, which is crowned with a large, ornate brass cross.
Decorative fanlights with simple Gothic tracery top the many lancet-shaped doors and bay windows around the church, ensuring that the interior is well ventilated. The large doors with herringbone designs are made of heavy timber, while the lower windows have timber-framed, double-leaf louvred shutters. There are also rose windows on the façades of the north and south transepts, and also on the belfry.
Inside the church, the central aisle in the nave is flanked by two rows of stately Corinthian columns. Lancet-shaped niches are carved into the walls on the side aisles, where statues of saints are enshrined. There are also several stained-glass windows around the church. Behind the Gothic high altar are five beautiful windows depicting (from left to right) Saint Francis Xavier, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Conception, Saint Joseph, and Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus. On either side of the sanctuary is a chapel, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Conception respectively. The tombs of five priests – including that of Father Saleilles – can also be found in the nave.
The iconic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in front of the church’s main entrance has a particularly interesting provenance. Sultan Ibrahim of Johor had generously presented the marble statue to the church as a token of his friendship with Reverend Father (later, Bishop) Francis Chan, who was then the parish priest of the church between 1946 and 1955.
Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Today
Next to the church compound is CHIJ Our Lady of the Nativity (previously known as CHIJ Ponggol), a branch of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, which is Singapore’s oldest Catholic educational institution for girls. The school is under the pastoral care of the church.
The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary offers daily Masses in English, as well as additional Sunday Masses in Teochew and Mandarin for Chinese Catholics. Regular Masses are also celebrated in Korean for Singapore’s Korean Catholic community, which also calls the church their spiritual home.