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Here before you lies the oldest Christian church in Singapore: the Armenian church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, declared a national monument in 1973.
It was built in 1835 by the Irish architect George D. Coleman, who played a crucial role in the design and construction of public buildings throughout the city. Most experts agree this is his masterpiece.
Just 3 years after the founding of Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, three major Armenian companies had already been set up in the city. The number of Armenian families increased rapidly. The famous Aristarchus Sarkies and Arratoon Sarkies arrived in 1828 to set up the business Sarkies and Moses. In the following years, the three Sarkies brothers built many luxury hotels in Southeast Asia among them the Raffles Hotel, undisputed symbol of the city. At the time, the Armenian community was very influential and powerful.
Initially, the Armenian community held its religious services in rented spaces. In 1827 they got together and began to raise funds to build a church of their own. In 1833 the government acquired the land for this very purpose. The church was financed almost entirely by these powerful Armenian families but some of the funds also came from the Javanese, Indians and Europeans.
The Armenian Church, as it is popularly known, was consecrated in the Armenian language on 26 March, 1836 by Rev. Eleazar Ingergolie and dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first Armenian monk.
During the twentieth century the building has undergone several renovations and restorations, but it has managed to keep its original style. It is interesting to note that in 1909, it was the first building in Singapore to have electric light.
As required by tradition, the chapel faces east. This small detail means that, as you have already noticed, the entrance to the church is not accessible from the street.
From the outside, you will notice the elegance and sobriety of its different influences. Armenian on the one hand, British on the other, with many tropical details thrown in. Examples of these are the use of wicker instead of wood to give the benches a fresher, lighter feel, or filling the space with windows to take advantage of natural light and, especially, to let in air.
In the mid-nineteenth century the conical dome and bell tower designed by George Drumgoole Coleman were removed for safety reasons. It was in 1853 that George Maddock built the new pitched roof and the tower that you see today, among other things. This tower has been and is still strongly criticized for obstructing the view of the Armenian features that make this church so special.
Admire the elegance of the porches and the lovely Doric columns. Undoubtedly, a beautiful combination.
Once inside, it is a pleasant surprise to see how welcoming this circular room is at just 11 meters in diameter. It is so well laid out that it can even accommodate two vestries and two smaller halls up a set of stairs. Take your time and admire the details, especially the altar painting of the Last Supper.
Its quiet tropical garden contains the remains of the pioneering Armenian families who died in Singapore. Their tombstones were moved from the Bukith Timah cemetery in 1965 and today make up the Memorial Garden. It includes the tombstone of Agnes Joaquim, known for creating Vanda Miss Joaquim, a hybrid orchid with large, round purplish pink petals and a bright orange centre. It was declared the national flower of Singapore in 1981.
Without a doubt, the Armenian Church is one of the city’s jewels and it tells us a lot about the contributions of these powerful and influential families to the prosperity of the recently created Singapore.
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