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St. Andrew’s Cathedral

St. Andrew’s Cathedral (46)

Over 150 years old, the Anglican cathedral of St Andrew is the largest in the country and is a centre of worship for all Christians, whether they  are European, Chinese, Indian or Malay. It is identified with the image of the Cross of St. Andrew, a cross that is rotated 45 degrees like an X, as in the Scottish flag.  In fact, this cathedral was almost entirely financed by Scottish merchants, whose patron saint is Saint Andrew.

In 1823, Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, had already designated this area to erect a church, but Singapore’s first cathedral was not built until 1836. It was designed by George Drumgoole Coleman, an Irish architect who played a crucial role in the design and construction of several important buildings in Singapore.

The site management was led by Captain McNair of the Royal Artillery, who arranged for prisoners to do the hardest work. This was a practice that was greatly criticized by Singaporean society, but at that time many buildings were built this way. Perhaps this is why during the construction of the cathedral there were rumours of wretched souls wandering around the area and mysterious decapitations to appease the spirits.

A short time later, in 1842, after the building was constantly criticized for being so dull that it looked more like a town hall or a school, John Turnbull Thomson, an engineer and artist, added a beautiful tower and made some small renovations. But after so many rumours and two lightening bolts that fell right on this spot in 1845 and 1849, he finally decided to close the cathedral in 1852 and demolish it three years later.

This was when they began work on the present day St Andrew’s Cathedral. The structure was designed and built by Colonel Ronald MacPherson, soldier, architect and colonial administrator, who after serving in the British army in India and China, travelled to Singapore where he skilfully designed several public buildings still standing today.

The Bishop of Calcutta, Rev. Daniel Wilson, laid the foundation stone on 4 March 1856.  The new St Andrew’s Cathedral celebrated its first service 5 years later and it was finally consecrated on 25 January 1862. Seven years later, the Cathedral was passed definitively to the Diocese of Labuan and Sarawak and to the delight of the local faithful, it was consecrated again under these new terms. in 1870.

In the first year of Japanese occupation it continued to provide religious services until 1943, when Bishop Wilson was arrested and taken as a prisoner of war. The cathedral played an important role for citizens in the Second World War when it served as a hospital emergency centre. Many of the elderly people still remember how many lives were saved there.

In the last years of the twentieth century the building has undergone numerous restorations and extensions. But the structure is still more or less the same one that MacPherson designed and it was declared a national monument on 6 July 1973.

Its style is Neo-Gothic with detailing typical of southern India.  According to its designer, it was inspired by the ruins of Netley Abbey, a thirteenth century church in Hampshire, England.  We can find similarities with other British buildings as well, such as the Cathedral of Salisbury.

On the outside, the tower stands 63 meters tall and its facade has many pointed arches. The tower has 8 bells, the largest of which is equal to the number 8 at St Paul's Cathedral in London. It is amusing to note, however, that after the bells were installed, they discovered that the tower could never have withstood the strain of their ringing, so they were permanently fixed and their clappers tied. 

As you enter, just above you, you will see stained glass windows depicting Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They form 4 nearly perfect isosceles triangles. Further up, on another floor, is the cathedral’s organ. This was where the original stood as well as the choir. The one you now see dates from 1929 and, although it has some of its original parts, moisture has greatly damaged the electrical parts. 

In the back, in the apse, there are 3 long and elegant stained glass windows dedicated to 3 of Singapore’s public figures: the founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, Sir John Crawford, governor from 1823 to 1826 and Major General William Butterworth, governor between 1843 and 1855.  If you look down at this spot, you can see a memorial to MacPherson, in red and gray granite and topped by a Maltese cross.

Another important detail is the plaster used on the interior walls. Move closer and touch the wall to see how smooth it is. They are made of a material called chunam, typical of Chennai, in Southeast India. It is a mix of products typically used in the area in the late nineteenth century. The mixture, invented by Indian prisoners, is made out of lime, egg whites, eggshells, coconut shell powder and sugar, among other things. It is applied to the surface and polished to create a coating that is smooth, shiny and very strong.

It is interesting to admire the contrast between the very white walls and the black roof structure, further enhanced by the blue carpet in front of the apse and the brightness of the light coming through the stained glass. Take the time to see all the interesting details, such as a cross made of nails taken from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by the bombardments of the Second World War.

Undoubtedly, this building has many stories to tell.  St Andrew's Cathedral is the most important example of ecclesiastical architecture in Southeast Asia.

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