Mid-1950s: The need for a parish

At this time, it’s clear that a parish was needed: there was no place of worship for Catholics between town and Paya Lebar. And the new estates of Jalan Bahagia and Whampoa were in the pipeline. A proposal was put forth by Fr Philip Meissonier from the Cathedral and Mgsr Noel Goh, the parish priest of St Peter and Paul, to build a church.

By this time, most of the Eurasians had moved back into-town. Big colonial houses on stilts were considered outdated, and people were opting for smaller dwellings with the latest facilities. Interestingly enough, the Eurasian community has since dwindled to a point where, in 2001, only one family is left-long-time parishioner Gerard Clarke’s family still lives in the house his father- in-law built in 1917.

It was one of those Eurasians staying in estate, Philip D’Almeida, who would be the architect of the first Church of St Michael.

1961:The beginning of St Michael’s

The history of 17 St-Michael’s Road goes back a long way. Before World War II, it was occupied by a Greek family, the Pataras. During the war, the family disappeared and the house was occupied by Shinozaki, a Japanese civil servant who, in his book, Sayonan My Story, claimed to have helped the civilians of Singapore against the Kempetei. According to Elisabeth Eber-Chan’s mother, the house was not used as a Kempetei centre and no atrocities took place there. After the war, the house was owned by the Simmonds family, who rented it to a Chinese family.

The land was bought from them and the Church of St Michael was born. The big two-storey house was used partly as a church, and partly as residence for Fr John Lei, the parish priest. The first baptism takes place on September 31,1961 and the first Sunday Mass is said to have been celebrated the next day on October. In those few months, there were 56 baptisms.

1961 to 1968: A time to build

With Fr John Lei as parish priest assisted by Frs Paul Tay Francis Lau, Joachim Choy JC Thomas and Cyril Lee. The old kampong house was only a temporary  Solution. A church and a parish house had to be built and basic parish services set up. The board of

windows, and at every sunset Mass, the evening rays would stream through and bathe the pews with its golden light. It was truly inspirational and magical to me,” says parishioner James Tan.

Another parishioner, Alice Lim, fondly remembers, “When Fr Lau came to the church for

his first posting, he had several birds in cages and his precious fish tank. I killed his fish. You see, I thought I was helping him and gave him a pail for him to put water in his tank. The pail was used for washing the church and you can guess the rest! He’s never let me forget it till this day.”

The Council of Vatican II was held from 1962 to 1965 and was implemented locally. By 1968, the whole Mass no longer celebrated in Latin, but in the language was of the people.

1968 to 1979: A time of growth

With Frs Pierre Abrial, Joseph Wang and Michael Teo as parish priests assisted by

Frs JJ Troquier,Augustine Tay,John Khoo and Rene Nicholas.

The parish priest is now Fr Abrial. His task: to build the new church in Toa Payoh at a time when the estate was coming up. St Michael’s was slated to be the mother church of the Church of the Risen Christ. In the meantime, Fr Abrial rented space at the Community Centre on Sunday mornings and celebrated two Masses there each time.

In July 1971, the Church of the Risen Christ was completed and blessed and the builder became

its first parish priest. The choir that St Michael’s parishioner Peter Low started moved to a new home in Toa Payoh. This is also the year that baptisms in St Michael’s falls by half, from 302 the year before to just 182. By 1972, baptisms falls even further, to 89, as Toa Payoh town grows.

One reason: it’s faster for people to get to Risen Christ than to St Michael’s. Says church secretary Lucy Ong,”Parishioners from Jalan Bahagia would have to walk via Jalan Tenteram on red mud paths and walking paths along the side of some terrace houses. We would have to hold on to the fences of these houses to avoid tripping and falling into drains. And when it rained, coming to church was almost impossible.”

During these years the implementation of the changes resulting from the Vatican Council take place: Masses in English and Chinese, Parish Council, Church catechism on Sunday. In addition, Fr Michael Teo, in the light of inter-religious dialogue, built up a very friendly relationship with the monks of the Sri Lankaramaya temple.

1979 to 1989:A time of renewal

Fr Claude Barreteau is the parish priest, assisted by Frs Andre Christophe and Edward Lim.

The new estate of Potong Pasir was coming to life with new parishioners and the sessions of the Parish Renewal Experience (PRE) gave new impetus to the parish.

For the church, it was a time of spiritual renewal. The PRE aimed to make people more aware of their place in the parish and to contribute further. “I remember that during Mass one day, someone went to the pulpit and shared how the PRE had changed his life. These pulpit sharings from various people continued for a few weeks and it made me curious,” recalls lector Dawn Quintal. “I didn’t have a clue as to what the PRE was about and couldn’t see how so many lives were changed just by attending it. When approached one Sunday after Mass, I agreed to sign up for the 9th PRE and that was when the change began.”

But even during this time of renewal, people were moving away: The church records 44 baptisms in 1985-the lowest in all its 40 years.

Towards the end of his stay Fr Barreteau was asked to build a new parish house with meeting rooms. In April 1989, he leaves a new four-storey building to his successor after spending only a few nights there.

1989 to 1997: A time to rebuild

Fr Vincent Lee is the parish priest assisted by Frs Eugene Chong,Frank Depoorter Erbin Fernandez and Andy Altamirano.

A chance visit to then-Archbishop Gregory Yong paved the way for Fr Vincent Lee’s journey at St Michael’s. He says, “I happened to visit the Archbishop in April 1989 to ask him for leave. Before I could ask, he told me he wanted to send me to St Michael’s.I asked him when this was to happen, and he said it was to be the next month!” So on May 1,1989, Fr Lee arrived at St Michael’s, where he was given the keys to the church by Fr Barreteau. “Fr Barreteau didn’t tell me much about running the church, I didn’t even know how the accounts worked. But I do remember him telling me that there were very few confessions in the parish.”

The church was in bad shape, spiritually and structurally. First, the building of the CTE cut the parish into two -there was no way for people to come from Jalan Bahagia to church by car. Structurally, the church was sinking because the foundation was put in before the soil could settle. And 20 years on, the floor was cracking. It becomes so bad the steeple had to be taken down for safety reasons.

The question now: to repair the church, or pull it down and rebuild? To repair it would mean regularly injecting cement into the flooring, the cost of which could be prohibitive in the long run. Better to pull it down and build it up from scratch.

And so, it is was decided. It was to be Fr Lee’s task. His challenge: to connect the parish house to the new church. The clever answer: to build toilets as the link.

On July 7,1991, parishioners attended Mass in the old Church for the last time. On the last week of July 1991, it was torn down. A tent was put up in the carpark and Mass was celebrated in the open as the new church is being built. The tearing down was also symbolic -it signaled a new start, a renewal, for parishioners.

Says Fr Lee, “I quite enjoyed celebrating Mass in the tent. It was breezy and we spent three years there. Surprisingly, the neighbors didn’t complain at all when we had our Masses there.”

In these years, St Michael’s began to grow as a centre of spirituality and  faith formation. It became a place for healing services with Alex Loo’s healing, retreats, the 13th of the month Rosary procession around the church, charismatic renewal, and the intercessory prayer group, which paved the way towards Sabah retreats.

By Christmas 1993, the new church was ready and the tent was brought down. Apart from the stained glass and the grottos, the church also boasted a columbarium, considered new for its time.

“When I came, the old church was like a desert and there were not many people. But it has become more homely and friendly. The people are, in a way, renewed. There is fellowship and they are working together towards better things, “adds Fr Lee.

Fr Lee was also a key figure in bringing hospitality to the church. He started the tradition of opening the parish house to visiting priests and religious ,and parishioners often volunteered to take care of guests.

Fr Andy, in particular, was significant in building up the parish neighborhood groups in 1995. Before him, several attempts to start it did not take off.

The purpose: to make up for the anonymous way of life of people living in flats. “Singaporeans have a great mobility as far as attendance at Mass goes. As a result, people don’t belong to a community group and that is the purpose of the neighbourhood groups, “explains Fr Arro. There are now 10 groups in all, each meeting regularly for Bible study, to pray, say the Rosary and to socialize.


Look out for more on the rich history as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of our parish this year!

Adapted from: Church of St Michael’s 40th Anniversary yearbook