I )used to spend a lot of time doing research in the National Library of Singapore. From the upper levels I would look down on the church across the road without knowing of its significance. However, one day I wandering across to the church and discovered that this was the site for one of the earliest churches in Singapore.
The history of Saint Joseph’s Church and that of its predecessor, the Church of São José, both built on the same site, is inextricably linked with the Portuguese Mission. Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia of Porto arrived from Goa in 1826 and founded the Mission in Singapore. When he died in 1850, he left his money and some land for the building of a small church. The church, which was called São José, was built by the priest who succeeded him from 1851 to 1853, to mainly serve the Portuguese and Eurasian Catholics in Singapore.
The present Saint Joseph’s Church was completed in 1912 and blessed by the then Bishop of Macau, João Paulino de Azevedo e Castro, who was the impetus behind this project.
The plan of the church was laid in the form of a Latin cross. The interior is a single large space roofed by a wooden barrel-vault instead of a gothic-style ceiling. Neither the nave nor the transepts have aisles. It is currently painted in white, with blue details, like the exterior. The west front has three towers: a central octagonal tower capped by a dome flanked by two smaller towers.
A significant segment of the Eurasian community in Singapore in the early days were baptised and married here. It was known as the “Eurasian Church”, with successive generations of families such as the de Costas, the d’Cottas, the de Souzas, the de Mellos, the Deskers, the Fernandezes, the Gomeses, the Josephs, the Pereiras, the Pintos, the Tessensohns and many more, among its parishioners.
What I appreciated about the church was the decorative Portuguese terracotta tiles that formed its floor. The church has been closed for five years while it was fully renovated and recently reopened in June 2022. This panoramic image shows the newly restored church and the decorative floor tiles.
To maintain the Portuguese character of the church, the Bishop of Macau continued to post priests to the church until 31 December 1999, when the rector of the church, Father Benito de Sousa, ended his term and the Bishop of Macau had decided to stop sending missionaries to the church. So, the last link between Saint Joseph’s Church and the Portuguese Mission was severed.