Passersby at the Tanjong Pagar vicinity would have noticed an abandoned church at the junction of Neil Road and Everton Road. It was formerly used as the premises of St Matthew’s Church, and had a long history back to the 19th century. The original church building was first established as a place of worship for the British sailors who arrived at Singapore in the 1890s. Prison wardens from the nearby Outram Prison also used the church for their prayers. The premises, however, fell into disrepair by the 1920s, and was left vacant for years.
In September 1929, the Anglican Diocese of Singapore took over the vacated building as a place of worship for its Cantonese Congregation, which were inaugurated in September 1902 and had to share with the Hokkien, Foochow, Malay and Tamil-speaking congregations at St Peter’s Church at Stamford Road. The new church was named St Matthew’s Church, and was fondly known as Sing Mah Tai in Cantonese. During the Japanese Occupation, the church continued to operate, although much of its activities were halted.
While the Anglican Diocese of Singapore was established in 1909, the Anglican establishment in Singapore started much earlier. It officially began in 1826 with the appointment of Reverend Robert Burns as the Resident Chaplain. A decade later, the first Anglican Church was built. The building was, however, closed in 1852 after it was struck twice by lightnings. After its demolition, another church was constructed at the original site. The new church, named St Andrew’s Cathedral, was funded by Scottish merchants, designed by Lieutenant-Colonel Ronald MacPherson (1817-1869) and built by Indian convict labourers.
After the war, St Matthew’s Church carried out plans to repair its aging building and at the same time, expand its premises, including the construction of a vicarage. A kindergarten was also built in the early fifties for the young children living in the nearby Chinatown. The new kindergarten was designed in simple Art Deco-style; it had a sloping roof laid with terracotta Marseilles tiles and timber windows with louvers. Named St Matthew’s Church Kindergarten, it was well-equipped with a Memorial Hall, classrooms and offices. By the sixties and seventies, it would become one of the largest and most famous kindergartens in Singapore, having nourished many generations of young children.
In the late fifties, St Matthew’s also embarked on a re-building plan of its main church building. Designed with a distinctive Modern style, the new double-storey building consisted of a prayer hall on top of a large function room. It also possessed an unique vertically protruding roof that looked like a ship’s prow, and a tall concrete bell tower that was erected beside the main chapel. In 1963, the new church building was completed and dedicated by Rt. Rev C.K. Sausbury, the former Bishop of Singapore.
In 1996, the land where the church was standing on was gazetted for compulsory acquisition by the government. It was planned to be used for the construction of a new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station of the Northeast (NE) Line. Affected by the redevelopment plans, St Matthew’s Church Kindergarten was shut down, and St Matthew’s Church began looking for alternate sites to be relocated. The church secured a plot of land at Tiong Bahru’s Eng Hoon Street in 2000, and moved to its new premises five years later.
The old premises of St Matthew’s Church at Neil Road was then returned to the authority. The new MRT station, however, was not built at its site; the Outram MRT Station of the NE Line, located 150m away, was opened in 2003. The church was left abandoned and faced the possibility of demolition. Fortunately, it was gazetted as a conserved building on 6 June 2014, after almost a decade of abandonment.
With the conservation status, it will continue to be an important landmark at Neil Road, together with the neighbouring former building of Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School (operated at Neil Road between 1912 and 1983), which is conserved in October 2000 and has been integrated with the Police Cantonment Complex.
Published: 11 July 2015