Get to appreciate Singapore’s racial and religious diversity in the historic Bencoolen area on this Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail.
Since the 19th century, Middle Road, along with Queen, Waterloo and Bencoolen streets were home to a diverse range of communities. From early Europeans to the Eurasians, Chinese, Indians, Jews and Malays in the mid-1800s, the different communities brought with them their cultures and traditions when settling in. Over time, a melting pot that is uniquely Singapore was formed.
Today, these streets are part of the Bras Basah Bugis arts and heritage precinct. Although residences of yesteryears are long gone, a few iconic places of worship managed to survive. Learn about the storied histories of various religious sites in this Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail.
1. Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail
1.1 Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple
Our first stop on this Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail is the famous Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is extremely popular with Chinese Buddhists in Singapore.
Existed since 1884, the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple houses Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy, 观世音, Avalokiteśvara), Bodhidharma (the founder of Zen Buddhism) and Hua Tuo, a Chinese patron saint of medicine and healing. It underwent a reconstruction in 1895, followed by an extensive rebuilding in 1982 to increase its capacity. Today, the temple remains a fine example of Chinese temple architecture and traditional craftsmanship.
The Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple bears significance to many Chinese Singaporeans and is believed to bring worshippers good luck. Many devotees will visit on the first and 15th days of the lunar calendar. And on the eve of Chinese New Year, thousands flock to the temple and the entire street fronting the temple is packed with worshippers waiting to offer incense to the Goddess of Mercy.
Besides being a revered site of worship, this temple is also known for its philanthropic work, actively contributing to Singapore’s social, educational and arts sectors.
Fun Fact: During the Japanese Occupation, the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple even played an important role in providing refuge for the sick, the wounded and the homeless.
Address: 178 Waterloo Street, Singapore 187964
1.2 Sri Krishnan Temple
Upon exiting Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, take a few steps to your right and you will reach our next site on the Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail – Sri Krishnan Temple.
Sri Krishnan Temple was established on Waterloo Street in 1870 after Hanuman Beem Singh set up an idol of Sri Krishnan under a banyan tree to cater to the religious needs of the Hindu community. Today, it remains the only South Indian Hindu temple in Singapore dedicated exclusively to Sri Krishna and his consort Rukmini.
The temple was built in a classic, Southern Indian style. It follows Agama Sastra, the authority on Hinduism practices. The main entrance is decorated with statues depicting the 10 incarnations of Hindu deity Vishnu, a wedding scene and Garuda, Vishnu’s mount. The monumental tower (gopuram) is decorated with statues studded with semi-precious stones.
Fun Fact: As Sri Krishnan Temple’s location is very near to the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, many Chinese devotees also light joss sticks at Sri Krishnan Temple. Hence, an altar dedicated to Guan Yin was built within the temple grounds.
Address: 152 Waterloo Street, Singapore 187961
1.3 Middle Road Church
Turn right when you exit Sri Krishnan Temple, then cross the road in front of Fortune Centre and you will find the area where it used to be Middle Road Church. Today, although the building remains, its interior has undergone a few transformations. Presently, Objectifs, a hub for photography and film enthusiasts, inhibits it.
Built between 1870-75, the Middle Road Church was first known as the Christian Institute where young men gathered for recreational activities and daily worship. When it was officially inaugurated as the Malay Church in 1894, it became the first Straits Chinese Methodist Church in Singapore. However, by 1929, a need for a larger place to accommodate the growing community resulted in the congregation moving to Kampong Kapor Methodist Church in Little India district
Fun Fact: During the period of World War II (1939 to 1945), the building was converted to a Chinese restaurant called May Blossom Restaurant. After the war, it became a motor-workshop and parking area.
Address: 155 Middle Road, Singapore 188977
1.4 Masjid Bencoolen
Our fourth stop on this Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail is the Masjid Bencoolen, which is located on Bencoolen Street. Founded in 1825, it was originally an attap mosque before being replaced in 1845 with a permanent version built by Arab merchant, Syed Omar bin Aljunied.
In 2001, the mosque was demolished to make space for the 12-storey Somerset Bencoolen serviced apartment tower before integrating into the building in 2004. Despite the tear-down, the present Masjid Bencoolen still very much retained its Indian heritage. This is evident in the mosque’s official name and signboards. Sermons and religious classes are also offered in Tamil.
Today, the mosque is capable of accommodating 1,100 worshippers and is usually crowded during Friday prayers. It is fully air-conditioned, with access to the building’s ample parking facilities located at the basement.
Fun Fact: The original attap mosque was built by Indian-Muslim workers who were brought from India to Bengkulu in Indonesia by the British.
Address: 51 Bencoolen Street, Singapore 189630
1.5 Maghain Aboth Synagogue
Over on Waterloo Street, you will find not only the oldest surviving synagogue in Singapore but also in Southeast Asia – the Maghain Aboth Synagogue!
The synagogue was built in 1878 and gazetted as a national monument in 1998. Today, it stands as an illustrious testimony of the contributions by the small but close-knit Jewish community that settled in Singapore since the British colonial period.
Maghain Aboth Synagogue adopted several Late Renaissance architectural elements in its design, including traditional Roman columns, pilasters, and arches. Dentils line and adorn the cornices around the building. Three Stars of David, the symbol often associated with the Judaic faith, are prominently displayed on the front façade.
Inside, the pièce de résistance is none other than the ark, an ornamented receptacle where Torah scrolls are reverently kept. It faces westward, towards the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem. The ark is covered with a parochet, a beautiful curtain embroidered with Hebrew verses and designs. In the middle of the prayer hall stands a wooden bimah, from where the rabbi leads the congregational prayers.
Fun Fact: As Jewish men and women worship separately in a synagogue, a U-shaped second-storey balcony was added to accommodate women by Sir Manasseh Meyer. In 1925, a more solid and permanent gallery was constructed and remains in use today.
Address: 24/26 Waterloo Street, Singapore 187968
1.6 Cathedral Of The Good Shepherd
After visiting the synagogue, make your way to the junction of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road. The next breathtaking edifice on your Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail is the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. Apart from being the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Singapore, it is also the cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Singapore. Its presiding Archbishop is Most Rev. Monsignor William Goh Seng Chye, DD, STL.
Constructed in 1847, this Renaissance-style church later became a national monument in 1973. It was instrumental in the spread of Catholicism in the region and serves as an affirmation to the contributions of early Catholic missionaries in Singapore to the fields of religion, architecture, and education.
Designed by architect Denis Lesley McSwiney, the Cathedral Of The Good Shepherd takes the form of a Latin cross. The Roman Tuscan features were adopted from Actors’ Church in Covent Garden while the temple-like proportions and design of the belfry were inspired by Saint Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square. A steeple, following the design of renowned Scottish artist Charles A. Dyce, was later added in.
Stepping into the nave, it is impossible not to notice the large crucifix right in front of you. The cynosure of all eyes, it is hung against a mosaic backdrop of rays radiating from the corpus of Jesus. On each side are doors leading to the sacristy, where sacred vessels and vestments used for divine worship are kept.
In 2013, the church underwent a series of renovation, reopening only in 2016. The restoration works included identifying and reverting the building to its original colour scheme of white and dark yellow, cleaning and repairing the floor tiles at the rector’s two-storey residence and strengthening the building foundation. The project went on to win the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Award for Restoration in 2017.
Fun Fact: The pipe organ in the cathedral’s choir loft was installed by Bevington & Sons of London in 1912 and is Singapore’s oldest playable pipe organ.
Address: A Queen Street, Singapore 188533
1.7 Catholic Church of Saints Peter & Paul
The penultimate stop on this Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail is the Catholic Church of Saints Peter & Paul. Located on Queen Street and near the Cathedral Of The Good Shepherd, there is actually quite an interesting story tying them together!
In the 1830s, a small chapel serving the religious needs of the Chinese Catholic community stood on the ground where the Singapore Art Museum is currently on. When the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd opened in 1847, many from the congregation flocked over. Father Pierre Paris, who was overseeing the Chinese and Indian Catholics at that time, decided to build the Church of Saints Peter & Paul for them. It was completed in 1870 and sermons were delivered in Chinese dialects and Tamil.
The Church of Saints Peter & Paul was built in the Neo-Gothic style, characterised by the generous use of lancet arches in its doorways and fenestration. The façade features the statues of St Peter and St Paul. Within the square belfry, you can find three bronze bells installed by Father Paris. Still in use today, they were cast in Mans, France, and their rims decorated with engravings of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Upon stepping into the nave, your eyes are likely to be drawn to the five eye-catching apse windows. These stained glass windows were made in France and installed around 1870. The glass panels feature prominent figures such as the patron saints Peter and Paul, and St Joseph.
*The Parish Building, including the columbarium, will be closed to the public from 14 Jan 2019 onwards for extensive renovation works.
Fun Fact: In 1888, Father Joachim A. M. Meneuvrier founded the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Tamil-speaking congregation moved there. From then onwards, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul became a church exclusively for the Chinese Catholic community.
Address: 225A Queen Street, Singapore 188551
1.8 Saint Joseph’s Church
Hooray, you’ve made it to the last stop on this Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail – Saint Joseph’s Church on Victoria Street!
Built by the Portuguese Mission in 1853, this church was the headquarters of the Portuguese Mission in Singapore. Naturally, its congregation was made up of the Portuguese and Portuguese Eurasian communities in Singapore. However, ever since the transfer of jurisdiction to the Archdiocese in Singapore in 1981, and the subsequent dissolution of the Portuguese Mission in 1999, the church now opens its doors to parishioners of all races.
This Neo-Gothic edifice has a portico that is supported by four columns with large marble statues of Saint Joseph, Saint John of God and Saint John de Brito. There is also an outdoor shrine to Our Lady of Fatima. Upon stepping into the nave, you might be surprised to find that the ceiling is not your typical Gothic-style ceiling. Instead, it is just a single large space roofed by a wooden barrel-vault!
The main altar is dedicated to Saint Joseph, while the others are dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima and Saint Anthony of Padua. There is also a host of saints in the form of statues standing in canopied niches and stained glass windows in the church.
*Presently, Saint Joseph’s Church is undergoing restoration and is closed to the public.
Fun Fact: Saint Joseph’s Church has one of Singapore’s largest collections of religious stained-glass windows. These magnificent windows were produced by Jules Dobbelaere, a Belgian who was arguably the world’s most well-known stained-glass craftsman of his time.
Address: 143 Victoria Street, Singapore 188020
“Download the EstateJio app on Apple App Store or Google Play today. And if you find this article (Middle Road Interfaith Heritage Trail – 8 Remarkable Sites To Visit) useful, do click Like and Share. Thank you!” – EstateJio