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Saturday, May 20, 2017, 11:14
Church rich in Armenian history
By The Straits Times/ANN
Saturday, May 20, 2017, 11:14 By The Straits Times/ANN

The 182-year-old Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator in Hill Street was commissioned by a group of Armenian families who arrived here on a trade route from Iran in the early 1800s. (MARK CHEONG/The Straits Times/ANN)

SINGAPORE - In a small sanctuary in Singapore's oldest church, the Very Reverend Father Zaven Yazichyan conducts a traditional Armenian Divine Liturgy service, or Sourp Badarak, for around 20 people.

Though he lives in Myanmar, Father Zaven, 36, travels here about five or six times a year to conduct a Divine Liturgy at the 182-year-old Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator in Hill Street.

With only an estimated 80 to 100 Armenians living in Singapore, there is no resident priest for the tiny community here, and there has not been one since the 1930s. But its loyal worshippers are not about to let this pillar of Armenian identity, formally recognised as a national monument in 1973, fade away.

Ms Ani Umedyan, 35, a volunteer at the church who has worshipped there for nine years, moved to Singapore with her husband from Armenia in 2008 and speaks passionately about seeing it grow.

"When I first started worshipping here, there were only about 20 or so people. Now that more expats have come, there are more people and we are happy to see the church crowded with about 40 to 50 people at each service," said the musician.

When asked what keeps him motivated to keep flying back to conduct services for such a small crowd, Father Zaven said: "Every soul is important. Even if there are only a few people, it is my duty and honour to minister to them."

Most major holidays in the Orthodox Christian calendar are celebrated here, such as Easter and Christmas, which is celebrated on Jan 6 according to Orthodox beliefs. About 100 Armenians attend these services.

Another draw for the Armenian community here is music. The Armenian Heritage Ensemble was established in 2009 to encourage learning of the history and culture of Armenians. The small group of three permanent musicians performs traditional Armenian music as well as other classical pieces for about 50 Armenians and Singaporeans each time.

"The aim is to expose people to the church, to our culture and our heritage through music," said one of the church's four trustees, Mr Pierre Hennes, 44.

Another trustee, Mr Gevorg Sargsyan, 35, added that the concerts bring life to the church.

The building of the church was commissioned by a group of Armenian families who arrived here on a trade route from Iran and started worshipping in a small space behind John Little & Company, located in modern-day Raffles Place.

When they requested a permanent worship location, they were given a plot of land in Hill Street by Queen Victoria.

Contributions from each family raised about half the building costs, with the rest of it coming from overseas Armenian communities.

The church was built in 1835 and was officially opened and consecrated in 1836. It was dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator, who was the first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The church, designed by architect George D. Coleman, was given a colonial design on the exterior, with a notably Armenian interior. It has since gone through a number of refurbishments.

However, air-conditioning was installed in the building only last year.

"We had to discuss the plans for air-conditioning with the National Heritage Board for a long time before they agreed to let us do it," said Ms Umedyan, explaining it was crucial they did not disturb the overall look of the sanctuary.

Even the pews in the sanctuary remain as they originally were when they first arrived, though the rattan has since been replaced.

In the early 1970s, tombstones of Armenians who died in Singapore were taken to the church grounds from Bukit Timah Cemetery and placed in what is now known as the Memorial Garden.

Though the community is small, some of its members played a prominent role in Singapore's history.

People of note in repose in the garden include Mr Catchick Moses, who was the co-founder of The Straits Times; Miss Agnes Joaquim, who bred Singapore's national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim; and the Sarkies brothers, who founded Raffles Hotel.

There are other plans to commemorate the history of the church and the local Armenian community. The first floor of the parsonage is being turned into a museum containing maps, religious relics and Armenian literary works.

Its deep history makes the Armenian church a favourite stop for tourists. About 100 visitors come every day, many of them Armenian.

"Based on our guest book, we know that not a single day goes by without an Armenian visitor stopping by," said Mr Sargsyan.

Currently, the church holds between 30 to 40 Orthodox weddings a year, and couples are simply asked to make a donation.

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