The Church of St Anthony has its beginning as a small wooden chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua in Mandai. In 1960, it was replaced by a new church in the same area which officially opened on the 18th of December, 1960 by His Grace, Archbishop Mgr M. Olcomendy. In 1986, the small community in Mandai was issued a notice of resettlement and a new church was built in Woodlands where it stands today. In 2019, the Church of St Anthony celebrated its 25th year in Woodlands. This will be followed by its 60th year in Singapore in 2020.
Who were they? Where did they come from?
More than 60 years ago, in 1927, a group of Catholic villagers in Swatow, China, was forced to flee their homes and head for a safer place. It was the 16th year of the Chinese Republic and the political unrest had spread across the country.
That same year, on the 27th of January, two villages – Hui Lai and Pegney were attacked by a bandit army. For 24 hours, the local fought and resisted the bandits. As night fell, a temporary cease-fire was installed. The two villages, on the losing end, convened an urgent meeting.
Should they stay or flee?
Their decision – to flee. To stay would mean death.
With the night as their protection, the old the young and the women were secreted out of the village first. The men tarried, acting as a strong rear-guard. One villager recounted: “It was a cold dark night with only a few stars throwing a faint light on the dirty track”.
Throughout the night, under the cover of darkness, they trudged for miles without stopping. Driven by their fear, they moved in the still on the night and not one footstep was heard.
By dawn, they had arrived a Leng Kang, a small town. Overcome by exhaustion they collapsed in a roadside temple. There they awaited for the men to arrive before proceeding to Swatow. Several hundred villagers had managed to escape.
Immediately the Swatow Mission went to work
By the time they reached Swatow, it was February. When they got there, they sought refuge from the Catholic Church. The Bishop of Swatow immediately cabled abroad appealing for relief and assistance.
As they awaited news from overseas, they were temporarily housed in the disused Saint Joseph Middle School. Food, medicine and support came from the Jeng Ai Huay, an organization of Swatow Catholics.
The first offer of help came from the Bishop of Singapore. Singapore will take in those families who were willing to leave China for the South Seas.
Immediately, the Swatow Mission went to work. The families began their journey to Singapore. After ten days, on the 1st of March, 1927, they set foot on the island.
The Birth of the Catholic Village
With no money, the villagers could not buy nor rent land. With the help of Fr. Stephen Lee, an application in the name of the Catholic Mission was submitted to the Government for a plot of land for cultivation. Altogether 49 applications were sent before the request was granted.
The land given was one hundred acres of hilly and wild jungle in the dense forest in Mandai. It was distributed to the refugees according to family size. It wasn’t an easy task making the land cultivable. But spurred on by the need to survive and to start anew, they set to work, toiling day and night.
The areas were finally cleared. The land was tilled and shacks were built and the area was known as the Catholic Village. In recognition of Fr. Lee’s effort, the Government later named the main road Stephen Lee Road.
To attend Mass, the newly-settled Catholic villagers in Mandai had to walk to Sar Kak Eng (Woodlands) to catch a bus to St Joseph Chapel in Tek Ko Hill (Bukit Timah). The journey to and from the chapel would take half a day at least.
With the help of Mr. Lee Kheng Seng and his brother, Mr. Lee Kheng Guan, a new wooden chapel was built in Mandai.
Fr. Lee dedicated the Chapel to St Anthony of Padua and from then on, the Feast Day of St Anthony has been held annually on the 13th of June.
During the Japanese Occupation, the Chapel was under the care and administration of Fr. J.R. de Rozario of St Joseph Church in Tek Ko Hill (Bukit Timah).
Despite traffic restrictions, two nights per weeks, Fr. Rozario would cycle from Bukit Timah to Mandai to celebrate Mass at the Chapel that evening and the next morning.
A New Church in 12-J Stephen Lee Road
After the war, 1949, the Chapel was put under the supervision of Fr. Joachim Teng. Gradually, the Catholic population in Mandai increased.
In 1957, Fr. Teng set out to build a new Church. With skilful planning and hard work, he managed to raise several tens of thousands of dollars.
The Church of St Anthony, standing on a hillock, was blessed and officially opened on the 18th of December, 1960, by His Grace, Archbishop Mgr M. Olcomendy.
On 30th May, 1965, Fr. Rene Challet took up residence and became the Church’s first Parish Priest. Before that, the Church had served as an outstation of St Joseph’s Church in Bukit Timah.
Formation of the Pastoral Committee
Some 15 months later Fr. Challet was replaced by Fr. Cyprien Huc soon after being transferred to the parish of St Stephen in Mapherson. Fr. Huc had been preaching in China for 22 years before coming to Singapore in December 1953.
Assisting Fr. Huc was Rev. Fr. Augustine Tay in 1976. Together, they created a Christian unity in the formation of the pastoral Committee, paving the way for a future Parish Council.
Mass at Void Deck Block 6 Marsling Drive
When Fr. Tay left for further studies in Rome, Fr. John Lee came to the church, as a deacon, in 1981.
As a priest later, Fr. Lee concentrated on the Liturgy of the Church and worked actively with the young people of the Church then. Today, they still remember him very well.
During that time, to cater to the Marsiling residences, a Mass would be celebrated every Sunday, at 10.00 a.m. at the void deck of Block 6, Marsiling Drive. The permit for the void deck expired and was subsequently renewed with the Housing and Development Board till December, 1982.
Parish Council was reformed in August 1985
In 1980, Fr. Huc resigned as the Parish Priest and the problem of catering to the Marsiling residents fell into the hands of the new Parish Priest, Rev. Fr. John Khoo. Fr. Khoo, from St Bernadette’s Church, took over on the 1st of October, 1982, after Fr. Huc had kindly agreed to carry on for two more years.
When he arrived, Fr. Khoo learnt that with the growth of the Woodlands New Town, he had to meet the needs of the new residents in the district. He continued to change the face of the parish as initiated by Rev. Frs. Augustine Tay and John Lee.
To create a sense of belonging, the Parish Council was reformed in August 1985. It included representatives from all Church’s organizations.
Changes and Improvements to the Church by Fr John Khoo
For the Marsiling residents, there would not be any more masses at the void deck of Block 6. Instead, buses started plying between Marsiling and the Church in Mandai on Sundays, Feast Days, Days of Obligation and important days so that they could attend Mass at the Church. The chartering of buses was handled by Mr. Dominic Soh.
Another change was the Public Address System in the Church. It was specially installed to enabled the sound to come from all the pews. This is also installed in the new Church.
Finally, the most significant changes.
When Fr. Khoo first came to the Church of St Anthony, he decided that the Priests’ Residence should be opened at all times, even when the priests were not around.
Soon, the parish began to serve as a “tuition centre” for the children. Some volunteers responded to the call of the parish to give free tuition in English and Mathematics. Later, the older children too, assisted the younger ones in their studies. These efforts contributed to a few graduates today.
Fr. Khoo also encouraged the parishioners and children to regard the church as their second home. They helped build a basketball court and a mini football field to compensate for the lack of recreational facilities in the area. Also, a car park was built for churchgoers and visitors.
Fr. Khoo also designed a more systematic religious instruction programme in English. Two sessions were carried out on Sundays, at 9.00 a.m. and 10.30 a.m. at the Priests’ Residence. This went on till the closing of the Church on 12 December 1993.
The Notice of Resettlement to the people of Mandai
The Notice of Resettlement to the people of Mandai and to the Church of St Anthony was issued in 1986. It was a painful for many to leave their birthplace and their livelihood.
With the Notice of Resettlement, Fr. Khoo immediately made a personal appeal to the Member of Parliament, Mr. Lee Yiok Seng, for a piece of land in Woodlands to relocate the Church. St Anthony was great. We were successful in 1989 tender for an excellent piece of land in 25 Woodlands Avenue One.
The new Church is what you see today. It’s to be officially opened and blessed by His Grace, Archbishop of Singapore, Mgr Gregory Yong on 23rd April, 1994.
Moving the Church for the third time since 1927
St Anthony has had to move his Church for the third time since 1927 from Mandai to Woodlands. We hope that this will be the permanent parish for the Catholics in Woodlands and Marsiling. It is one of the biggest churches in Singapore.
Rev. Fr. John Khoo oversaw the construction of the new Church building in Woodlands when the land where the original church stood was acquired by the government for alternate use.
The new church was blessed and opened on 23 April 1994 by the Archbishop of Singapore, His Grace, Mgr. Gregory Yong. The new church has a sitting capacity of 2000 parishioners.
The parish has grown from a small farming community of over a hundred migrants to 4500 parishioners.
The newly ordained Archbishop of Singapore, His Grace, Mgr. Nicholas Chia on 18 February 2002 replaced Rev. Fr. John Khoo and his assistant, Fr Eugene Chong, with Rev. Fr. Terence Pereira as the new parish priest and his assistance Rev. Fr. Vincent Chee with Rev. Fr. Cyril Lee as the priest in residence.
Fr Pereira spent the next 14 years in St Anthony’s and left for the Church of St Michael in 2017. Fr Terence was replaced by Fr Andrew Wong from the Church of the Holy Spirit. Fr Wong left in 2018 to head the Catholic Spirituality Center (CSC) and the Church welcomed a new Parish Priest, Fr Ignatius Yeo. During the 14 years when Fr Terence was Parish Priest, many assistant priests served at St Anthony’s including Fr Bruno Saint Girons, Fr Gerard Verakoon and Fr Frederick Quek.
Extending the Church with The Fireplace
As the number of students attending Catechism classes grew, there was a pressing need for more classrooms. Fr Terence initiated the building of a new Annex called the Fireplace. The new extension was built over the open car park of the Church. It was officially opened on Oct 25, 2014.
The new annex building, the Fireplace standing to the left of the Church building
Consecration of the Church and the Blessing of the Fireplace
The Church was consecrated on Aug 24, 2014 by His Grace, Archbishop William Goh who also blessed the Fireplace on the same occasion.
His Grace, Archbishop William Goh blessing one of the rooms in the Fireplace accompanied by Fr Terence Pereira
Fr Andrew Wong began a project to renovate the church in 2017 but after he left in 2018, Fr Ignatius Yeo took over the project and the renovations were completed in early 2020. The renovations involved both the interior and exterior parts of the church.During the renovations, masses were relocated to levels 3 and 4 of the Fireplace, with the first mass celebrated there on Jan 5, 2019. Prior to starting masses in the Fireplace, much work was done by the liturgical ministries and Fr Ignatius including dry runs in December 2018. Worship returned to the main church just before Holy Week in 2019.
Confirmation Mass, Jan 26, 2019 in the Fireplace
Sanctuary after the Renovation
Post Renovation Blessing of the Church
With the extensive renovations to the Church, His Grace Archbishop William Goh, blessed the Church of St Anthony once again on Jul 21, 2019.
Suspension of Masses Due to A Pandemic!
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, masses throughout the Archdiocese were suspended on Feb 12, 2019. The situation started to return back towards normal after May 1, 2022 following the April 25, 2022 relaxation of rules by the authorities. From Feb 12, 2019 to May 1, 2022, we undertook various steps to ensure the safety of our parishioners such as temperature taking, social distancing, mask wearing, cessation of singing and other measures as the rules changed over this period. On Palm Sunday, Apr 10, 2022, our parishioners started to return in significantly greater numbers and as close distancing or zoning requirements were removed, the community spirit of our church also became evident once again.
List of Priests Who Have Served at St Anthony’s
A long list of priests have served in either the chapel (1927) or one of the churches in Mandai (1965) or Woodlands 1994).
- Fr Stephen Lee circa 1927-1935
- Fr D’Souza TBD
- Fr J.R. De Rozario During the Japanese occupation
- Fr H. Berthold 1948-1949
- Joachim Teng 1949-1960
- Fr Simon Yim 1963-1967
- Fr J. Chao TBD
- Fr R. Challet 1965 – 1966
- Fr Cyprian Huc 1966-1982
- Fr Augustine Tay 1976 – 1981
- Fr John Khoo (PP) 1980 – 18/2/2002
- Fr Eugene Chong 1993 – 18/2/2002
- Fr Terence Pereira (PP) 2002 – 23/4/2017
- Fr Vincent Chee 2002 – circa 2008
- Fr Cyril Lee 2002 – present
- Fr Bruno Saint Girons 18/12/2008 – 17/1/2011
- Fr Gerard Weerakoon 2011 – 1/5/2015
- Fr Frederick Quek 26/8/2013 – 23/4/2017
- Fr Andrew Wong (PP) 23/4/2017 – 1/7/2018
- Fr Ignatius Yeo (PP) 5/11/2018 – present
- Fr Edmund Chong 5/11/2018 – 1/11/2021
- Fr John Lau 23/4/2017 – 15/5/2021
This article was contributed by Rev. Fr. John Khoo and Rev. Fr. Terence Pereira and updated by Anthony Ng.