1850-1988 By Edgar K D’Souza
The Major Seminary of Singapore began its first academic year, February 17, 1983. Although it went largely unnoticed, it was a day of great significance for the Singapore Archdiocese. At the Inauguration Mass a week later, the Archdiocese celebrated the upgrading of St Francis Xavier’s Seminary from the minor seminary it has been all these years to a full seminary – complete with the departments of Philosophy and Theology.
Up to 1983 all those who wished to be priests in this Archdiocese, upon completion of their studies in St Francis Xavier’s Seminary, had to go to a major seminary to complete their studies for priesthood. Most students of the Singapore Minor Seminary proceeded to the College General, which till the beginning of 1983 was the Regional Seminary of the Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia-Singapore and Brunei.
The seminary in Singapore is officially said to have been established in 1925. However, a handwritten manuscript in the archives of St Francis Xavier’s Seminary claims that this seminary had its beginnings as far back as 1850. The source says that during the time of Bishop John Baptist Boucho (1844-1871), the rector of College General, Fr Claude Trisserand, came to Singapore and consulted the Bishop about the building of a minor seminary.
The Bishop agreed and in 1850 a Minor Seminary was built in Singapore. It was called St Mary’s College. No one today seems to know the exact location of St Mary’s College. However, it is certain that it was not at the present site of St Francis Xavier’s Seminary.
For some unknown reason St Mary’s College was transferred to Matang Tinggi in Province Wellesley where Fr Trisserand obtained a two-story building which became the temporarily Minor Seminary . Unfortunately, the dates of the transfer of St Mary’s College from Singapore to Matang Tinggi and later to Balik Pulau, Pengang are not known.
Before the establishment of St Mary’s College, aspirants to the priesthood learnt Latin from their respective parish priests. Latin was very important as all the lectures in the College General up to the 1960s were in Latin. Seminarians studying Latin in parishes had to contend with the busy schedule of their parish priests and invariably spent most of their days in self-study. Few seem to know the existence of St Mary’s College. Yet Fathers Stephen Lee, Lionel Cordeiro and Finian de Silva are said to have studied at St Mary’s College when it was in Balik Pulau. The only visible clue of the existence of St Mary’s College is a marble slab at the gate of St Francis Xavier’s Seminary with this inscription: –
ST FRANCIS XAVIER’S SEMINARY
Apparently St Mary’s College never returned to Singapore.
During the time of Bishop Emile Barillon (1904-1932) the idea of restarting a Minor Seminary came up again. He consulted priests working in Singapore. Some priests suggested the property just behind the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (the site of the former Raffles Girls’ Primary School) as an ideal spot. These priests felt that the seminarians should be near the Cathedral and not in the wilds of Serangoon.
The view of the other priests prevailed.
And so on February 2nd 1925, St Francis Xavier’s Seminary was blessed by Bishop Barillon. Among the first four seminarians who joined St Francis Xavier’s Seminary was Fr Moses Koh. In 1925 there was no electricity or tap water in the seminary. A diesel generator supplied electricity and the rain provided water. There were also two wells.
The first rector of the seminary, Fr Louis Auriol arrived n May. In the interim period, the parish priest of the Church of Our Lady’s Nativity took care of the seminarians. Bishop Barillon came up twice a week to visit his seminarians. The seminarians and their Rector had much manual work to do and clear the land of large fruit trees which were part of the environment. During this time, a small room on the first floor served as the chapel. By the end of 1926 the foundations of the present seminary chapel were laid. A dormitory and dining room were added to the small seminary in 1933. The dormitory later became the library of St Francis Xavier’s Seminary.
The seminarians had two vacations each year in August and December. They returned to their families in August but stayed in the Priests’ Bungalow in what was Track 17 (present day Ponggol 7th Avenue), Ponggol Road during their December holidays.
The Seminary was in full swing when the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941 began. It was a bleak Christmas filled with much uncertainty. On January 30, 1942, the British withdrew to Singapore — the Gibraltar of the East!
As the bombing and shelling increased the seminarians were evacuated to town. It was rumoured that the Japanese would land at Ponggol and Kankar (Hougang). Since the British soldiers were already staying at the seminary there were fears of bloody, fierce and perhaps even hand-to-hand battles.
When the seminarians evacuated the seminary, they stayed at The Catholic High School, Queen Street. The Rector at the time was Fr Justin Pages.
After the fall of Singapore and the Japanese were in full control, Fr Pages and the seminarians returned to the seminary to continue their studies. But this did not last for long. The Japanese army wanted the premises for their own use. The seminary was used as a military hospital.
The Bishop and Rector then decided to move the students to Bahau in Negri Sembilan. Fr Hippolyte Berthold, the new rector, went with the students.
The Seminary was not bombed or destroyed. And when the war ended in 1944, two seminarians were able to return to their seminary where they continued their studies till December 1946. There were no seminarians in the seminary for the next two years (1947-1948). During this time, the parish priest of Nativity Church, Fr Francis Chan (later to be first Bishop of Penang) and his assistant Fr Peter Barthoulot lived in the seminary. The last month of 1948 saw some renovations to the seminary. It was also given a fresh coat of paint.
St Francis Xavier’s Seminary officially reopened in January 1949. Fr Barthoulot was the rector. He was assisted by major seminarian Gregory Yong. There was an enrolment of four students. Fr Barthoulot remained rector for 22 years till 1971. His assistant, the future Bishop of Penang and then Archbishop of Singapore returned to the seminary six years after his ordination in 1957 and remained there for eight years. During the time of Fr Barthoulot, the seminary further extended. In 1958, two large dormitories, each with a capacity of 40 were built. The ground floor comprised a games hall, showers, toilets and a workshop.
The next rector was Fr Francis Lau, the present Vicar General of the Singapore Archdiocese. During his term of office, the Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei decided, (January 9, 1975) that St Francis Xavier’s Seminary was the responsibility of the Archbishop of Singapore and this became strictly the Singapore Archdiocesan seminary although it continued to accept students from other dioceses.
In 1980, Fr Lau left for Canon Law studies in Rome. His successor from September 1980 was Fr Adrian Anthony. Fr Anthony was responsible for renovating the seminary to cater for a small number of students.
Father Noel Chin was appointed the first rector of the Singapore Major Seminary in May 1982, when it was decided that the Archdiocese of Singapore would have its own Major Seminary.
A major seminary for the Singapore Archdiocese, on a different site in Ponggol was being built and was later opened in 1988.
Prior to its founding, seminarians from Singapore would study at the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary for the first four years and complete their priestly formation at the College General in Penang, Malaysia.
The political separation of Malaysia and Singapore in the 1960s made it difficult for Singapore Seminarians to proceed to the Penang College General for their final formation. The Malaysian government did not recognize the College General as an institution of higher learning. At the same time, the governments of Malaysia and Singapore also imposed quotas on foreign missionaries.
Amidst such circumstances, the Catholic – Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei made a decision in 1982 to establish a Diocesan Seminary under the direct jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Singapore. St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary was subsequently established by Archbishop Gregory Yong in 1983, with Fr. Noel Chin as the first rector.
From 1983 – July 1987, the Major Seminary operated at the premises of the Minor Seminary at Upper Serangoon Road. In August 1987, it moved to its new location at 199 Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue. It was officially opened and blessed on 28 January 1988 by Archbishop Gregory Yong.
On 30 December 2015, the Major Seminary made another movement to its temporary premises located at St.Teresa’s Church, 510 Kampong Bahru Road. The Major Seminary awaited the completion of the building of its new and permanent premises located at St Joseph Church (Bukit Timah), 618 Upper Bukit Timah Road.
On 22 August 2018, the St Francis Xavier Major Seminary was officially opened and blessed by Archbishop William Goh. The St Francis Xavier Seminary Building also houses the Catholic Theological Institute of Singapore.