Newsletter of the District of Asia

 Jan - June 2003

The Origins of Catholicism in Singapore

The Diocese of Malacca was created on February 4, 1558 by the Apostolic Constitution "Pro Excellent! Praeminentia" of Pope Paul IV. From the start, Portuguese Bishops governed the Diocese until the fall of Malacca to the Dutch in 1641. The last Bishop of Malacca, confirmed by the Holy See, was His Lordship Alexandre de Sacra Familia who was consecrated in 1783. But he could not take charge of his See in Malacca. Then, the Bishops of Malacca were transferred to the colony of Timor. There was, however, a priest always stationed in Malacca who came from either Macau or Goa to attend to the spiritual needs of the faithful. The Diocese of Malacca was then subordinate to the Archdiocese of Goa.

The Bishops could not go to the town -which was then occupied by the Dutch - thus the Archbishop delegated the care of the spiritual interests of Malacca's Catholics to the Vicar of St. Peter's Church which was built at the beginning of the 18th century.

In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles founded the settlement of Singapore, the then Vicar of St. Peter's Church in Malacca was the Dominican Friar, Fr. Daniel de Sta. Teresa, who took charge of the Parish on July 8,1810. His assistant, from 1813, was Father Jacob Joaquim Freire Brumber. In 1821 or 1822, Father Jacob came from Malacca to Singapore to take care of local Catholics. He obtained from Sir Stamford Raffles a site for a Chapel but there has never been proof that the chapel was built.

In 1826, Father Francisco Gomes was appointed Vicar of St. Peter's Church in Malacca. In 1840, he was appointed Episcopal Governor of Malacca and was succeeded by Father Vincente de Sta. Catarina, a Dominican Friar, who came to Singapore in 1848. It was Father Vincente who built the Church of St. Joseph in Singapore between 1851 and 1853.

The Portuguese Mission and the French Mission

On July 16,1821, Mgr. Jean-Louis Florens, Apostolic Vicar of Siam, wrote from Bangkok: "The Christians of Singapore ...wrote me twice asking for a priest. Where to find one? They have today a Portuguese priest."

It seems that the priest was Father Jacob who came from Malacca.

By 1824, it seems probable that Father Jacob had already returned to Malacca. About then, three Catholics wrote to Mgr. Florens asking for a priest. He could not help them as his jurisdiction did not extend to Singapore.

To look after the Catholics of Singapore, Fr. Francisco da Silva Pinto a Maia, of the Congregation of the Mission, came from Macau in 1825 and founded the Portuguese Mission here. Father Maia was born in Oporto (Portugal) in 1785 and was educated in the Seminary of St. Vincent de Paul in Lisbon. Once ordained a priest, he was appointed to the Diocese of Macau where he arrived on June 28, 1813. There he was appointed to the staff of St. Joseph's Seminary where he taught for many years. But as the Catholics of the new British settlement of Singapore depended spiritually on the Archbishop of Goa, Father Maia requested and obtained ecclesiastical jurisdiction. He arrived in Singapore on June 30, 1825, just six years after the foundation of the settlement. There was no other Catholic priest in the Colony at that time.

By the end of 1821, there were only 12 or 13 Catholics in Singapore. By 1829, they numbered 200, all under the care of Father Maia. As he had no church or chapel, he said Mass in the house of his friend, Dr Jose d'Almeida, at Beach Road, where the present Raffles Hotel now stands.

In 1831, Mgr. Bartholomeu Bruguiere, MEP, Bishop of Capso, Coadjutor for Siam, called at Singapore on his way to Bangkok. He said Mass in the house of a Mr. MacSwiney, along Bras Basah Road, opposite where the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd now stands. Before leaving for Siam in 1832, he entrusted some Catholics to the care of Father Julien Marc Clemenceau, MEP; and he wrote to Father Jean Baptist Boucho, MEP, to come down from Penang to settle certain difficulties. These difficulties concerned the jurisdiction over the Catholics of Singapore who now numbered about 300.

The Vicar Apostolic of Siam, in a letter to Father Maia dated February 10,1831, stated that he had received spiritual jurisdiction over the district of Singapore from Pope Leo Xn by his decree of July 16,1827.

A minor storm arose when the jurisdiction of Father Maia was contested, as may be seen from this quote from the Singapore Free Press of August 20, 1840: "Under the right of Patronage vested in the Crown of Portugal, under an ancient Bull, in favour of the Metropolitan of Goa, within whose jurisdiction the settlements in the Straits are included, and under a Faculty from the Prekte, Padre Maia came to Singapore as Vicar in the early part of the year 1825. (...)

"That decree (of Pope Leo xn) bears the date July 1827 and the substance of it is, that having been presented to the Propaganda that the Catholics of Singapore were wholly un­provided with a pastor, the Vicar Apostolic of Siam was directed to provide for the deficiency. Now Padre Maia was here and exercising his duties for upwards of two years before the issuing of the Decree. And as this Decree was directed and sent to the Bishop of Siam, are we not justified in coming to the conclusion that he was the channel through which these misrepresentations were made? Is it not also strange that Padre Maia was not made acquainted with the existence of this Decree by the French Missionaries until the year 1831 - four years after the date of it?"

Father Maia at once informed his Superior in Goa, who sent him a pastoral letter, dated May 12, 1832, to be read to Catholics of Singapore, in which he declared:

"Singapore is in the district of the Diocese of Malacca, suffragan to this Metropolis of Goa, and by no means belonging to the district of Siam Mission. This is recognised by the same Sacred Congregation in the above decree, which says: Quoniam dicta colonia posita est extra fines Vicariatus Siamensis (the said colony of Singapore is situated out of the boundaries of Siam Vicariate)."

In the same Pastoral letter, the Ordinary of Goa forbade, under pain of excommunication, Father Maia, the priests and Catholics of Singapore and Malacca to obey any other Bishop other than the Metropolitan of Goa.

Father Maia had to obey the Metropolitan of Goa. Father Boucho had to follow the Vicar Apostolic of Siam. This was the origin of the double jurisdiction in Singapore, i.e. the Portuguese and French Missions.

Friction Between the Two Parties

By 1832, there were about 300 Catholics in Singapore. The Diocese of Malacca, created in 1558, was still in existence under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Goa who appointed his Episcopal Vicars for Malacca and Singapore. But on April 24, 1838, Pope Gregory XVI published the brief Multa Praeclare, by which the area of the Malacca Diocese was entrusted, provisionally, to Mgr. Frederick Cao, Bishop of Zamora, Vicar Apostolic of Ava and Pegu, so that the Archbishop of Goa could not exercise any jurisdiction over this area. According to this brief, it seems that the jurisdiction of Father Maia in Singapore and Father Gomes in Malacca should cease to exist. But they continued to administer to their flocks and exercise spiritual jurisdiction over these territories as before. Why?

An Episcopal Vicar, a Vicar General or a Parish Priest receives orders from his Ecclesiastical Superiors and from nobody else. Their Ecclesiastical Superior was the Archbishop of Goa. When Father Maia and Father Gomes received copies of the brief Multa Praeclare, they consulted Goa and both of them received a Pastoral, dated October 8, 1838, threatening them with excommunication if they should submit to any other authority other than to their Metropolitan. These priests could not recognize any other jurisdiction over their flocks.

The brief Multa Praeclare was not recognized as valid in Goa. At the time of the promulgation of this brief, the Holy See had no diplomatic relations with the Portuguese Government. The Queen of Portugal, therefore, was not informed of the contents of this brief which was not sent to Lisbon. Also notice of the publication of this brief was given to those directly affected by the change (the Ordinaries of Goa and Malacca), nor was any copy of it forwarded to them.

The result was fierce opposition to the brief Multa Praeclare. The Ordinary of Goa rejected this brief and forbade all his subordinates from accepting it and enjoined them to resist the Vicars Apostolic. The Portuguese priests in India, as well as in Singapore and Malacca did so and the struggle continued for many years. In 1841, Portugal renewed its diplomatic relations with the Holy See. A Concordat was signed on February 21, 1857, by which Portuguese rights over the Diocese of Malacca (as well as some Indian dioceses) were recognized by the Pope.

Regarding Singapore, article IX of the Concordat said: "But the island of Singapore shall continue to belong to the same Diocese of Malacca." According to the Concordat, the whole island of Singapore was part of the old Portuguese diocese of Malacca and this diocese was once again under Portuguese jurisdiction.

Finally, a new Concordat was signed between Pope Leo XIII and King Dom Louis of Portugal on June 23,1886. Article IX says that all the Catholics of Malacca and Singapore, who were under the jurisdiction of Goa, would pass to the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau. Therefore all the faithful living in Malacca or in Singapore and belonging to the old Portuguese diocese of Malacca passed to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Macau in 1886. The diocese of Malacca was then restored and entrusted to the Foreign Missions of Paris. By this Concordat was peace restored between the two conflicting parties.

Once the Concordat of 1886 determined the limits of the two jurisdictions, both Missions came to work harmoniously together.

Lastly, the Holy See, by an instrument dated May 28, 1981, finally ratified an agreement previously signed by the Bishop of Macau, D. Arquiminio Rodrigues da Costa, the Archbishop of Singapore, the Most Reverend Gregory Yong, and the Apostolic Delegate, the Most Reverend Giovanni Moretti, on July 26, 1977, in Singapore. The agreement came into effect four years after it was signed for reasons beyond human control — the death of two popes and the unstable political situation in Portugal, which had approved the Concordat of June 23, 1886 between Portugal and the Holy See.

With the promulgation of a decree dated June 26,1981, by the Most Reverend Gregory Yong, Archbishop of Singapore, the 95-year-old double jurisdiction in the state of Singapore came to an end with effect of July 1 of the same year.

(From Glimpses and Memories of St Joseph's Church and the Portuguese Mission in Singapore 1825 - 1999, by the Church of St Joseph, Singapore, 1999, pp.7-9, 41)


back to Contents

Home | Newsletters | Library | Vocations | History | Links | Search | Contact