During the years before and after World War 11, Christ Church, was the Home Church for all the Indian Anglican Congregations, the Tamils, the Malayalees , the Telegus and the North Indian Hindustani speaking people, mainly the Punjabis, who fought with the British Army.
My Dad used to conduct services at different times for them, with the help of the lay preachers and the catechists. I think the congregation that he enjoyed the most, was the Punjabi Congregation. They were the smallest of the congregations, but, if you stood outside and listened to them sing, you would have thought that every pew in the church was occupied and overflowing. They sang at the top of their voices and the praised God with unparalleled enthusiasm.
They would appear for service with their colourful headgear, the Pagadis, drumming on their Dholaks, singing at the top of their voices. No war could get their spirits down, when they came to Church. They sang and they danced as if their lives depended on it. When the British Army left Singapore, the Punjabi congregation dwindled, as most of them left with their contingents, leaving my Dad with the memories of a warm and happy group of Christians that he felt blessed to serve.
My Dad kept the Church and Parsonage open all the time, so that people needing shelter and food could walk in at any time, night or day. The British had planted an Anti -Aircraft Gun in the Christ Church compound. They did not think that the Japanese Army would bomb a Church on holy ground.
Mr and Mrs Sam Williams and their daughter, Pearl, lived at the Parsonage with my Dad during the war years, keeping house, for all those who sought refuge in the Church and the Parsonage.
Sometimes, during fierce shelling, the members of the Congregation would crowd to hide in the trenches, huddling in pathetic groups, often too weary to run. Sometimes they would come in for a hot meal. Sometimes they just came for a touch of home. A word of comfort. A longing to be near a familiar face. If they had to die in the bombing, what better place to die, than in the church. The British Anti-Aircraft Gun in the Christ Church Compound, may have given them a false sense of security. With the Silver Cross behind them on the Altar and the Anti-Aircraft Gun in front of the church, on the premises, what better protection could they have. So they thought.
There was not much food available those days. The Punjabis of the Hindustani Congregation, were robust agriculturists. Their green fingers could making rocks sprout. With their ingenuity, every square inch available as land, around the Church and the Parsonage was converted into a patch that grew something to eat. This was not for themselves, as they lived in the barracks and had all their rations and meals taken care of. Unselfishly , they tilled and tended the land for all the others in the Congregations who were struggling. The tapioca, a low maintenance hardy plant that grew well, was a carbohydrate filled comfort food. The banana plant was another low maintenance plant that did well during the war years in the Christ Church compound.
On December the 8th, 1941, a few months after the Dedication of Christ Church, the Japanese Air Force bombed Singapore. World war 11 had reached Singapore.
My Dad used to conduct Holy Communion services every day of his life, wherever he worked. He believed that the congregation should be able to walk into the Church any day of the year to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary. Anything. Some days he was the only one in the Church. That never stopped him from reading the order of service from start to finish, or from having Holy Communion on his own. Sometimes when he turned around there would be a couple of congregation members who had walked in late. No one ever went away disappointed that the church was closed. Ever.
By February 1942, the British troops were forced to retreat, as the front line of the Japanese Army was moving closer to the city as they crossed the Causeway connecting Malaya and Singapore. This placed the Parsonage at 118 Keng Lee Road and the Christ Church at No 1. Dorset Road, on the last line of defence, as street fighting had broken out all over the Newton Circus at one point. On the 11th of February 1942, Christ Church suffered colossal damage from an advancing attack , that lasted almost three days.
The Anti-Aircraft gun, a vital target in the church compound, was bombed and Christ Church suffered a direct hit when the entire roof of the sanctuary of the Church collapsed and the church caught fire. Mercifully, no one was killed, as no one was inside. That was the one day that my dad had been persuaded not to open the church. My Dad and the congregation wept in huddles around the ruins later that morning.
What a shame!
What a shame! They moaned softly.
Aiyo….Just look at this!
Everything is in shambles!
Their beautiful church, just a few months old, built with blood and sweat, lay as rubble around them. They gathered the debris with their trembling hands painfully aware of the unexploded shells that lay treacherously around the church. The candle dampeners at the altar, have tell tale marks of shrapnel, Uncle Jambu tells me.
Restoration of the roof was possible only after the surrender of the Japanese on February 15th 1942 when a sympathetic Hindu gentleman, an anonymous stranger from a different faith , donated a generous amount to replace all the tiles on the roof, in the days when money and resources were hard to come by. The services were conducted near the Font of the church, as the Sanctuary was unusable.
Most of the churches, had been taken over by the Japanese, as warehouses for Artillery and supplies. They were later returned for worship, with the strict instruction that there would be no preaching, of any kind. The Holy communion served, was plain water and dry bread.
The Japanese advanced and the British admitted defeat. Singapore was occupied by The Japanese, from 1942 to 1945, till the war ended with the fateful Bombing of Hiroshima.
One of the first things that the Japanese did, was to install a large machine gun in the Parsonage compound, making it a Garrison for their soldiers. My Dad and all those who had sought refuge in the Parsonage had to be evacuated. They moved to the Lanka Dispensary at No 42. Serangoon Road, for a while till the situation settled. Eventually when the fighting abated , they moved back.
Dr K. P. Pathy, a close friend of my dad ran the Dispensary and lived upstairs with his sons Durai, Mylan, Jambunathan and Boopalan. Uncle Jambu tells me that they slept on the floor in the office and shared meals out of one pot. This bonding in adverse conditions, with bombs exploding around them, was a friendship that survived years and generations, during and after the war years.
The fierce, frequent and often relentless shelling, cost many their lives and limbs in tragic episodes. Many of the Christ Church members, were wounded. Many carried painful shrapnel as souvenirs of the war, well into old age, together with the nightmares that would never leave them. The screams of pain, from their loved ones, dying slowly and painfully, haunted them asleep or awake.
The horrendous aftermath of the bombings, kept my Dad busy burying the dead, often as dismembered remnants of humanity, all the while gathering token pieces of anatomy in crude wooden coffins to be buried, according to Christian rites. Sometimes they had coffins, sometimes they were buried without coffins. He used to dig these graves himself and lower the dead into the silent echoes of a senseless grave. Sometimes he marked their graves with a wooden cross. Sometimes he could not. His graveyard shift seemed endless.
During the Japanese occupation, my Dad was all over the place, as the Japanese Army never stopped him in his cassock, from doing his rounds of the congregations, under his care. The Japanese had taken over the Parsonage, as a Garrison for their soldiers. With time my Dad had become a familiar figure to the Japanese occupants of the Parsonage. They were quite used to him coming and going as he pleased. With his dusty cassock flapping loosely over his bony frame, my Dad cycled fearlessly, on the only mode of transport that he had, a ladies bicycle, through the smoke and grime filled ruins, tending to the sick, the dying and the dead.
As the Padre, he was never denied access anywhere and he even managed to enter the stench filled prisons. At the Changi Jail, he was allowed to meet the Archdeacon who had consecrated Christ Church and conducted the Dedication Service a short while before the bombing of the Christ Church. The Archdeacon, the Venerable Graham White and his wife were detained as British POWs, in the Changi Prison. They both died in Prison but not before they nurtured a magnificent ministry in the Prison.
When the Incumbent Bishop of Singapore , Rt. Rev J. L. Wilson was interned in Changi Jail, my Dad was appointed The Bishop’s Commissary for Tamil work, in the Diocese of Singapore and Malaya. This meant that my Dad traveled extensively, all over the length and breadth of Malaya, especially to the rubber plantations, where the Tamil migrant Christians worked. This was a link that Christ Church cherished till the Diocese of Singapore and Malaya was divided after the countries attained independance.
My Mum’s maternal uncle, M.M. John, one of my Velliammachy’s brothers, was posted to Singapore, during the war, in the postal services. He was captured like so many other officers were and imprisoned as a POW. He succumbed to injuries and an infection and died in the Changi prison. My Dad claimed his body and together with the Army Chaplain, he buried him at the war cemetery at Kranji.
My dad would repeat these war time stories to me when I was growing up. His eyes would light up and he would appear charged as the adrenaline flowed and he relived the danger and challenges of the Japanese occupation. The days, he lived so very close to death and the perils of a global war.
Though I listened, I doubt if the gravity of the war time perils meant much to a post war child, growing up in peace times, with no fear or hunger to whet the appetite.
I just wish, I had listened better, to tell you more.