KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 31 ― St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Kuala Lumpur turns 100 this year, marking a century of growth together with the country.
Located along a quiet stretch of Jalan Raja Chulan or what was then known as Weld Road, planning and raising funds for the building of the church was carried out during the World War I years of 1914 to 1918.
St Andrew’s senior pastor Rev Dr Robert Weniger highlighted the “courage and vision” of the expatriate community in then-Malaya in founding the church and initiating the construction of its building in 1917.
“World War I was going on, very tenuous times in the world, very unpredictable, very shaky; and so the fact that they had the courage to start a church in that kind of atmosphere, not knowing where all this was going ― it highlights the faith in God that they had and their courage to start a major project like that.
“So it really says something about that generation, about the founders of the church and the personal investment that they were willing to make… they won't see how this was all going to play out in years to come, but they were willing to make that investment, believing in the cause and trusting in God and his faithfulness,” the church's 21st pastor told Malay Mail Online.
Built in seven months
The foundation stone for St Andrew's church was laid on October 3, 1917 on land which the government had allocated for religious purposes to the church treasurer via a grant.
It opened its doors on April 17, 1918 in a ceremony officiated by then British High Commissioner Sir Arthur Young; almost 250 people were in attendance.
The church building was designed in the conventional Gothic style with the typical architectural features of pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses; it had a pebble dash finish on its outer walls and cast concrete facades, while teak wood was used for the interior furnishings of the main sanctuary that can fit between 150 to 200 people.
While other parts of the church building were later added on, St Andrew's main sanctuary which was built a century ago using local labour and local materials ― such as tropical hardwood cengal and teak ― has stood the test of time and remains structurally intact.
Kenneth Tan, who is on St Andrew's board of managers, said the wooden cengal rafters holding up the main sanctuary's roof are still the original ones from 1918 ― as are the walls and floors.
“It's a tip of the hat to the original quality of materials that were used, the rafters of the church are still solid,” he told Malay Mail Online, noting that only the newer wooden sections were affected by termites and had to be treated.
The St Andrew's church leadership said it has yet to decide on whether to apply to gazette the century-old church building as a national heritage, a status with restrictions that may hamper timely maintenance works that have to be carried out regularly.
The manse, or the house where the church's minister lives, was completed in November 1921 and will be turning 96 this year, while the pipe organ in the St Andrew's main sanctuary ― it was the first completely new pipe organ for churches in Selangor when it was installed in 1939 and has undergone upgrades and repairs ― is just two years shy of 80.
Intertwined with Malaya's history
As a church that has its roots in serving the mostly British and Scottish community who worked in British-administered Malaya as planters, civil servants and businessmen, St Andrew's had a long list of ministers or pastors hailing in the earlier decades from the UK ― with some of them also being quite multi-talented such as its seventh minister Rev Sydney Evans who was also a soccer international.
The church's second minister, Rev RD Whitehorn, was also noted by church historian J. Roxborogh to have played rugby for the Selangor Club. He took part in musical presentations and served as editor of the Malaya's Presbyterian Church magazine ― St Andrew's Outlook.
Tan said one of the most significant diaries recovered by St Andrew's was Rev Whitehorn's, which gave a first-hand account of life as a St Andrew's pastor and “were very useful to provide direct insight into the life of a minister with a parish half the size of England and not too many roads connecting the different outstations.”
“That's why we knew how arduous it was for him to actually visit the different outstations. As you can see, it was one day in this town, two days later in another town somewhere else and then come back in time to deliver the regular services on Sunday… It was a tough assignment, not exactly what you would consider a cushy job,” Tan said, adding that the minister carried the harmonium with him as it was also his responsibility to play the musical instrument and lead worship services at the outstations.
Church elder CJ Lim shared with Malay Mail Online on how a minister would travel in a sampan or small wooden boat to reach parishioners, with records showing that ministers of the church that was for many years known as St Andrew’s Selangor also made visits to members in the “outstations” in Selangor (Banting, Carey Island, Klang, Kuala Kubu) , Pahang (Bentong, Kuantan, Temerloh), Negri Sembilan (Bahau, Seremban), Melaka.
The church's first three ministers ― Rev A. Drummond Harcus, Rev Whitehorn, Rev D. Fergus Ferguson ― were recorded to have travelled 250,000 miles or over 400,000 kilometres by road to reach the outstations, without meeting any accident on the trips with the church's Malay driver Pa’at Siboon.
The church only paused its services during the World War II period when the Japanese occupied Malaya until 1945 after its first invasion in 1941.
This was unavoidable as the church's sixth minister Rev Alfred Webb was both a captain and army chaplain in the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force's 2nd Battalion (Selangor) who was captured during the Japanese occupation.
The Japanese interned him and 50 men from St Andrew's who were also in the same British military reserve force at Singapore's Changi gaol, while other civilian church members became prisoners of war.
The Japanese looted St Andrew's church building of its books, bibles, hymn books and metal items such as the organ pipes, a brass lectern and four brass memorial tablets.
It was also used as a warehouse, while the local Methodist church’s English-speaking congregation later stepped in to use it for church services and prevented further plundering and damage before the St Andrew's congregation resumed services there in 1946.
Vital church records were also lost during the Japanese occupation, but St Andrew's church leaders have managed to retrace and piece together its history through first-hand accounts such as Rev Whitehorn's diary that was found by what they described as “divine intervention” in 2007, copies of personal letters written by the wives of former ministers like Rev Whitehorn and Rev Harcus, post-War memoirs and written narratives of those involved and also of those interned as prisoners of war.
The days before and after Malaysia
It was during the Changi gaol days that Malaya's Presbyterian church leadership determined to change the church from being exclusively for the “white man” and to pursue a new multiracial outlook, records show.
“Even as the Presbyterian Church leadership worked to realise the new multiracial outlook gained in Changi gaol during the war, Malaysia as a nation sought to create its own identity distinct from the colonial era, enacting policies which led to the repatriation of many Europeans.
“Some 186 members of St Andrew’s, more than half the congregation at the time, had been obliged to leave the country in the immediate aftermath of Merdeka,” the church's officials said, referring to the Federation of Malaya's August 31, 1957 independence from the British.
According to excerpts from St Andrew's Outlook in 1957, the policy of having locals serve in government departments as well as expats who brought forward their retirement and left Malaya reduced its congregation size, but said this was anticipated and that “Asian Christians” should be encouraged to join.
It also noted that there had been newcomers and more may be expected from embassies that would be set up in Kuala Lumpur.
St Andrew's church braved through yet another trying and dangerous period ― the Malayan Emergency from June 1948 to July 1960, with outstation church services carried out at times and places that were announced at the last minute to ensure security.
It was also during this period that Radio Malaya regularly broadcasted St Andrew's church services on Sunday nights from 6pm to 7pm. These broadcasts from the KL church started on May 14, 1950 and ended on Christmas 1959.
Four years after Malaysia's 1963 formation, the country's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman wrote a letter congratulating St Andrew's on its 50th anniversary, saying among other things that “all men of goodwill and peace must fight against poverty, misery and inhuman conditions of living, so that all the children of God may live in peace and share the fruits of prosperity and plenty which have been made possible by modern civilisation. I know that St Andrew's Presbyterian Church is doing all it can to spread this message among Malaysians in all corners of this country and I have no doubt it will succeed.”
St Andrew's remained keenly aware of events in the country, with its then treasurer Cyril Williams's letter in 1969 calling it a “troubled year.” That was the year of the May 13 racial riots.
The incident led to Tunku's resignation as prime minister and a national emergency declared. It was also when St Andrew's launched its “Mailbag Ministry”; Christian education material was mailed out to children of members living in remote areas.
Today as an international church that serves a congregation of about 700 people from 25 countries including Malaysia, St Andrew's is continuing its legacy of community work; its members work with the under-privileged and disenfranchised such as the indigenous communities and refugees.
Finding the time capsule
Finding the church's century-old time capsule was no mean feat. It took church elder Chin Chin Liew about two weeks of poring through documents before she finally found the solitary clue to the time capsule's exact location ― “underneath” the foundation stone that was laid in 1917.
When the St Andrew's church leadership retrieved the time capsule this February 19, it was precisely as described ― inserted into a wall just directly under the plain granite foundation stone that carried the inscription “1917.”
And as described in the October 5, 1917 edition of the Malay Mail newspaper and the October 1927 edition of the Presbyterian Church in Malaya's newsletter St Andrew's Outlook, the time capsule contained a Bible, a hymn book, a copy of St Andrew's Outlook, a copy of Malay Mail dated October 3, 1917, Straits Currency coins in the denominations of one dollar, 50, 20, 10 and 5 cents.
A professional restorer was called in, but the pages of the documents had stuck together because of water seepage. However, the masthead of the Malay Mail newspaper could still be seen.
St Andrew's is now planning to fill and dedicate a Centenary Time Capsule this October 8, before installing it in a proposed new bell tower in 2018. To be opened another 100 years on, this time capsule will be a vacuum container designed to withstand moisture.
Year of celebration
The Centenary Exhibition on St Andrew's history, which was first put up in March, is open to the public on Sundays from 8am onwards until April 2018.
The exhibition in the St Andrew’s church building showcases digitalised old photos and historical documents, interesting trivia and anecdotes, and even vintage advertisements of products such as toasters, televisions, chocolate that were carried in St Andrew's Outlook decades ago.
The church is planning to build a bell tower and a portico next year as part of its year-long centenary celebrations.
St Andrew’s will also hold its centenary celebration service this September 17 in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the foundation stone’s laying and a centenary inaugural service next April 15 to mark 100 years since it was opened.