KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 11 — St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Kuala Lumpur celebrates its 100th anniversary this year but there would have been no church had it not been for the Ladies’ Work Party.
Church records show how the women of St Andrew’s gamely took on the challenge of raising vital funds and keeping its finances healthy right from the start.
Kenneth Tan, who currently sits on St Andrew’s board of managers, said the church’s female members came together to form a fundraising committee that became known as the Ladies’ Work Party.
It was “women’s empowerment” in action, he said.
“Looking through the history it was always interesting to me, virtually everything about the church physical is the result of the women of the church,” he told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview, ticking off a long list of things which the women funded.
“Because the efforts of the Work Party gave birth to the the physical building, it gave birth to the acquisition of the lot next door, it gave birth to the manse which is now built on the land next door, it gave birth to the windows, it gave birth to the wooden pulpit and the panelling behind the pulpit.
“So if you talk about the physical history of the church, it’s the same as the history of the ladies of the church which I thought was kinda cool,” he said.
“So you want to talk about what this church is built on, ya, you can say concrete and iron. I will also say it is built on knitwear, cookies and cakes; minus those knitwear, cookies and cakes, the church is not going to be here,” he said, explaining that they would usually hold a Sale of Work to literally sell what they have produced with profits to go towards the projects they were funding.
For the century-old church building that was built in 1917 at a cost of $25,000, the female church members were recorded — as early as 1914 — to have formed a “Ladies Working Association” with the aim of raising funds for it. This would later become known as the Ladies’ Work Party.
For the first official Sale of Work in May 6, 1916 that marked the start of the church building fund-raising, St Andrew’s first minister Reverend A. D. Harcus was recorded saying it turned out to be an “unqualified success”, surpassing expectations by contributing to a total $2,500 — which included cash donations — raised.
The building fund grew to $6,000 by 1916, and to $14,500 in 1917 and $19,000 by the end of 1918 — the year the church building opened its doors. Just two-and-a-half years later in October 1920, they settled the debt.
Even as St Andrew’s was in 1919 still facing a $6,000 deficit for its building fund, the church wanted to start raising funds for a manse or the minister’s house for which only $85 had been set aside at the time.
The Ladies’ Work Party worked quickly and set the ball rolling for the manse fund with a Sale of Work on March 1, 1919 that brought in the “magnificent sum” of $2,281, while members from Klang and a concert held the same month contributed $605 and $504 respectively.
With the last contribution in 1927 of $4,140 and $860 respectively from the Ladies’ Work Party and the home churches for the remaining sum for the manse, St Andrew’s finally became debt-free again. That was just six years after the first minister moved into the manse.
In total, St Andrew’s purchase of the land next to its main church building and the manse cost $22,710, with the bulk of it ($16,335) being raised by the Ladies’ Work Party alone, while the remaining $3,749 and $2,626 came from UK churches, and friends and concerts.
Reverend W. Buckingham even wrote in the local Presbyterian church newsletter The St Andrew’s Outlook in 1934: “In the building of the manse, the women of the congregation played a most conspicuous part. As in the case of the church, the history of its erection is largely the story of their untiring efforts.”
As a church that was particularly conscious about being debt-free, St Andrew’s would often rely on the Ladies’ Work Party including for a $5,000 hall extension, of which $1,400 was contributed by them in 1933 immediately after the financially-trying Great Depression period.
Music, beauty and grit
Stepping into the St Andrew’s main sanctuary, you will see a pipe organ and stained glass windows at the front, with the former credited to and the latter a gift from the Ladies’ Work Party.
For the pipe organ which cost $4,500 with an additional estimated sum of less than $500 to install, St Andrew’s started with a fund of $8 in 1927.
It was finally built over six months by local labourers with local materials such as teak except for 29 UK-cast and milled pipes, before its dedication in April 1939.
“So after 12 years, a dream has come true, and through the efforts mainly of the Ladies’ Work Party we now possess a beautiful instrument which is a worthy addition to the House of God,” The St Andrew’s Outlook’s August 1939 edition said.
This pipe organ remains in use till today and can be heard on most Sundays during St Andrew’s hour-long Traditional Family Worship Services, except for when organists are unavailable or when it undergoes maintenance.
Three organists in their 40s and 50s are currently the only ones who play the musical instrument.
After a three-year pause in St Andrew’s services as their minister Reverend Alfred Webb was imprisoned from 1942-1945, the Ladies’ Work Party kicked back into action with fund-raising projects to refurnish the church which had been looted during the Japanese occupation of Malaya.
The Ladies’ Work Party then raised funds during 1953-1954 for a stained-glass war memorial window which was designed in Scotland in memory of those who died in World War I and World War II, while church member Sir John Hay gifted a similar stained-glass window to commemorate those who died during the Emergency.
The two windows were unveiled by then British High Commissioner Sir Donald MacGillivray in November 1955, an event which was broadcasted by Radio Malaya.
The women of St Andrew’s are tireless, rising to the occasion repeatedly. They also gifted the church silk and satin banners in the 1980s which to this day still adorn the sanctuary’s walls, and attended to small details such as preparing the weekly fresh flower arrangements and decorations for weddings and baptisms.
As evidence of how the Ladies’ Work Party’s story is so tightly woven into at least two-fifths of St Andrew’s 100-year history, just look at the many acknowledgements over the years in The St Andrew’s Outlook.
Those were the days when the men of St Andrew’s were mostly busy with their occupations as planters, civil servants and traders; the trend of working women and dual-income households common nowadays changed their role in society.
Reverend Dr Robert Weniger, the 21st minister of St Andrew’s, said the church’s female members today remain an integral part of the church.
“It’s different, actually the women make a great contribution to the church, but it’s not the financial piece that it was, not that women don’t contribute financially but they don’t have the leadership role like they did earlier, but in terms of the ministries, they have a major part in the functioning of our church’s ministries,” he said.
A woman’s education legacy
One of the women of St Andrew’s also left a mark on the local education scene.
Irene Lim, the church’s deacon in charge of the Christian education committee, highlighted the role of St Andrew’s member Alice Fairfield-Smith in starting what would later become one of the earliest and leading international schools in Kuala Lumpur.
Fairfield-Smith, a Harvard biology graduate who trained as a teacher, had after World War II started off in 1946 teaching her own daughter.
Keen demand among the expatriate community saw her non-profit kindergarten operating out of her own house growing from two children to six within a month, and two classes within three months.
The school was in those days known as the Eaton Road School as it operated out of her house which was on Eaton Road; subsequently they rented the Masonic Hall at Damansara Road, and later also rented St Andrew’s church hall from 1951 to 1963 for the use of Alice Smith Kindergarten.
In a show of foresight and planning that has ensured that the school remains standing after 77 years, she had in 1949 — prior to leaving Malaya — approached St Andrew’s then minister Reverend Sydney Evans to ask that the church take over the running of the school.
This was crucial as Reverend Evans was believed to have been instrumental in founding and incorporating the Alice Smith Schools Association in November 1950 where a board of governors would run the school to be renamed as the Alice Smith School.
The minister served on the school’s first board of trustee governors, with the rest representatives of the St Mary’s Cathedral and societies representing the British, Irish and Scottish community here.
Today St Andrew’s continues to have a permanent seat on the school’s board of trustees, even as other organisations and students’ parents were added over the years as governors.
“And I believe that is the reason why the school is still there today, because we are organisations, the Trustee Organisation structure facilitated the perpetuation and continuity of the school. Because parents are only members until they leave, whereas we are in perpetuity so whoever is the representative of the organisation will be the governor, the trustee,” she said.
“When she left Malaya in 1950 after running the school for four years, there were only 70 pupils and seven teachers. When she returned to visit in 1960 she was astonished to learn that enrolment had topped 250!” Lim said, citing a Malay Mail news report dated August 12, 1960 on Fairfield-Smith and the Alice Smith School.
The school which today has 1,533 students from 46 countries continues to be operated on a not-for-profit basis, with those from the UK or Commonwealth countries and Malaysia forming the bulk of their student population, its website states.
More details on St Andrew’s history and journey so far can be seen at its Centenary Exhibition that is open to the public from 8am onwards on Sundays. The exhibition will end in April 2018.