The First Church
The first Baptism registered at the Church of St John The Evangelist is dated 1st August 1883. It would appear that the first Church was simply a long wooden hall with a few windows, built sometime in 1883 with the help of a ‘towkay’ named Goh Ah Ngee, a Catholic miner who lived in Kajang.
However, one thing is certain, and that is that the Church of St John was the “Mother” Church and the only catholic Church in Selangor at the time. From it came later, the Church of the Holy Rosary at Jalan Brickfields for the Chinese-speaking Catholics and St Anthony’s Church at Jalan Robertson for the Tamil-speaking Catholics.
The First Vicar
In 1880, a newly ordained Société des Missions étrangères de Paris (MEP) Missionary, Fr Charles Hector Letessier was assigned to the Mission of Malaya. That same year, he started his pastoral and linguistic initiation at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Penang.
In 1883, the Vicar Apostolic Bishop Edourad Gasnier sent Fr Letessier to Kuala Lumpur to open up the Mission in Selangor. Fr Letessier became the first Parish Priest and pioneer of the Church of St John The Evangelist. He was quite a linguist and could speak Malay, English and three Chinese dialects. His parishioners in Kuala Lumpur were a handful of Chinese converts, a few Europeans and Eurasians from Malacca.
Fr Letessier would visit his parishioners in neighbouring towns and villages on horse-back. His journeys took days as there were no proper roads in any part of the country. He was also interested in visiting the indigenous people living in the jungles of Selangor. His paper on the ‘Sakais’ of Selangor was published by the Selangor Journal in December 1892. Fr Letessier passed away in 1900 at the age of 69. He was succeeded by Fr Victor M. Renard.
Renovations, Extensions and Construction Works
Fr Victor M. Renard who succeeded Fr Letessier in 1900 received his lessons in the Tamil language from Bishop Gasnier. When he was placed in charge of the Church of St John, he extended his pastoral care to the Catholic Indians working in the railway workshops in the Sentul area.
Fr Renard carried out renovations and extension works on the Church from time to time and when funds were available. However, in 1910, tragedy struck when part of the building was badly damaged by a fire.
Shortly after that, construction works resumed. Two side aisles were added, the old windows were replaced with new ones with decorative copings and the wooden ceilings were replaced by concrete arched ceilings. The building was extended to include two wings, a vestry and a porch.
While renovation works were in progress, Church services on Sundays and other days were held at the top floor of the St John’s Institution building, a La Salle Brother’s school close by.
Fr Letessier’s attap hut was broken down and a new one built by Fr Renard. This one-storey parochial house was a wooden and brick structure thatched with attap. It had a small visitors’ lounge facing the road. From this room, one could enter a very large square hall which served as a dining room. It was also used for choir practices. This large hall with a three foot brick wall had wooden pillars, spaced appropriately, supporting the roof. This hall was wide open and commanded a full view of the Church and its surroundings.
Facing the hall and up to the entrance on the left, facing the Church, were three small bedrooms with a long corridor along the back of these rooms facing the then Selangor Catholic Club (now the site of the Cathedral). An attap covered walkway also ran from the three rooms to the kitchen and to the servants and catechist quarters. The front portion of the present Community Centre at Bukit Nanas was built in the 1930s.
The first altar was made of hard-wood and survived the fire of 1910. However, a few years later, one Mr H. N. Ferres, who was a practising Solicitor at Klyne Street (now Jalan Hang Lekiu), presented a beautiful marble altar to the Church. The altar was ordered directly from Italy. When the new Church was constructed in 1955, the marble altar was dismantled and re-erected in the new Church.
In the years that followed, funds were raised to purchase a new altar. The old marble was carefully removed to the Church of the Sacred Heart at Peel Road. However, during the move, part of the tabernacle was slightly damaged.
In addition to being responsible for the Catholics of all communities in Kuala Lumpur, Fr Renard was also placed in charge of the Catholics in Klang and other neighbouring districts in the state of Selangor.
As his responsibilities grew, Fr Renard was assisted over the years by several other MEP Missionaries, Fr Louis M. Duvelle, Fr John Baptist Souhait, Fr Francis Le Mahec and Fr Noel Deredec.
By 1903, the Church of the Holy Rosary in Brickfields was founded. Fr Francois E. Terrien took charge of this new Church and thereafter Chinese Catholics attended Sunday worship and other services at this new Church.
The Church of St Anthony at Jalan Robertson was founded in 1911. Fr Francis Le Mahec was placed in charge of this Church which primarily catered for the needs of the Tamil-speaking community. The Indians residing in Kuala Lumpur and neighbouring areas attended service at this new Church.
It was also at this time that Fr John Baptist Souhait – the “architect” of the Church of Our Lady or Lourdes, Klang, was placed in charge of the Church after its completion. With these developments and growth, Fr Renard was thus relieved of some of his responsibilities of looking after the spiritual welfare of the Catholic community in Selangor.
Having served the Church of St John for some 20 years, Fr Renard was transferred to Pulau Tikus, Penang in 1920 much to the regret of all his parishioners, both young and old who had grown to love him. He died a few years later and will always be remembered for his dedication and devotion to duty.
A new Church for a new Diocese
The parish community of St John The Evangelist first started in 1883 with just a handful of Chinese converts, a few Europeans and also Eurasians. By the early 1900s, the community grew to number more than 1,000 people.
This increase in number can be attributed to the De La Salle Brothers and Religious Sisters who played a significant role in the education of the faith with the establishment of the St John’s Institution in 1904 and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus at Bukit Nanas in 1911.
The steady growth in the number of parishioners saw the need for renovations and extensions to the Church. The existing building could only accommodate a maximum of 800 people and as a result, many had to stand in doorways and outside the Church to follow Sunday services.
The person who was in many ways responsible for building the much larger and imposing Cathedral of St John at Bukit Nanas was Fr Donat Perrisoud, MEP.
Fr Perrisoud who began his ministry among the Indians scattered in Negeri Sembilan, succeeded Fr Louis M. Duvelle, MEP as Parish Priest of St John’s, spending 22 years at the Cathedral.
Fr Perrisoud, realising the need for a much larger Church in the near future, started a Church Building Fund. His dream of a new and larger Church was well received by the parishioners and well-wishers who generously donated towards the Fund.
Fr Perrisoud’s legacy
The building works on the new Church was able to commence, thanks to the Church funds and a legacy which was bequeathed to Fr Perrisoud. That legacy was a donation of RM6,000 which was left to Fr Perrisoud by an English woman with whom he had become acquainted with when he was stretcher-bearer in France during World War I. This lady (who was attached to the Red Cross Society) remembered Fr Perrisoud in her will.
Although Fr Perrisoud had received the money, he had held on to it for some time with the hope that it would become useful when the time was right to build a new Church. However, 75-year old Fr Perrisoud did not live to see his dream come true. He died after a long illness on 8th May 1950 at the General Hospital in Singapore.
Design and features
Many of the designs and ideas found in the new Church were relatively new and had yet to be introduced in any Church in the country. Some of these features included concealed lighting, hidden loud speakers, built-in confessionals and built-in side altars.
More than 400 feet of fluorescent lighting tubes were installed in the new Church. Though the entire interior of the Church was flooded with light, none of the tubes could be seen as concealed lighting was employed. All the tubes and bulbs were hidden in specially built crevices in the walls and ceilings. The light appeared to be ‘soft’ with no shadows. The lighting system had to be changed later as it was found to be inadequate.
The ‘sound reinforcement system’ of the Church of St John was contracted out to the General Electric Company (GEC). In the ‘sound reinforcement system’, the Preacher’s voice is carried to the congregation far from him through three speaker columns concealed in the trouer of an ‘electric chandelier’. At that time, this was the first Church in Malaya to be fitted with this system.
Architect and Designer
Mr R. B. Pereira, a leading architect in Kuala Lumpur, was commissioned the coveted task of designing the new Church. His task was even greater, as he had to prepare plans for the largest Church ever to be built in Malaya at the time and to also keep within the means of the Building Fund.
In addition to designing the building, Pereira also designed the pews, confessionals, the two side altars, the baptismal font and the ‘electric chandelier’ which housed the hidden loud speaker system. The speaker system was subsequently discarded as it was found to be unsuitable.
Praising Mr Pereira during the blessing and opening ceremony, Archbishop Michael Olcomendy said that the Church was a ‘lasting memory of the architect and contractor’ who was responsible for its erection.
From Church to Cathedral
The Diocese of Malacca was elevated to that of an Archdiocese on 19th September 1953 and immediately subjected to the Holy See.
On 25th February 1955, the Archdiocese of Malacca was divided into three Dioceses, the Archdiocese of Malacca-Singapore, the Diocese of Kuala Lumpur and the Diocese of Penang. Jurisdiction over the Archdiocese of Malacca-Singapore was conferred upon His Grace Michael Olcomendy, Archbishop of Malacca-Singapore.
For the first time in the history of the Malayan Church, local Bishops were appointed to the two new Dioceses – Bishop Dominic Vendargon who was ordained Bishop of Kuala Lumpur on 21st August 1955 and Bishop Francis Chan who was ordained Bishop of Penang on 28th August 1955.
The See of the Bishop of Kuala Lumpur was the Church of St John the Evangelist at Bukit Nanas. On 8th January 1962, the Church was consecrated and its status elevated to that of a Cathedral.
In 1955, Fr Edward Limat, MEP succeeded Fr Noel Maury, MEP as Parish Priest of the Church of St John. With the elevation of the Church to that of a Cathedral in 1962, Fr Limat was appointed as the first Vicar General and Parish Priest of the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist.
Monsignor (Msgr) Limat wasted no time in further enriching the life of the Parish. Under his able guidance, a new spirit of brotherhood developed with the laity taking a greater and more active participation in the various Parish organisations despite the exodus of a number of parishioners to new satellite towns around the Kuala Lumpur municipality.
With financial contributions from the parishioners, Msgr Limat endeavoured to embellish the new cathedral by giving it a ‘new look’ main altar made of marble to replace the old altar that had been removed from the old Church in 1958 and sent to the Sacred Heart Church in Peel Road.
An interesting feature, which stands out most religiously, on close scrutiny of this new altar, is an inscription in mosaic chips which reads: “ECCE AGNUS DEI” (Behold the Lamb of God). The other historical feature of the altar is that the table top is made from the largest single piece of marble ever exported from Italy to this part of the world at the time.
A year later, at some considerable cost, came a set of stained glass pieces depicting three Gospel scenes in which the patron of the Church, St John, appears. These scenes were the call of the Apostles John and James, the last Supper with John sitting next to Jesus and the Crucifixion with John standing next to Mary at the foot of the Cross. These stained glass pieces were ordered from Paris and today, provide the backdrop to the altar.
Three Church bells were ordered and installed in 1964 after having been blessed by bishop Vendargon. These bells were named Mary Francis, Clare and Carol Anne. The ‘Godparents’ of these bells were Francis and Catherine de Souza, Clare Hare and James and Rita Kelvin respectively (in the tradition of bell casting, each bell is given a name. This name is engraved, together with the date of casting, on the bell. The bell would then be christened in the same way that babies are christened and recorded in the Church registry of Baptisms. The bell would even have a Godparent. The bell would then only be installed for use).
In 1965, Msgr Limat was transferred to Seremban. He was succeeded by Fr Anthony Michael. Some of the Priests who served at the Cathedral included Msgr Christopher Danker (1966), Fr Joseph Reutens (1975), Fr Paul Williams (1977) and Fr Noel Clement (1978).
Fr Noel Clement was instrumental in building the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual help at Salak South in 1970. The Church was later demolished in the early 1990s to give way to build a highway.
Fr Joseph Reutens is best remembered for his paintings. Many of his Gospel and religious scenes are now displayed at the College General in Penang.
In 1979, Msgr Limat returned to the Cathedral as Parish Priest and served for another three years before leaving for Mt Miriam Hospital in Penang and later Fribourg Hospital in Switzerland for cancer treatment.
Msgr Limat’s successor was Fr Andrew Volle, MEP who had been a Professor at the College General Seminary for 20 years. In addition to being Parish Priest of the Cathedral, Fr Volle was also Chaplain to the Catholic nurses and a regular visiting Priest at the Assunta Hospital in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
It was during Fr Volle’s tenure that a new Presbytery was erected. This three-storey building located behind the Cathedral of St John sits on the slope of a former, now disused cemetery. The Presbytery was officially opened and blessed by Archbishop Soter Fernandez on 4th June 1988.
In 1992, Msgr Daniel Lim succeeded Fr Volle a Parish Priest of the Cathedral. Msgr Lim served at the Cathedral for almost 12 years. He is currently the Parish Priest of the Church of the Holy Rosary, Brickfields.
On 28th February 2004, Msgr James Gnanapiragasam, a former Rector of the College General, Penang was appointed as the Parish Priest of the Cathedral of St John. He was assisted by Rev. Fr. A. Amalanathan.
…..to be continued