Established in 1929, it is the only Catholic church featuring Romano-Byzantine architecture, seen in the majestic domes, cupolas and arches on its facade. The church catered largely to Hokkien-speaking Catholics when built, as the dialect group had no church of their own then. It serves Catholics living in the areas of Kampong Bahru, Telok Blangah, Cantonment and Spottiswoode Park, and is also the base for the Apostleship of the Sea that serves seafarers calling at the nearby port. The church was designated a national monument in 2009.
As early as 1910, the need to build a Chinese parish for the growing community of Hokkien-speaking Catholics originating from Fukien (Fujian), China, was brought to the attention of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) – an organisation of secular priests dedicated exclusively to missionary work – by the Bishop of Malacca, Marie Luc Alphonse Emile Barillon.
In 1923, the parish priest of Singapore’s Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Father Emile Joseph Mariette, who was from the MEP, set about building the church.
The search for a suitable site for the church took almost two years. On 21 November 1925, the day of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the church acquired 2.1 acres (91,476 square feet) of land at Bukit Purmei, which at the time was occupied by Malay squatters and Catholic families. As church members believed that the land was acquired through the intercession of St Teresa of the Child Jesus, it was decided that the church should be named after her, and that she be made its patron saint.
Measuring 185 feet long and 55 feet wide, the church building was constructed with ferroconcrete to give it a granolithic exterior. The French-made stained glass windows at the back of the sanctuary chronicle the key events in the life of the patron saint of the church, St Teresa of Lisieux, France.
The two belfries rising over the porch house five bronze bells that were made in 1927 at the historic Cornille-Havard bell foundry in Villedieu-les-Poeles in Normandy, France; each tuned to a different tone to create a harmonised musical chord when struck. Donated to the church by a devout parishioner, Joseph Chan Teck Hee, the bells were named after his five children.
The baptismal font was made using Indian marble from Jaipur, India. The marble statue of St Teresa at the centre of the driveway was created in 1930 by Raoul Bigazzi, the renowned sculptor and decorator from Florence, Italy.
During the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), nearby Bukit Teresa became the British military’s anti-aircraft post. Due to the church’s proximity to Bukit Teresa and the port, it was attacked frequently by the Japanese. Both the church and the buildings in the Catholic settlement sustained heavy damage during the bombings. When the war ended, Father Stephen Lee, the church’s first parish priest, oversaw the task of rebuilding the church from the ravages of war.
The church celebrated its golden jubilee in 1979. A columbarium, and a social and educational centre called St Teresa’s Centre were established in 1983.
Renovation and upgrading works were carried out in 2005, and the church received, among other things, a new altar, air-conditioning system and audio-visual equipment. At the same time, the remains of the founding father, Mariette, and the first parish priest, Lee, were interred at the columbarium, below the statue of the Risen Christ.
During the Occupation years, the church was a place of refuge for women who sought protection from Japanese soldiers. After the Occupation, it also cared for young boys via a school and an orphanage, although Lee frequently had to beg for food, and seek funds to keep the orphanage going.
Later, the church sheltered many stranded Caucasians during the 1950 Maria Hertogh riots; gave relief and shelter to the people made homeless by the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961, the biggest fire in Singapore history to date; as well as provided educational and social welfare services over the years.
On 11 November 2009, the National Heritage Board gazetted the church building as a national monument in light of its social and historical significance, its importance to the community as well as its architectural merits. Today, the church has a congregation of about 3,000 parishioners, and endeavours to serve communities from new housing developments around the area.