On the edge of “Little India” in Ophir Road, a church was built with funds collected by members of the Indian community who came from Pondicherry. Father Joachim Alexander Marie Meneuvrier, a French priest, saw the need for a church that catered to the Indian population with services in Tamil. In 1885, the government provided a piece of land for the establishment of a church. Bishop Gasnier laid the corner stone of the building on 1 August 1886, and the building was completed and officially dedicated in May 1888. The site on which the church was built was originally a swamp land and located near a canal. Its location near Serangoon Road was significant because the area had been an Indian enclave since the 19th century, and the location was considered convenient for local Catholics.
Alexandre Izambert was responsible for providing the foundation plan and the cast iron columns and metal frameworks, but it was a local firm, Swan & Lermit, which submitted the plans for the proposed church and presbytery and undertook the supervision of the construction of the building which was completed in May 1888. The presbytery and a school were completed at the same time. Both were located in an additional two-storey building in the church compound. Father Meneuvrier managed to obtain an extra piece of land from Governor Sir Frederick Weld for the building, which housed his living quarters on the top floor and the school on the ground level. Unfortunately, during World War II, the city area came under heavy bombardment and the church was not spared. Bombs fell within the church grounds, one of which demolished the top floor of the presbytery, while the church itself did not sustain any structural damage other than shattered windows and glass stains. The presbytery remained a single-storey structure after the war and was later demolished for reasons relating to structural safety.
Our Lady of Lourdes School was one of the earliest schools in Singapore and first functioned as Anglo-Tamil School in the last quarter of the 19th century. This Tamil school was opened by Father Meneuvrier on the ground floor of the presbytery at the same time as the church’s official opening in 1888. In 1927, a single-storey wooden school building for Indian girls was erected by Father Louis Burghoffer, and in 1936, it was run by the Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus. In 1962, it was replaced with a three-storey concrete structure by Father Albert Fortier.
In 1974, church authorities gave up the church’s Indian Roman Catholic status, choosing instead to serve Catholics of all ethnicities and languages. The Indian influence on this church, however, was apparent, as religious services were still conducted in Tamil and English.
In 2000, a centre was set up on the church’s premises to help the less fortunate upgrade or pick up a new skill. Maids of different nationalities were trained by self-help groups at the centre to do jobs ranging from cooking to secretarial duties.
Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was gazetted as a national monument on 14 January 2005. In 2009, the church benefited from an assistance scheme to prevent the deterioration of national monuments when it was awarded S$449,000 to undergo urgent repairs to its belfry and roof.
The church was built in the mould of the Basilica at Lourdes, France. Its architecture, complete with fine trimmings and grand arches, was gothic with cornices and pilasters, tracery parapels, louvered wooden French windows and unglazed natural coloured tile roof.
The building underwent several renovation works. Between 1958 and 1959, for instance, the original 15 stained glass windows at the clerestory, broken during World War II, were restored in major renovations undertaken by Father Fortier. These windows depicted the 15 mysteries of the Holy Rosary. Fortier also undertook the installation of a set of electronic bells, and the construction of a second loft to accommodate a growing congregation.
Gothic in character, there are curious anomalies in the church design. The main doors to the west end are similar to those found in a godown. The exterior walls are supported by buttresses. In the interior, instead of a chancel, the nave is rounded at the altar end, and aisles extend in an arc round the church. The interior feels light and open because the columns in the colonnade are made of cast iron, and therefore much slimmer than masonry. The nave rises to a clerestory above, flooding the church with natural light. In place of a conventional altar, Our Lady of Lourdes has a small replica of the grotto of Lourdes with the Virgin Mary standing in it. A remarkable crucifix with outstretched arms hangs on the wall near the altar, and legend relates that when thieves once tried to wrest it from its place, it refused to move. At the back of the church in one corner, a splendid wrought-iron spiral staircase gives access to the choir stalls and the organ.
The windows of the church have a modernistic approach and are one of the best specimens with good craftsmanship. In line with the preservation of Our Lady of Lourdes as a monument, restoration works amounting to S$1.75 million were undertaken in 2009 to restore it to resemble the original church.
Two brass tablets have been set up at the church in remembrance of the services of two priests, Father Meneuvrier and Father Burghoffer. Meneuvrier was the first missionary to Singapore who was put in charge of the Indian Catholics here, while his successor, Burghoffer, had put in 34 years of valuable service towards the growth of the church.