By James Gough
Restoration work on the Church of St John the Divine or more commonly referred to as St John’s Anglican Church, one of the oldest Anglican churches in Malaysia, has brought it back to its former glory. Eponymously located on St John’s Road, it is one of the buildings listed in the Heritage Trail map of Ipoh Old Town.
100 Years On, Divine Heritage Endures
Upon entering the gate of the church, one is presented with a red brick building that looks so English in design, it feels like one has stepped out of Malaysia for a minute and into a “Parish Church in the English countryside” to quote Rev. Anthony Dumper, the Vicar of South Perak, 1949.
Before St John’s was built, the Anglicans held their services at the ‘old Court House’ located close to the Birch clock tower. In the year 1905, only four services were recorded.
When St John’s Church was consecrated by Bishop Ferguson Davie on April 30, 1912, it was described as an “architecture of English design but suited to the local equatorial climate.”
The church, which has six bays, has Gothic architectural features of pointed arches and buttresses. Its outer walls are of fair-faced brickwork, that is, selected bricks used without plaster. Above its porte-cochère or porch is a bell-tower on the apex of the front gable. The bell was presented to the Church by Mr and Mrs A.C.J. Towers in 1935 which was the Silver Jubilee year of King George V.
Walking down the nave of the church, one passes the baptism font and teak pews. The nave is separated from the chancel by a chancel screen of finely carved trefoil arches.
Behind the altar, a trio of stained-glass windows, which together with the arcade of pointed arches above the clerestory, bathe the entire church in incandescent hues.
This splendour did not happen by chance.
According to the Church’s pastor, Rev. Tom Cherian, sometime before 2009, it was noted that the church was in dire need of repairs. The wooden ceiling was in danger of falling, due to wood rot caused by water seepage and termite infestation.
It took a small calamity in July 2009, when one of the porch trusses in front of the church fell, that they closed the church. “We were lucky that no one was hurt”, said Rev. Cherian.
Then the dilemma arose as to whether to do a quick fix or go for a proper restoration. Fortunately, proper restoration won the day.
Rev. Cherian sought advice from the Perak Heritage Society (PHS) and its vice president Law Siak Hong on how to go about the restoration of the church. During that time too, an Ipoh-born architect, Ken Yeh, now practising in Australia, was home on holiday. Yeh, who admires good work and “did not want to see good work be desecrated in the name of expediency”, lent a hand.
Together, Yeh and Law advised Rev. Cherian and his committee on the steps required for restoration.
The repair work involved replacing the rafters and all the roof battens with Nyatoh wood, a time-consuming process as the wood had to be treated for a month before it could be installed. In a similar way, the trusses in the front porch were replaced. The entire ceiling, originally of Meranti, was replaced with a naturally golden dammar minyak (Malaysian kauri) wood.
Tenders were called for and RM250,000 was determined to be the cost of the repairs. This deliberation on what was to be done and the large sum quoted hindered the actual restoration work which only commenced in April of 2010 and completed in December that year.
Understandably, the congregation complained that “it had taken too long to do the repairs” but nevertheless they pulled together in their fundraising efforts and even approached the state government for assistance but none was forthcoming till this day. But ultimately the church managed to raise the funds to complete the job.
For Rev. Cherian, the repair work done on the church will see it in great shape for another 100 years. But he is also aware that regular maintenance and early detection is essential to ensuring a healthy building, indicating a cost of RM6,000 for maintenance every 2 years.
Preserving A Community
The Rev. John Cuffe, Vicar of the Parish in 1985, in his foreword for the Church’s 75th year after the laying of the foundation stone, said that “a church building is not only bricks and mortar but over the years absorbs the prayers of the parishioners which builds up as the generations pass.”
Back then, the congregation was 90% British, with the balance made up of Ceylon Burgers and a smattering of locals. Also in the early days the first four pews from the front were ‘reserved’ for the British community which was “an unwritten rule”.
Parishioner and former choirmaster, James Nicholas Devadason, recalled his Aunt Sarah relating an incident pre-war when she arrived early for service and sat on a ‘reserved’ pew. Upon sitting down she was reminded by the warden of the ‘unwritten rule’ to which she responded by quoting St Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, chapter 3 verse 11: “here there is no Greek or Jew, slave or free but Christ is all and in all”, and didn’t shift her seat.
Another active pre-war Parishoner, William A Sankey, 85, recalled that during the Second World War, the church was turned into a noodle factory, its pews burned for firewood, its vestry used for making soy sauce and its piped organ was looted. Miraculously the panelling and chancel screen survived the desecration.
At the end of the war soldiers from the Royal Berkshire Regiment collected the chairs from the then Majestic Hotel to be used at its first service. By 1949, with the exception of the organ, the church was fully restored.
During the time of the Emergency numerous British Regiments worshipped at the Church and during Christmas, a military parade would be held in the Church grounds before the start of service.
St John’s Church, being among the oldest Anglican Church in the country, has helped propagate the daughter churches of Church of the Holy Spirit in Buntong and St Peter’s Church in Fair Park. It is also one of 25 gazetted heritage buildings identified by Ipoh City Council and listed on the Heritage Trail Map.
By restoring the church to its original splendour the entire Ipoh community will have a reference of how the Anglican community has grown and proliferated in the state. That is heritage value by itself.