A long dark chain hangs down from a beam, stopping in mid-air, in front of the church. Its inconspicuous nature is largely due to the beautiful arched stained glass that forms the chain’s backdrop. “I’ve been here for five years and this is the first time I’ve noticed it!” remarks resident minister Reverend Dr Robert Weniger with a laugh.
Luckily, the most senior parishioner of the Kuala Lumpur St Andrew’s Presbyterian church is present at our recent tour to shed some light on its existence. “Back in those days, we used to hang a huge round wheel with decorations on it during Christmas,” recalls Joyce Keep, 84, who has been a parishioner at St Andrew’s for almost 30 years.
Keep first set foot in Malaysia in 1958 to teach at the British Army School. In 1962 she was posted to Sabah, after which she left the country to teach in a few different places, including West Africa and Jordan. In 1977 she returned to Malaysia, got married and settled down.
However, the church’s history dates back even further, much more than three decades. In fact, it celebrates 100 years of the laying of the building’s foundation stone this month.
Construction of the main sanctuary started on Oct 3, 1917. The initial design was created by John McNeill of Penang-based architecture firm Stark and McNeill. But records from 1918 state that due to the long distance involved, a Mr Russell from the Singapore firm Swan and MacLaren took over the final plans and supervised the building work.
On April 17, 1918, the church welcomed its first parishioners. However during WWII, the premises were taken over by the Japanese army and used as a store. The pipe organ’s steel pipes, milled in Britain, were looted, as were memorial brass tablets. “We also had information that the manse (completed in 1921) next door was converted into a Japanese naval intelligence base,” says Kenneth Tan, who sits on St Andrew’s board of managers.
Later, members of the KL Wesley Methodist Church came in and prevented further damage to the building. Surprisingly, the Japanese Army agreed to allow the building to be re-used as a church by the Methodist congregation.
Nestled within less than a hectare (2 acres) of land, the unassuming building sports a toned-down Gothic style of architecture (no, there are no gargoyles anywhere). Its design is characterised by pointed arches, ribbed vaults and gentle flying buttresses on the exterior walls, while the facade features a pebble dash and cast concrete look.
Over the century, the main sanctuary has undergone minimal changes. The interior, which seats up to 200 people, is still protected by original cengal rafters overhead while 100-year-old porcelain tiles line the floor. However, due to the carpeting, the tiles are hidden.
Pointed arch doorways are seen on both side walls, while above them are square air vents that have since been sealed with frosted glass panels due to the air-conditioning. “It used to be all opened up and naturally ventilated but with traffic getting busier (along Jalan Raja Chulan), it got to be so noisy that we could not hear the sermon! That’s when we decided to close up the main sanctuary and put in air-conditioning,” says church elder C.J. Lim.
“When the church was first built, it was like a ‘country church’ in the middle of nowhere. But now we are located right in the heart of the city,” Tan adds with a smile.
The sanctuary’s appeal is also heightened by its stained glass and pipe organ. The pipe organ was purchased in 1939. Designed by KL-based organ builder James A. Riddell, it was the first complete new pipe organ to be installed in any church in Selangor.
With the exception of the 29 pipes milled in Britain, the organ was made using local labour within six months. The organ’s casing consists of solid teak wood, the same material used for the pulpit panelling.
In 1992, an organ cross was added. Handcrafted by local Chinese carpenters from nyatoh, the cross is a replica of an 18th century brass altar cross found in the ancient church of Llandyfrydog, a western British isle. With a rather unconventional look, the design is a variation of the crux immissa (Latin cross).
A new bell tower and modern portico in glass and steel are in the works as part of St Andrew’s centenary celebrations next year marking when the church began services. “We are quite excited about the bell tower, which we hope will be ready in time for next year’s celebration in April, because that’s when the doors of the church actually opened 100 years ago,” says Tan.
The current church bell, which was acquired in conjunction with the church’s 90th anniversary, will be placed within the tower. Designed by local firm Veritas Architects, the contemporary-style tower will also house a new time capsule that will be opened in another 100 years. \
A previous capsule, buried behind the foundation stone, was opened recently; its contents form part of a small collection of historic items displayed at the church.