Church of St Mary of the Angels
A series of outdoor spaces unites a large congregation
© Tim Griffith
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When the Franciscan Friars opened the Parish of St. Mary of the Angels in the 1950s, rubber plantations surrounded the hilltop church. Over the decades, as the parish grew from 30 people to more than 5,000, high rises and public housing rose above the sanctuary. The friars sought to build a new church with seating for 1,200, a monastery for the Poor Clares nuns, a columbarium, and wake rooms. They directed the architects to pay special attention to interstitial areas of the complex, such as outdoor plazas and walkways, which provide communal space for liturgical processions and festivals, as well as smaller nooks for private prayer and devotion.
Focusing on the idea of community-building, the architects connected new and old buildings through a central square space at the heart of the complex. Whereas the original buildings faced outward, the complex now faces inward, reflecting the transformation of the surrounding landscape from a natural hilltop to a “valley” created by high-rise development. The architects were also inspired by the church of St. Francis, in Assisi, Italy, where a large lawn, colonnades, and ramped entrances flow out from the main cathedral. This choice carried symbolic meaning because St. Francis, the patron saint of the friar’s Catholic order, believed in spreading his message outdoors rather than within the confines of a church.
Singapore’s tropical climate allowed for several church functions to be split apart from each other and brought outside. The architects transformed the narthex, traditionally an indoor entrance hall, into an outdoor space partially covered by a cantilevered roof. The narthex now acts the hub for a grouping of individual buildings, which are linked by covered walkways, that contain the chapel of the blessed sacrament, the work sacristy, and the vesting sacristy.
When it came to designing the main sanctuary, the architects followed the Catholic Church’s Vatican II recommendations, which directed that new churches recapture the qualities of the early Christian basilicas. Accordingly, the sanctuary is laid out “in-the-round,” with a central ceremonial space surrounded on three sides by seating so that the entire congregation can see and participate in the liturgy.
The columbarium, though subterranean, was developed as a series of light, airy crypts that are connected to the earth and sky by reflection pools, which also serve as devotional aids. Its roof is landscaped as a Garden of World Peace. A colonnade of trees slopes down to a reflection pool and Easter flame, creating a natural outdoor amphitheater big enough to contain the entire congregation of 5,000 for Easter celebrations. Before the creation of this space, the parish was unable to meet all at once.
Although interior spaces in the friary and monastery were finished primarily with the economical and simple materials of plywood and steel plating, their design is elevated: symbolizing the way in which the friars and nuns elevate their lives of poverty and chastity through their actions.
Church of St Mary of the Angels
Gross Floor Area: 96,634 sq. ft.; Plot Area: 164,265 sq. ft.
Total construction cost:
Architecture, Landscaping & Interiors:
WOHA Architects Pte Ltd
Wong Mun Summ (left), Richard Hassell (right)