Singapore > The Armenian Church

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

I had a bit of time to kill in Singapore, so in the hot sun I strolled over to the historic Armenian Church.

Spartan entrance belies the historical significance of this house of worship.

A brief historical background for the uninitiated. Note the famous local Armenians.

Inside the compound, I gaze at the splendid spire.

The back of the church, an oasis of peace and tranquility amidst the hustle and bustle of downtown Singapore.

Stuck to the back wall, a plaque …

… and another one.

The church’s white interior is circular in shape with its neat pews and altar.

Curiously there is not a single soul in sight; I am totally alone. The last Armenian parish priest died years ago and was never replaced.

At a corner of the church’s backyard, lies a small Memorial Garden. There are no dead bodies here, just tombstones of famous Armenians buried at the Christian Cemetery at Bukit Timah.

This one belongs to a Moses, born Penang 10th Oct 1834, died Singapore 24th Sep 1873.

A Sarkies family member.

There’s even one inscribed in the ancient 4th century Armenian script.

I take a final look at the beautiful facade.

And bid farewell to St Gregory the Illuminator, the first Patriarch of the Church in Armenia.


Epilogue (added 19 July 2009)

Sisters are the last of Sarkies clan in Singapore

SINGAPORE, July 19 — They share the same surname as the folks behind the iconic Raffles Hotel, but few Singaporeans today seem to know who the Sarkies are.

“They will ask me: ‘Where are you from? Are you Indian?’” said Loretta Sarkies, 68, a psychic.

The Sarkies clan here is now down to two sisters — she and her younger sister Jessie, 62.

Their grandfather, Arathoon Martin Sarkies, was the cousin of the three Armenian Sarkies brothers who founded the Beach Road hotel in 1887.

Last week, The Sunday Times reported on a dispute over who built the hotel, which is now owned by Fairmont Raffles Hotels International.

A descendant of the prominent Alsagoff family, Syed Muhammad Ghadaffi Alsagoff, 35, had come out to say that it was his great-great-great grandfather Syed Ahmed who owned the building, and not the Sarkies, as some books and newspaper articles have routinely reported.

Prompted by the article, Jessie Sarkies contacted The Sunday Times to say that she and her sister are the last remaining Sarkies here.

Their names appear in New Zealand author Nadia Wright’s 2003 book, Respected Citizens: The History Of Armenians In Singapore And Malaysia. In the book, Wright said two of the Sarkies brothers’ cousins — including Arathoon — also came to Singapore. But only Arathoon Sarkies made it his home.

Jessie Sarkies, a home-based food caterer, said she does not know much about her family’s involvement in the hotel. The sisters’ granduncles — the Sarkies brothers behind the hotel — and grandfather Arathoon Sarkies had died way before they were born.  “My father would tell us his uncles were behind Raffles Hotel but that was about it,” said Jessie Sarkies. Her father was the only son of Arathoon Sarkies, who also had four daughters.

The sisters, however, have a set of postcards of the hotel from their grandfather. It is now being exhibited in the Raffles Hotel Museum.

Arathoon Sarkies was himself a prominent Armenian figure in Singapore’s early history.

His firm — Sarkies, Johannes & Company — which he founded with his brother Lucas and a Eleazar Johannes, was also in the hotel trade.

It took over the Adelphi Hotel in 1903 and made it one of the major hotels here in the 1900s.

Things ran smoothly for Arathoon Sarkies’ company until it collapsed suddenly in 1908. He was declared a bankrupt.

After he was discharged from bankruptcy in 1910, he swore off the hotel trade and went into the rubber plantation business. He ran a 385ha plantation on one of the Rhio islands before he became bankrupt again in 1929. He died in 1932.

Incidentally, the Adelphi Hotel — which had been sold to another company — closed in 1973. The Adelphi building now occupies the site.

Arathoon Sarkies had five children from two marriages. Loretta Sarkies and her sister Jessie are the children of his only son, James, who served as vice-president of the Armenian Church of St Gregory”s board of trustees in the 1960s and 1970s. He and his wife, Mae Didier, a French woman, also have two adopted daughters, Ruby and Susan, who are Chinese.

Sarkies Road in Bukit Timah was named after Regina Sarkies, Arathoon Sarkies’ wife, in 1923.

She owned the family’s 1.2ha property along that road. It has since been sold.

In their 30s, the sisters became more involved in the Armenian community and were invited to lunch and dinner parties hosted at the Raffles Hotel.

One of the more memorable ones was a lunch party to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Armenian Church of St Gregory.

“It was exciting because Armenians from all over the world were invited to the event,” said Jessie Sarkies. “We met our father’s cousin, also a Sarkies, who is now based in Washington.” There are about 30 Armenians left in Singapore now.

Although the sisters are married, they insist on keeping the Sarkies surname.

“We are very proud of our name because there aren’t any other Sarkies left in Singapore now,” said Loretta Sarkies, who was the first runner-up of the Mrs Senior Singapore pageant in 2001.

She has three daughters from her first marriage to a Dutch-Eurasian man, Simon Aroozoo, who died in 1991. She is now married to Michael Tan, who is retired.

Her sister Jessie, who was president of the Armenian Church of St Gregory’s board of trustees in 1987, is married to Patrick Theseira, a Eurasian who is currently unemployed. They have no children.  — The Straits Times

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