Thursday, August 6, 2015

Vanda "Miss Joaquim" and the Armenian Church

Who is Vanda Miss Joaquim?
In case you are wondering, who is Vanda Miss Joaquim. That is Singapore's national flower (selected in 15 Apr 1981), an orchid, named after the Miss Agnes Joaquim (7 Apr 1864 - 2 Jul 1899). The flower is a cross between Burmese Vanda teres (pod parent) and the Malayan Vanda hookeriana (pollen parent). It is a hardy flower and free flowering. 

The Vanda Miss Joaquim was selected from among 40 flowers, out of which 30 were orchids, as Singapore's national flower. This makes Singapore the only country to have a hybrid as her national flower. Among the several varieties of Vanda Miss Joaquim, the variety "Agnes" was chosen particularly for its vibrant colours, hardiness and resilience - qualities which reflect the Singapore spirit. Its ability to bloom throughout the year also won the judges over.

At Istana near the Villa

Buckill Hall at National Orchid Garden

Agnes Joaquim
Miss Agnes Joaquim, an Armenian, bred it and the plant was taken to taken to  H. N. Ridley, the director of the Singapore Botanic Garden at the time, who first described the hybrid plant in the Gardeners' Chronicle on 24 June 1893.

Agnes Joaquim won prizes at annual flower shows and famously won the prize for the rarest orchid at the 1899 annual flower show. The first prize was for a hybrid that was named after her, Vanda 'Miss Joaquim'. However, already suffering from cancer then, she died soon after receiving this prize.

Besides gardening, she was also an active member of the Armenian Church and a skilled embroiderer.

Agnes was the eldest daughter and second child of a brood of 11 of Parsick (Basil) Joaquim, an Armenian merchant and commercial agent. Their family had an illustrious history of contributions to the Singapore community, beginning with Agnes' father's philanthropy towards the general community.

Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator
commonly known as Armenian Church

Construction:   1835–1836
Gazette Date :  28 June 1973
Architects:       George D. Coleman; Present Belfry – George Maddock
Address:           60 Hill Street
Opening hours: 9 am  to 6 pm

Armenian Church
The year of construction is at the back of the church, back-facing the church's gate
Complying with Armenian churches' tradition, the chapel faces east but this meant that its entrance faced away from the main road. 

Front of the church
The porticoes are regarded as one of its outstanding features, held up by Roman Doric columns and pilastersOriginally serving to shelter the house carriages of the wealthy people, it was later converted for pedestrian use with steps added to it. 

The Armenian Apostolic Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, commonly called the Armenian Church, is Singapore’s oldest Christian church. The Armenians were among the earliest merchants and traders to arrive in Singapore after it became a British trading port in 1819. They came to Singapore because of war. Their country had little resources. The church was the spiritual home of the small but influential Armenian community living here during the colonial period and continues to serve as a reminder of their contributions to the development of Singapore over the years. To name a few, besides Agnes Joaquim and her family, others influential Armenians are the Sarkies brothers, who founded a chain of luxury hotels( including the famous Raffles Hotel) and Catchick Moses, co-founder of the Straits Times.

Armenia, now a fraction of its original size.
The Armenians Community in 1917 
Catchick Moses - co founder of Straits Times
In the beginning, the Armenian community worshipped in a makeshift chapel fashioned in the back premises of John Little & Company located at Commercial Square (today's Raffles Place). Upon request, the British authorities then offered them a parcel of land at the foot of Fort Canning Hill for a permanent church. 

The foundation stone was blessed by the Supreme Archimandrite, the Rev. Thomas Gregorian on 1 January 1835. On 26 March 1836, it was consecrated by Rev. Catchick. It was dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator, the first monk in the Armenian Church. Built at a total cost of $5,058.30 Spanish pesetas, most of the funds came from just 12 Armenian families, an indication of the prosperity of the community. The remainder was borne by the Armenian communities in India and Java, as well as European and Chinese merchants in Singapore. In 1909, the Church became one of the first buildings in Singapore to enjoy the benefits of electricity when it had electric lights and fans installed.

The crosses on the left can be seen from outside the church
My experience
When I first chanced upon the church many years ago, I thought these crosses were part of a graveyard and never wanted to step inside. The beauty of the church lured me in finally, I went in last year but I refused to walk close to the tombstones which were located on the right side of the church. It was only when I realised that the tombstone of Agnes Joaquim's tombstone can be found in the grounds of the Armenian Church at Hill Street, (originally located at the Bukit Timah cemetery),then I brought Little One to seek out the tombstone in May 2014. It was not easy to read every one of the tombstones because some of the words had already faded but I managed to find it. This year I joined the Singapore Heritage Festival for a tour of the place. I was surprised that the national flower were next to it. This make it easy for visitors to identify. Best of all, it was clarified. the Armenian Church was never a burial ground! Nevertheless, the tombstones are original from their previous burial grounds. They belong to well known Armenians which includes Agnes Joaquim and Catchick Moses. Note not step on the tombstones when you visit!

Her tombstone reads:
"In loving memory of Agnes, eldest Daughter of the late Parsick Joaquim,
 Born 7th April 1854 - Died 2nd July 1899,'
Let her own works praise her.
Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy Cross I cling'"
Left taken in 2014,  Right in 2015

Architecture : Neo classic style
The Armenian Church originally had a bell turret with a conical dome. This was replaced in 1847 by a square tower, and again in 1853 by the current belfry, designed by the English architect George Maddock. The church interior is distinctive for its circular design, not found in other churches in Singapore. Despite the circular design, the church is seen as square cross design when view above. That is because it has 4 chambers attached to it.
Old Pews dating back to before the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945); these seats have backs made of woven rattan for maximum coolness and comfort. They are adorned with beautiful carved crosses and geometric patterns that represent the Holy Trinity.

Coleman's work -High ceiling and numerous louvered windows and wire mesh windows for ventilation.
Check the circular dome. It is made of wood.
The rising sun from the East lights up the altar. Its altarpiece is a painting of the Last Supper – the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before his crucifixion – framed in dark, fluted wood and topped by a cross. On the front of the marble altar is a monograph of the phrase ‘Christ our Saviour’ in Armenian initials. The altar rail, decorated with a repetitive trefoil pattern, demarcates the sanctuary from the prayer hall. Memorial plaques in both Armenian and English are set in the walls around the hall.
Current Use
Since the end of World War II, the church has not had a resident priest to conduct mass on a regular basis. Today, Armenian services are held only during significant events or when an Armenian priest is visiting, such as during the 150th anniversary of the church in 1986. 

Note to worry, the church is under the care of a caretaker. The church building is popular with other Christian groups who use it for quiet worship.

Grounds of the church
Little One and I love explore the grounds of the church. Look at what we have found. Picture perfect scenery! Probably no one would know where you have taken the pictures.
The parsonage, a two-storey bungalow, on the church grounds was built in 1905 by Nanajan Sarkies in memory of her late husband, John Shanazar Sarkies.

Finding the tombstones
Ok. For those who wants to locate the tombstone of Agnes Joaquim and Catchick Moses, here you go.

This is correct as at 18 April 2015. The tombstones may be moved. Check those at Wikipedia.
Some of the tombstones were moved!

Fun facts about  Vanda Miss Joaquim
  • Singapore is the only country to have a hybrid as her national flower.
  • Vanda Miss Joaquim is the first registered plant hybrid from Singapore.
  • A park, the Vanda Miss Joaquim Park, and several roads have been named after our national flower, including Vanda Drive and Vanda Crescent.
  • Research has shown that the parents of Vanda Miss Joaquium, Vanda teres and Vanda hookeriana should actually be in the genus Papilionanthe, instead of Vanda. Thus, the scientific names of these flowers are now Papilionanthe teres and Papilionanthe hookeriana. The scientific name of our national flower has also followed suit, and is now Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim. However, its common name continues to be Vanda Miss Joaquim.
  • David Marshall, the former Ambassador to France, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland from 1978-1993 ,kept the Singapore flag flying high. Despite being in the opposition party, he always defended Singapore's interests abroad and played the role of ambassador with great aplomb for 15 years, even when his eyesight failed. He wore an orchid at every official function, and became widely-known as the "Ambassadeur a orchidee" (the Ambassador with an orchid).


  1. Beautiful flowers and I loved the story! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for linking up these lovely shots at


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