Divine Restoration

Text and photography by Lau Sook Mei 

I was running late so I hurried along the 72-foot-long nave to join the group at the pulpit area. Architect-couple Carol and Ken Yeh, Mohd Taib and Hong were already there. Reverend Thomas Cherian, Rev. Tom, as he prefers to be known, was there to show us the newly restored timber ceiling of the church.

Deep in discussion.

There are three important buildings at St John’s. Here below, we share with you their history and the significance of their heritage. Our reference: St. John the Divine 75th Anniversary Souvenir Publication.

The Church of St. John the Divine

The history of the church began in 1906 when the Anglicans held their monthly services in the old wooden Court House, conducted by Rev. J. P. Parry, who, as the congregation grew, raised funds for a church.

St. John's Church.

The foundation stone for the church was laid in 1910. It would be in English-style, with a red-tiled roof and all bricks. Built at a cost of $20,000, a huge sum in those days, the Church of St. John the Divine was the largest church erected in the Malay States when it was completed and consecrated in 1912. It would have been the pride of Ipoh town. Strategically located in the civic centre of town, St. John’s Church was a stone’s throw away from the Ipoh Club, and a quick stroll from the railway station. The bell tower and the porch were struck by a locomotive wheel during World War Two (WW2); when it was rebuilt, the porch was enlarged.

The bell tower.

When the Japanese came to Ipoh in December 1941, an explosion at the railway station rocked the church.  Rev. Tom showed us the surviving stained glass window above the altar. During WW2, the Church was turned into a noodle factory. Pews were used for firewood, few dated 1920s survived. The church reopened after the war in Sept 1945. The chaplaincy system was replaced by a Parochial Church Council in 1947 with representatives from the Europeans, Tamils and Chinese.

Clockwise from left: lovely stained glass window seen from the inside; exterior of the same window; old church pew.

When the church was nearly one hundred years old, bad news knocked. Water seepage had caused wet rot and the wooden ceiling was in danger of falling because of termite infestation. When a roof truss over the porch fell in July that year, the church had to be closed.

Intricate carvings on the chancel screen.

Urgent repair was in order. Should authenticity be the main concern or should there be a more permanent metal structure for the roof and ceiling? That was when Ken, Carol and Hong came into the scene with their advice: restore to retain the heritage of the building and its superb acoustics.

At the end of 2009 a concert was held to fund-raise for the restoration work which amounted to RM250,000. Work was in progress between April and December, 2010. Some rafters and all of the roof battens were replaced with treated “nyatoh” wood. The entire ceiling of “meranti” had been replaced by a naturally golden “damar minyak” (Malaysian kauri). It was well worth the effort, but work does not end here – periodic building inspection and check for termites are vitally important.

Splendid restoration.

I was curious about the wooden panels on the wall, with names engraved and gilded in gold. Rev. Tom explained that those were memorial plaques to people or their families who had contributed to the Church. Among them were those who lost their lives during WW1, members of the King’s Royal Hussars and W.R.H. Chappel of Osborne and Chappel, the tin-mining consultants of Kinta Valley fame.

Memorial plaque.

Three personalities instrumental to the growth of the church were Rev. J. P. Parry, Rev. Graham White and Rev. Anthony Charles Dumper. One of the most outstanding clergies of the Chaplaincies of South Perak, Rev. Graham White (1925-31) established the Chinese and Tamil vernacular sections of the parish. He introduced an Anglican school in Ipoh. Rev. A. C. Dumper was the post-war vicar who built St. John’s Hall in 1955, before the 1957 Merdeka: Independence.

A man who won the hearts of his parishioners.

The Vicarage

After a tour of the Church, Rev. Tom invited us into the vicarage. It was constructed in 1921 at a cost of $18,000, much to the chargrain of the parish, who had raise funds less than a decade after the completion of the church. The main doors open to a handsome black-polished wooden staircase and a living room that exudes warmth and cosiness.

We could not stop admiring this beautiful staircase.

In its early days the building doubled up as the Kinta centre for parish activities. During WW2, Japanese government officials occupied the vicarage.  The building is well-maintained and only minor repairs were required over the years.

The vicarage.

St. John’s Hall

In the church grounds sits a single-storey building partly painted in lemon yellow. Don’t under-estimate its simplicity. St. John’s Hall was designed and built in 1955 by the Danish architect B. M. Iversen, to whom Ipoh owes her modernity.

Clockwise from top: St. John's Hall; two photos of its interior. Photos by courtesy of Law Siak Hong.

The building of St. John’s Hall was initiated by Rev. Anthony Charles Dumper (1949-1957) to service the community. It had two classrooms for the adjoining kindergarten. Later, in 1985, more classrooms and a three-storey office block were annexed.

The Hall has been closed since September 2010 when parts of the ceiling sagged. Carol and Ken Yeh diagnosed structure failure. The problem has to be thoroughly investigated. Rev. Tom is concerned about the repairs; another fund-raiser would over-tax the parish. But the building is architecturally important to Ipoh and it deserves proper restoration to preserve its integrity.

Funding for restoration

St. John’s Church is among the 25 heritage buildings in Ipoh gazetted by the Ipoh City Council or Majlis Bandaraya Ipoh (MBI). But in fact, I feel that the group together with the old trees in the well-maintained compound of the church should all be gazetted.

Two very old trees in the church compound.

Rev. Tom informed that he had sought funds from the local authority to restore the Church, but without success. This is not surprising, for we know that all costs for maintenance and repair of gazetted heritage buildings are to be borne by the owners. Surely, to encourage proper maintenance of these buildings, the state government should set aside funds to assist restoration efforts and to insist on methods which adhere to preferred practices.
The Church of St. John the Divine will be 100 years old next year. Should it go for national heritage listing? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being listed? The parish is divided on the merits of such a move.

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