Background History & Heritage

The old Cathedral

The Church sent its first missionary to Borneo in 1847 at the request of Sir James Brooke. The Rt. Revd. Francis McDougall, a priest and doctor was chosen for this pioneer work and he landed on the shores of Sarawak on the feast of Saint Peter, June 29th 1848. A considerable area of jungle covered hill was given to the Church by the Rajah and on the 25th August, 1849 on this site McDougall with the help of Mr. Stahle, formerly carpenter of the ship Mary Louisa (on which the former had travelled out from England) began the erection of a fine wooden church capable of holding some 250 persons.

On January 22nd, 1851, Bishop Wilson of Calcutta (within whose jurisdiction of Kuching then lay) consecrated this Church to the Glory of God and in honour of Saint Thomas.

Francis McDougall describe it thus, “The Pillars of the arches are of palm wood, the planking is a kind of cedar, the mouldings are all billian and miraboo. For the font I have procured a large clam shell large enough to immerse a three or four year old child. The west window is coloured glass”

This Church was wrecked in the Chinese insurrection of 1857 but afterwards restored. It served as the Pro-Cathedral until the time of Bishop Logie Danson. It was during his episcopate (1918-1931) that the building was considerably enlarge and raised to the status of a Cathedral. Writing of this in 1920, Bishop Danson said, “of course these enlargements are a temporary measure and we must not be content till we have built a permanent building of brick which will be more worthy than our present structure of the name of a Cathedral”.

The dream of Bishop Danson was not to be realized for another thirty five years. When Bishop Cornwall arrived in 1949 definite plans were prepared by an architect from England and steps taken to launch an appeal. The need for a new Cathedral was even more urgent, for a hundred years of tropical conditions, four years of neglect and abuse during the war (the Japanese used the old Cathedral as a store) and the growth of the Christian church in Kuching had made the repair of the old building uneconomical and impracticable.

Laying of the foundation stone in 1952 by Her Royal Highness, Princess Marina, The Duchess of Kent

The drawing of the architect endeavoured to incorporate a Western plan and layout with the outward appearance of the Far East. Advantage was taken of the visit of Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Kent to Sarawak to invite her to lay the foundation stone of the new Cathedral. The invitation was graciously accepted and the stone was laid on October 15th, 1952. It was found however that these plans were going to place too heavy a burden on the Church in the Diocese and so Mr. Alfred Church, F.R.I.B.A of Messrs. Swan and McLaren, Singapore was invited to submit new plans and in October, 1954 these plans were unanimously approved.

Bishop Cornwall cut the first sod on January 27th, 1955 and the building was completed by May, 1956. The greater part of the cost was given by the Christians and others in the Diocese though many generous contributions came from outside.

The old and new Cathedrals, June 1956

The Cathedral is in a very real sense a mother Church as each parish provided a part of the building. This sharing in the task of building has deepened the sense of unity between the parishes. A plaque at the West End records that St. Andrew, Brunei gave the roof, St. Philip and St. James, Kuala Belait provided the cost of the terrazzo tiling of the floor and the new parish of Seria, Brunei bore the cost of the electric lighting which enables us to see the magnificence of the canasta red of the former and attractive coolness of the latter.

The consecration of the Cathedral took place on June 9th, 1956 at the hand of Nigel Cornwall, Lord Bishop of the Diocese in the presence of His Excellency the Officer Administering the Government. The Archbishop of Brisbane represented the Church of Australia and delegates from all the parishes in the Diocese as well as dignitaries and visitors from other country joined with thousands of local people who attended.

The old Cathedral which was situated on a hill (now Parish Hall) about fifty yards to the north of the present building was dismantled carefully. Such parts as were usable were taken by boat to the Iban village of Sungai Tanju situated on the Samarahan division.