A Service of Thanksgiving celebrating the 160th Anniversary of the Laying of the Foundation Stone
Historical Vignettes: St John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong — 1847 to 2007
Historical Vignette I — the founding of St John’s
In 1841, during the earliest days of the colonial settlement in Hong Kong, plans for a church to care for the needs of the European community were already being mooted. Far away in England, the young Revd Vincent Stanton’s zeal for missionary work with the Christian Missionary Society (the CMS) in China was unabated, despite the vicissitudes of an earlier private visit in 1840 to this part of the world where, having fallen foul of the local authorities in Canton, he spent three months in chains in prison.
Stanton eagerly seized the opportunity to return to China when, in 1842, he was offered the newly established Colonial Chaplaincy of Hong Kong. He was appointed in January 1843, married in March and embarked with his bride, Lucy, from London in June on a 6½ month voyage to Hong Kong.
In England, subscriptions had been collected towards the cost of building a church which might become a Cathedral. When the Stantons arrived in Hong Kong they found that a committee had already been formed to secure the erection of a permanent church, to take the place of the “wooden structure with calico windows” erected by the garrison at the beginning of the British occupation. This was later replaced by a matshed erected on what was then the Murray Road Parade Ground.
A design was drawn up by the Surveyor–General’s office in 1844 and, following a number of changes, was finally approved in 1846. Revd Stanton was able to report to London in February 1847: “The Church is in progress; the ground has been levelled, a contract accepted for the foundations, and the trenches excavated. On the 11th next month we hope that the foundation stone will be laid.” The original foundation stone was laid on 11th March 1847 but is nowhere to be found. On the west face of the tower, above the porch entrance there is a tile or stone bearing the initials VR of Queen Victoria and the year – 1847. The Church accommodating 640 people was built at a cost of £8,736. 250 seats were allotted for the use of the garrison.
In February 1849, the Bishopric of Victoria was created by Royal Letters Patent, providing the new church the status of a Cathedral. The Revd George Smith, who had been one of the first two CMS missionaries in China, was consecrated Bishop in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th May of the same year.
The nave of the Cathedral was opened for divine service on 11th March 1849, exactly 158 years ago today.
Historical Vignette II — 1851 to 1900
George Smith, the first Bishop of Victoria and the first Church of England diocesan bishop in China, was not the first bishop of the Anglican Communion in China. The Rev William Boone, a pioneer missionary in Canton, Macau and Amoy, had already been installed as a bishop of the American Episcopal Church in Shanghai.Bishop Smith did not arrive in Hong Kong until 27th March 1850.
Two days later, on Easter Day, he preached in the new CathedralChurch and administered Holy Communion to 70 merchants, government officials and naval and military officers. In the summer of 1850, the first Colonial Chaplain, Vincent Stanton left with his family on sick leave to England. He would not return to Hong Kong.
The Cathedral, in accordance with ecclesiastical law, was not consecrated until 1852 when all its outstanding debts had been paid.
In the mid-1860s, an acrimonious dispute was waged within the congregation over sittings in the Cathedral, in which questions of precedence were involved. There were not nearly enough seats to provide proper accommodation for both the garrison and the general public. In 1865 the Navy, which considered that the Admiral’s seat was inferior to that of the General, brought matters to a head by demanding a re-adjustment of seating. This was done and the Navy was happy but other people had been displaced by the new arrangement and they were not disposed to ‘put up and shut up’. Mr Thomsett was asked to exchange sittings with Mr Vaucher…this was the spark which ignited a whole barrel of gunpowder (a popular figure of speech at that time). Captain Thomsett, the Harbour Master, had the strongest objections to the changes, for the question of social precedence was involved. There were several unpleasant scenes in Church and months of protracted negotiations in which the Trustees, the Governor and the Attorney General were involved — the pecking order is interesting! The Attorney General refused to commit himself so an appeal was made to London from whence the verdict was returned: “Parishoners have a claim to be seated according to their rank and station.”
On 16th November 1869, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh laid the Foundation Stone of the New Chancel, providing us with a Stone we can still admire today…some compensation for the missing mystery of 1847. Another important event was the Dedication of Bells at the Cathedral on 2nd January 1870.
Until 1892 when the Cathedral was disestablished and disendowed, the affairs of St John’s ran fairly smoothly. There was considerable demand for evening services and after several years of Trustees’ debates, gas lighting was introduced in 1879.Our verger, Ah Hoi, may be encouraged to hear the story of his predecessor, G Saunders, who was sexton until 1880 and verger as well. There was a complaint that he had dispensed with wearing his gown during services. He was reprimanded but replied that his gown had been stolen. The Trustees ordered a new one and reprimanded the head coolie for carelessness. Saunders, in 1880, asked for assistance towards his passage home to England, but the Trustees felt unable to help. They increased his pay from $14.80 to $15 a month and bought a ‘church bible’ from him for $10. The coolie was paid $6 a month!
Historical Vignette III — 1901 to 1950
The Church Body, precursor of today’s Cathedral Council, protested in 1902, in cahoots with the committee of management of the Union Church against the firing of salutes on Sundays by warships in the harbour. The protest went to the Colonial Secretary and the practice ceased.
In 1909, the Church Body protested successfully to the Director of Public Works against a proposal to extend the Peak Tram on steel trestles past the East end of the Cathedral.
The war against Germany in 1914 seemed very far off when it was agreed to lend St John’s on Christmas Day 1910 to the German community and the German Navy for the Kaiser’s Jubilee Service in 1913, the same year that the practice of appointing sidesmen was begun.
In 1913, a special meeting was called to discuss means of getting the necessary funds to secure an assistant chaplain. The raising of pew rents was suggested. One member suggested that subscriptions would come in if the services were brighter and made more congregational, a remark which aroused the anger of the choir who protested strongly against the suggestion. Sir Paul Chater suggested he would be pleased to take a subscription list around; he collected $12,100.
The Great War of 1914 – 18 barely affected Hong Kong; Japan was on the side of the allies and there was no feeling of insecurity. A much needed addition to the Cathedral came when St John’s Cathedral Hall (now the Li Hall) was opened by the Governor, Sir Reginald Stubbs, on 31st January 1921.
An innovation of the greatest interest and importance was the appointment in 1927 of a Dean to take charge of the cathedral. The added dignity of the office was a source of strength to its holder, and encouraged the view that that St John’s was to be something more than the parish church of the English community; that it was to be the Motherchurch of the Diocese, and a pattern of worship.By 1928 the system of rented seats in the Cathedral was given up and replaced by a goodwill offering scheme, leaving all the seats open to all comers.
On Christmas Day 1941, Hong Kong surrendered to the invading Japanese forces and shortly afterwards many of the congregation, together with the chaplains, were interned in Stanley Camp. In June 1944, the Japanese converted this Church into a public hall and a club for the Japanese community.
The first service to be held after the liberation was on 9th September 1945. Externally the building was dilapidated with the tower pierced by a shell but once again it was the centre of the Diocese and before many months had elapsed work had started on its restoration. Many of the original features of the church were found to be undamaged underneath the temporary flooring installed by the Japanese. Generous donors replaced the original stained glass in the East end and in the transepts.
Historical Vignette IV 1951 to 2007
Before the Word War, in 1937, with the full support of the Cathedral, Bishop Ronald Hall established an orphanage in Hong Kong, which later became the St Christopher’s Home. St. John’s was where Bishop Hall started this mission. Before the 2nd World War, St John’s actively collected clothing and medical supplies for the lepers in Beihai and pastoral areas in China.
Since the 1970s more migrant workers have been coming to work in Hong Kong. St John’s worked together with other relevant organizations to set up MFMW and, sometime later HDH, to provide support for these workers and to help them protect their rights.
The Counselling Service Centre was set up in 1976 to provide counselling services to English speakers who are in need. The HIV Education Centre was set up in 1995 to enhance community awareness of HIV, the disease, its effects and to advise on available treatment.
Clergy and members of the Cathedral hold monthly services in prisons, and pay frequent visits to inmates. The annual Michaelmas Fair and the charity walks contribute substantially to the raising of funds in support of the Cathedral’s social services and other charitable welfare organizations. Castaways Charity Second Hand Shop was established and is operated by the CLARES, with proceeds going to various charities. Our Bookstore is a business partner with Fair Trade.
There have been substantial liturgical changes since 1950. The High Altar was brought down from the East end and placed near the central crossing of the church. In the late 1960s, Series 3 was introduced and used alongside the Book of Common Prayer while the New English Bible complimented the Authorised Version. The Alternative Service Book 1980 was the natural successor to Series 3. Cobble together by committee, the ASB represented a compromise hybrid book designed to serve the reunion of the Church of England and the MethodistChurch...a union which was voted down in Synod and never happened. In the late 1990s, Common Worship replaced the ASB and is now the main prayer book, together with its associated material, in every day use in St John’s.
The English language in this service has in some small measure attempted to move from the BCP and King James Bible at the start to Common Worship. There are now services held in Mandarin and Cantonese dialects (Chinese) and Tagalog (Filipino).
Last but certainly notthe least of all the changes...in mid–May 2005, the Very Revd Andrew Chan became the first Chinese Dean of St John’s Cathedral and the transformation of this church from Church of England to Sheng Kung Hui Cathedral was complete.