ACT Reunion with a Changi Chapel

Reported in the Canberra Times in April 1989


changi_chapelFather Simon-Thwaites was received into the Catholic faith while travelling on an American ship during World War 11. He said he was “somewhere between Cape Town and Bombay”. Two months later he was a prisoner of war in Changi, in Singapore.
” If you are a practising Christian, you can face up to anything,” he said yesterday. Father Simon -Thwaites faced up to 3 1/2 years a POW.

The Catholic Priest was in Canberra to celebrate a Mass at the Changi Chapel, which has been reconstructed in the grounds of the Royal Military College, Duntroon. Father Simon-Thawaites, then Lieutenant Hugh Simon-Thawaites, helped Lieutenant Hamish Cameron-Smith to build the chapel in 1944.

For both men, yesterday’s Mass was an emotional one. For the extremely modest Father Simon–Thwaites, it was “overwhelming”. He said he would have preferred to have prayed on his own, rather than in front of a congregation.” Tomorrow we [he and Mr. Cameron-Smith] will come back to say an old Mass, like the one we said in Changi, “he said.

Mr Cameron-Smith said the two had visited the chapel on Thursday night “to get over the emotional side of it” before yesterday’s Mass”. It was the first time they had seen the chapel since Changi.
Father Simon-Thawaites now lives in Britain and Mr. Cameron-Smith works as an architect in Zambia. While in Australia they are visiting and travelling with Max Lee, who saved the chapel from destruction.

Mr.Cameron- Smith, explaines that the chapel had been built with the permission of Japanese officers.

Prisoners who had worked out of the camp had “pinched” what materials they could. “Bringing them in could be very difficult”, he said.

The only building plans had been a sketchy outline drawn on the ground. But yesterday Mr Cameron-Smith seemed pleased with the outcome – if not surprised at some of the features. “I don’t remember a gate,” he said. “I don’t think I had a gate.”

Told it was in the photograph taken of the chapel when it was in Changi, he moved on to another part of the design, giving suggestions as to how it could be improved.

” I cannot believe it is here,” he said. ” I did feel for a minute some of the chaps [should have been] here,” he said, “So many died. It was pathetic.”

Some parts of the chapel are missing, including four name plaques Mr. Cameron-Smith inscribed in memory of four friends who died in the camp, and the memorial plaque. But apart from the new columns and a couple of new rafters, he said 90 per cent was the original chapel.

The chapel is a memorial to Australian’s 35,000 men and women taken prisoner in all wars.

The idea to bring it to Australia was that of Mr.Lee, then a corporal, who in November 1945 went to Changi with the Australian War Graves Registration Unit to help dismantle the camp. He drew plans, and took measurements and for decades heard nothing more of the chapel till he was contacted in 1987 to be told that it was stored in the War Memorial’s warehouse at Duntroon. The chapel was dedicated in August last year, but a search for the architect and his assistant was successful only days before the ceremony which Mr.Cameron-Smith and Father Simon-Thwaites had been unable to attend.