By Joyce Gan

Eugene Wijeysingha's history of the Catholic Church in Singapore


A happy Mr Eugene Wijeysingha with his wife, Christine, relaxing after two years' of work compiling the history of the Catholic Church in Singapore. Photo by Joyce Gan

IN 2003, ARCHBISHOP NICHOLAS CHIA commissioned Eugene Wijeysingha, former headmaster of Raffles Institution, to produce a book on the history of the Catholic Church in Singapore.

Midway through the book, Mr Wijeysingha suffered from dengue fever and a failing aorta that required surgery but he persevered. "Going forth" The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004" is now printed and available to anyone who is interested in the church. "I hope those who feel I could have said more will understand that I had to go by what information is available," Mr Wijeysingha said.

During the course of writing, he had made several public appeals for information, not always successfully. One person who responded generously with time, information and encouragement was Father Rene Nicolas, MEP. The close collaboration between them led to a friendship that Mr Wijeysingha takes pleasure in.

Here, he speaks with CatholicNews about some of his experiences while researching and writing the book.

Q: How do you feel now the book has been published?

Wijeysingha: Relief. I had thought I would finish it in October last year. Then I gave it to Father Nicolas and I told him, 'You just go through and make sure I got the names and details right.' He decided to go through the whole thing! So we spent January, February doing that and finally finished at the end of March. So that was it. I had gotten up at 3.30am, 4am just trying my best to complete it. That's the only time I can work without interruption - no phone calls, no visits, no grandchildren to amuse.

Q: What kind of change have you undergone from the experience of compiling this book?

Wijeysingha: I tried to capture this in my mind and I thought, if I was ever asked this question, what would my response be? So I punched out some words on my computer… basically, writing the history is no big deal. I think everybody can do it - you just have to give them the material and they can compile it. What's important is, as I looked up the materials, there was a certain impact on me.

We usually take the Catholic Church for granted because it's right there. Then I marvelled at the sacrifices these people made - how many of them were killed, murdered, succumbed to illness on their way out. The first bishop walked across the whole of India to get to Siam! Many of them died here. Then I begin to realize this is an institution built on blood and sweat. That's the effect it had on me as a Catholic and I hope the same kind of experience will touch those who read this book.

Q: What did/do you personally hope to achieve through this book?

Wijeysingha: I didn't set out with an objective to achieve anything. [Compiling it] came to me as a request from the archbishop and I did it out of deference to him. As I wrote, what kept me going was a kind of astonishment that I read in the efforts of the people I had a sense of admiration for them. I asked myself - What drove these people? What was in their minds? I thought if I sustained this effort, I would find out.

Then I started to see it was a momentous task, going round five to six centres and working from day to night. But what kept me going were more questions - Why did they give up their lives to come out here? What made them go round the world looking for funds? Obviously it must be something profound in the way they themselves were affected by their vocation and message of Christ ... to go bring a better life to all people over the world that sustained my determination to go through with it.

Q: Which parts of the book did you enjoy researching the most?

Wijeysingha: It's more the adventures of the pioneers that I enjoyed reading up on. The early pioneers who came were paid $20 a month and they had to sustain themselves. Yet they retained their sense of humour through their struggles. What interests me most when writing this historical account are the early pioneers responsible for institutions that follow in their wake. Then I begin to see a total impact.

It's not just putting up church buildings and making them grander and grander - that's not the outcome. Every single effort was about bringing a better life because when they built a church, they built a school or a home alongside it. The church is simply a place of worship. But the substance of improving lives found expression alongside the church. Those were the things that caught my attention.

Q: You mentioned in the Preface that you were always pointed in the right direction when at a loss. Can you give us some specific examples?

Wijeysingha: Oh, there were so many! When I was looking for information on St. John of the Cross, because I wanted a footnote on him, I looked up book after book after book in my home and I couldn't find it. So I got up from my chair to ring Father Nicolas - I was sure he's got something to tell me! But just as I got up, right in front of me was my own book from my own library on St. John of the Cross. I asked my wife, "Strange, ah?" Then when I wanted something on Boys' Town, I looked through the materials Brother Emmanuel sent me but I couldn't find anything on its early history.

One day, I went to the National Archives to look through the early newspapers for something else. And as I was going through, I got pages after pages of Boys' Town! It wasn't even my own effort or someone pointing me to it so who do you credit all these to? It must be the Holy Spirit, lah!

If there had been complications in my operation, I would have no choice but to abandon the effort. That thought was in my head too. But I had a unique case where the walls of my aorta collapsed around the implant they put in me, which the surgeon said was very rare. Somebody was there to make sure I finish my job. [He's saying], "You took on the job, you finish it. When you encounter problems, the problems will resolve themselves." These are the things I hope readers will get these are the sort of messages in the book and not who is this chap and what did he do.

Q: You wrote, "Divine involvement, most surely, must have lingered along the sidelines but God works through the instrument of man" in the Preface. As a Catholic historian, do you have to reconcile between history being tangibly evident and "divine intervention" being neither provable nor recordable?

Wijeysingha: God was not directly responsible for miracles. There is no evidence of direct divine intervention when, for example, funds come in. This kind of divine intervention is not evident but I would think that in these people who gave up their lives and took risks, divine intervention is found - there is a divine force driving them to do so much.

It was somebody planting a seed, a conviction in them that prompted them to take all that risk and to proclaim the Word of God. God does not appear on the scene but he may say, "I give you intelligence, foresigh now you use all that to glorify me." And they did just that. There was something that set them apart and in that, you find divine intervention. No, there's no reconciliation needed. Because only when you read the lives of these people do you begin to get some sense of it all.

It's not normal in ordinary human beings to pursue a passion to the extent of giving up your families and lives - there has to be a special quality and I would put that down to a force that gives them courage and stamina to pursue it.

Q: What is the relevance of the history of the church to churchgoers today?

Wijeysingha: If I belong to an institution, if I claim membership, then it would strengthen my regard for it if I know its roots. I believe that knowledge of the background of the Catholic Church should nurture a sense of mission, commitment, ownership and community among those who subscribe to that institution. I think the archbishop must have realized that when he commissioned the writing of the history. I belonged to the Raffles Institution (RI) community and the moment I took charge, I began to write its history too!

Every year, there are more students joining RI, just as there are more Catholics joining the church. If they don't know their history, roots, all they know is fundamental beliefs and that's not strong enough. You need to know where you come from - your origin, growth, development of the church. This is the first account and fairly detailed one of the history of our church. I think every Catholic home should have a copy to know what this church is that we go to and who gave their lives for it. It will strengthen their faith.

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