The French Catholic community in Singapore started about 20 years ago with only 50 people. Today, it has grown to about 500 families.
The current chaplain of the community is Fr Ivan Ponsonnet, 52, a Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) priest. There are currently 11 MEP priests in Singapore.
Fr Ivan, who has been in Singapore since September 2012, said he sees his role as helping the community members to “learn how to work together [and] keep them in harmony”, as the people “come from different origins” and there is a “mix of different Church styles”.
In an interview with Fr Ivan, together with one of the coordinators Mr Quentin Dekyvère, 33, they told CatholicNews that most of the people in their community are from France, but there are also people from Belgium, Switzerland and Canada, as well as some French-speaking Singaporeans.
They were previously hosted by the Good Shepherd Sisters at the Marymount Convent, but as the Sisters will be moving to Toa Payoh, the community has since shifted to St Joseph’s Church (Victoria Street).
The First Holy Communion is celebrated in May, while Confirmation is usually held on Pentecost Sunday in June. These are celebrated by Fr Ivan himself, or another MEP priest.
About the community
The community has various small groups, which are categorised into Liturgy and Sacraments, Young People and Adults.
“It’s like a parish,” Fr Ivan said. “Each ministry has a person-in-charge.”
Of special mention was the ALPHA programme that they started four years ago. Mr Dekyvère said that this programme targets “especially the newcomers who just came to Singapore, [as] it helps them integrate in Singapore and in the community”.
In September, the community holds a big gathering as that is when most of members return from France after the summer holidays. To them, this marks a new year and they also welcome newcomers during this informal session, when there will be a barbecue, and families can also sell furniture and books at the same time.
There is also a scouts group of about 40 children, affiliated to the Singapore Scouts Association. According to Fr Ivan, they have monthly activities which include games and Bible teachings. On Sundays, they will go for Mass together before their activities, and Fr Ivan will also go and celebrate Mass with them when they have camps.
The community also takes part in charity activities, Mr Dekyvère said. A lot of French people will try to help countries like Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, either by sending money or providing medical help. There are also teenagers who contribute by going on mission trips.
Mr Dekyvère said they are “happy to be in St Joseph’s since January”.
However, they also told CatholicNews that they have to rent rooms in Church of Risen Christ in Toa Payoh to have children’s catechism every Monday afternoon as they are not able to use the rooms at St Joseph’s Church on weekdays.
Many of their activities are also held in members’ homes. Sometimes, they even have to rent a place in SJI International to have their activities, Mr Dekyvère said.
Another challenge is that members tend to stay in Singapore for just a few years before heading to another country and as a result, the turnover for children’s catechists is about 50 percent every year.
Furthermore, it takes a long time for members to integrate in the local community and in a country, he added.
Community and local Church
Both Fr Ivan and Mr Dekyvère agree that there is a difference in culture between the French and Singaporeans.
Mr Dekyvère said that for the French, it “usually takes time when you want to work with someone but for Singaporeans, they will do it quite quickly”.
He added, “I think French people are impressed with how well the Masses are prepared.” For example, he mentioned that the choirs work hard and have practices to prepare the songs for Mass. In this respect, his community is learning from the Singapore Church, he said.
Fr Ivan said that he is “really impressed by the energy that the communities in local churches in Singapore are showing”.
He recounts that when he first celebrated Mass at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, there were more than 1,000 parishioners, he said.
“In France, I think I would be the bishop,” he added with a chuckle.
Current focus, future plans
Fr Ivan said that his concern right now is to “make sure kids get catechism right”.
Also, his current focus is to train adults in “Catholic social doctrine and teachings of the Church”, and he is also thinking of starting an ALPHA programme for couples next year. This is because he wants to “strengthen families”, as he noticed that “when they move from country to country, it shakes the family a bit”.
Mr Dekyvère said, “As coordinators, I think we want to reinforce the links with the local Church but I don’t exactly know how to do it.”
But he mentioned that during last year’s farewell Mass for the Good Shepherd Sisters’ Marymount Convent on Nov 22, the choir was made up of French community members.
Currently, as they are new in St Joseph’s Church, he said that they will have to “find our place, mingle with the St Joseph’s community at the local level, integrate there and make sure we can work well together”.
“If the bishop wants to come and celebrate Mass for us once a year, we’ll be more than happy to invite him,” Mr Dekyvère said.
The community in numbers
To give a clearer picture, here are some numbers on the French Catholic community in Singapore provided by Fr Ivan:
3 kids in a family on average, and the number of kids in each family can range from 0 to 7.
3 times a month, they will have French Mass on Sundays at Church of St Joseph (Victoria Street) at 11.30am.
20 years ago, the French community in Singapore started.
24 couples are preparing for marriage in Singapore and will eventually tie the knot in France.
40 teenagers and adults received the Sacrament of Confirmation this year.
40 catechists for children’s catechism classes.
50 people when they first set up this French Catholic community in Singapore.
50 years old and above in terms of age is rare, as most people are young adults.
60 infants baptised this year, and another 19 children aged six to 12.
60 children had their First Holy Communion this year.
80 teenagers who are attending catechism that will lead up to Confirmation.
300 catechism children aged six to 13.
500 families make up the French Catholic community in Singapore today.
15,000 French people in Singapore, and approximately 2,000 of whom are Catholics.
For more information on the community, visit www.paroisse-singapour.com.
By Clara Lai