Bound by their love for the needy, the bond between Sr Theresa Seow and the late Mr Lee Bock Guan lasted 17 years.
The passing of Mr Lee Bock Guan on August 29 was felt deeply by Canossian Sr Theresa Seow, who shared a strong bond with the former president of Singapore Buddhist Lodge (SBL).
The two first met in 1998, when SBL requested to meet the various religions and religious organisations in Singapore.
As the Catholic Church representative to the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), Sr Theresa met Mr Lee, brought him to the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd to meet the late Archbishop Gregory Yong, and showed him the work of the Canossian Sisters.Sr Theresa recalled that first encounter during a CatholicNews interview a few months before Mr Lee’s death. “When we first met, there seemed to be this affinity, as if we were related from way back. There was this feeling of closeness, like brothers and sisters.”
Even the elderly man found it difficult to explain the affinity. So Mr Lee would joke about her being naughty as a child, prompting their parents to give her away. They also spoke the same dialect, Teochew, which made their closeness more obvious to observers.
However, it is Sr Theresa’s and Mr Lee’s shared interest in the poor that had held together their 17-year friendship.
When they started meeting regularly in IRO and collaborating on other projects Mr Lee saw they had a common goal, said Sr Theresa. “So this is a friendship that has developed because of our passion for and service to the poor.”
Through Mr Lee’s leadership, SBL has given numerous bursaries to needy students and has fed hundreds of thousands of people from various religious affiliations.
Said the Canossian Provincial, “Whoever stepped into the temple to receive this is never asked to give the three bows of respect to Buddha, because my brother believed that each one needs to be respected for his belief.
“He used to tell me, ‘It’s not “your poor, my poor”. They are all poor and they need help; so we will help them together’.”
Whenever she visited Mr Lee, Sr Theresa said, “This is what I learn: in giving there is no colour, there is no race, there is no religion.”
During Chinese New Year, SBL would visit the different charitable homes to distribute hongbaos. Residents of Villa Francis Home for the Aged and St Joseph’s Home have been regular beneficiaries for many years now.
Other organisations, such as the Archdiocesan Commission for Migrant and Itinerant People (ACMI) and Willing Hearts have received rice, cooking oil and noodles for their respective beneficiaries as well.
However, few of the heads of these organisations have met Mr Lee. “That’s him,” remarked Sr Theresa. “Whenever there is a need to give, he does not make it known to the public; he doesn’t get the press to come. At the end of the day, if those who received benefit, that [would be] enough for him.”
She added, “He is very happy whenever we tell him that there is a need because he does not make a distinction. He feels privileged that he could even serve the poor in our Canossian ministries.”
To express their appreciation and affection for Mr Lee’s support, the Canossians raised funds for some of the Buddhist schools a few years ago, said Sr Theresa.
While he was generous to the poor, Mr Lee was insistent that donations to charities and through organisations, should be properly accounted for.
Speaking through Sr Theresa, Mr Lee said, “The money that we have received for our beneficiaries, we should never use them for our personal needs. Every cent belongs to the poor and, rightly so, it should go to them.”
Sr Theresa’s respect for the 70-year-old religious leader was evident in the way she would defer to him before she herself would respond to questions.
Asked what has helped their friendship to endure, Mr Lee said through Sr Theresa: “We have common interests. Our only concern is how to help the poor, our whole energy is [dedicated] to the needy.”
Added Sr Theresa, “It is the mutual respect that we have for each other. As a Catholic, I feel this tremendous respect from a Buddhist brother. He has never put our religion down.”
She feels that Mr Lee understood the local Church better than many Catholics. “Catholics always thought that we are supported by the archdiocese; that is a mistaken notion. So whenever it comes to the Sisters’ needs, he would say, ‘We will support their work.’ That’s why I never worry, in a sense.”
Sr Theresa was at the bedside of Mr Lee prior to his death. She said of his demise, “For 17 years, I’ve been truly grateful for having this man in my life. He was able to cross boundaries of race and religion with his wisdom, generosity and compassion. He was true to himself, true to his cause, true to everybody.”
With the passing of Mr Lee, the Catholic Church in Singapore has “lost a good friend, someone who believes in the Church,” said Sr Theresa.
“Over the last two years, he has been very inspired by Pope Francis. He was very edified by the work of the Catholic Church. We pray that whoever takes over SBL will continue his good work.”
By Mel Diamse-Lee