By Joyce Gan
St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort
LOUIS MARIE GRIGNION DE MONTFORT had such a strong desire to be in communion with the poor that after his ordination to the priesthood in 1700, he gave the first beggar he met all his money and even exchanged clothes with him. He wanted to become a missionary and to go about his work in a poor and simple way.
Most of all, he loved to proclaim the Good News to outcasts and to catechize poor children. This desire was to culminate in the founding of the congregation of the Brothers of St. Gabriel. In 1706, Montfort set out on foot from France to meet Pope Clement XI. He made his journey by begging for food and shelter.
The pope recognized in the young man extraordinary gifts from God, named him Apostolic Missionary and had him return to his native France to renew the church there. In 18th century France, education was only for children of aristocrats.
Montfort organized classes for common-folk children and homes for the poor. He preached simply and courageously, and opposed the enemies of the church, who repeatedly attempted to kill him.
They succeeded on Apr 28, 1716, while he was preaching at the Church of St. Laurent-sur-Sevres. He was 42. He was beatified in 1888 and canonized in 1947. Three religious congregations claim him as their Founder - The Company of Mary (Montfort Fathers), The Daughters of Wisdom (Montfort Sisters) and The Brothers of St. Gabriel.
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The Brothers in Singapore
THE BROTHERS OF ST. GABRIEL played an active role in shaping Singapore education. The first Brothers came from Thailand in 1937 at the request of Bishop Devas of Singapore- Melaka.
Brothers Louis Gonzaga, Gerard Majella and Francis Tessie took responsibility for Holy Innocents' English School at Hougang, now known as Montfort School.
The bishop gave land to the Brothers in 1938 but they scarcely had time to settle down when World War II broke out and the Japanese Occupation began. All Canadian Brothers were treated as prisoners of war while Brothers of other nationalities were sent to camps at Bahau, Malaya (West Malaysia today).
It was in the bleakness of Changi prison that Gabrielite Brother Vincent shared his vision of a boys' home with a fellow prisoner, Australian philanthropist William T. McDermott.
Boys' Town was born in January 1948 from that sharedexperience. The war was over and the island was in terrible conditions; Boys' Town offered home and hope for boys who were orphaned, displaced by the war, from poor families, troubled and neglected.
The Gabrielite Brothers' Assumption Vocational Institute in Bukit Timah believes that every child is a special individual endowed with God-given abilities who, through vocational education and training, can be nurtured to success.
Over the years, the Brothers established and ran seven schools - Montfort Primary and Secondary, St. Gabriel's Primary and Secondary, Assumption English Secondary, Assumption Vocational Institute and Boys' Town.
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BOYS' TOWN IS a Catholic institution that encompasses Assumption English School, Assumption Vocational Institute and Boys' Town Home. Through these three setups, Boys' Town has dedicated itself not only to providing an academic education to boys but also to give them the guidance, shelter and practical living skills that they need.
In the last 69 years, it has cared for thousands of orphans, and poor or neglected youths in many states of difficulty.
Boys' Town Boarding Home is responsible for the residential care of boys aged from 14 to 18. There used to be as many as 216 boarders at one time but in more recent years, there have been only 80-100 boarders.
Not all Boys' Town students are boarders. Boarders come from diverse backgrounds. Many come because they are facing difficulties - negative peer pressure, a lack of supervision and care at home, or because of a family crisis.
Boys' Town Home accepts them all and cares for them. Today, as it did at its beginning, Boys' Town is a place of hope, love and security for boys.
The Brothers of St. Gabriel at Boys' Town share a simple philosophy - God made every person good. Their motto of "He ain't heavy, he's my brother" is captured in the statue at left.
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Brother Dominic Kiong: The last Singaporean Gabrielite at Boys' Town
"WE HAVE NO Brothers anymore," the Director of Boys' Town, Gabrielite Brother Dominic Kiong, commented. "The last profession we had in Singapore was in 1986." There are only two active Gabrielite Brothers left in Boys' Town - Brothers Dominic and Emmanuel. Five more are retired. One, Brother George Bertrand, who used to organize catechism classes for students at Boys' Town, recently returned to Canada.
"It's a whole social phenomenon and the church is going through change," Brother Dominic commented on the decreasing number of Gabrielite and other vocations to the religious life. He regrets that the religious life is fading away in Singapore. Not many families are willing to offer up their children or to encourage them toward religious life these days, he said.
A boy walks through the gates into Boys' Town, which has welcomed and cared for thousands of boys from all walks of life.
"Although we have vocation promotions and it's nice to hear people talking about it, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, it's a different story," he commented on the reluctance of people to step forward.
Brother Dominic himself was converted to Catholicism while a student at St. Patrick's School. Although he felt called to the religious life, he did not join his alma mater's La Salle Brothers because he was not inclined towards education.
He joined the Gabrielite Brothers thinking that he would be able to do missionary work and it was only after his novitiate that he realized that the Gabrielite Brothers were involved in education too. "God has a strange way of going about things," he mused. That was 30 years ago. Today, at 56, Brother Dominic undertakes mostly administrative duties as Director of Boys' Town.
In spite of the lack of Gabrielite vocations, he believes that the Gabrielite spirituality will be maintained in the Gabrielite schools through the Gabrielite Foundation. This Foundation was started four years ago as a trustee to look after the seven Gabrielite schools - Montfort Primary and Secondary, St. Gabriel's Primary and Secondary, Assumption English Secondary, Assumption Vocational Institute and Boys' Town.
We are fortunate that lay principals in these schools are very conscientious of carrying out the work that the Brothers began, Brother Dominic acknowledged. "They are very much preserving the Gabrielite branch of spirituality."
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The loving and lovable brother
"I CAME, I saw and I fell in love with Singapore," Brother Emmanuel chuckled. During these 52 years the lovable Gabrielite Brother has touched countless lives at Holy Innocent's English School, St. Gabriel's and Boys' Town and through the many Catholic ministries he has been involved in.
"We specialize in giving education and formation to all those who present themselves to us," he said, to explain the Gabrielite mission. "We don't aspire to be the top but to reach out to all, especially the rejected ones. We also specialize in training children who have no special attraction to education by providing them basic technical education," he said.
Despite this philosophy or because of it "we have produced a good number of leaders and Catholics [including] the Archbishop of Singapore, priests, ministers in government who speak very well of the kind of education they received from the Brothers who taught them," he said.
The kind Gabrielite Brother is unlike most people as he is convinced that there is no such thing as bad boys. And he is saddened that there is still a misconception among some people that students at Boys' Town are delinquents. "If there are bad boys, it's only because we have not done the right thing to them," he said quietly. He looks forward to continuing his mission of "bringing something good into the lives of these boys".
"As long as God gives you health, I don't think there's a place for retirement. That's why I asked God, 'Give me health and I will serve you and I will never turn down anyone who needs me to speak,'" Brother Emmanuel said. Then he laughed as he recalled his realization of his "mistake" because now he is unable to turn down anyone who approaches him to hold talks at parishes or schools.
Boys make their beds at the Boys' Town Boarding Home where they find shelter, love and hope.
But "when you think you have done enough, that's when you need to begin your ministry," he continued. "That's when God needs you. Jesus never resigned. If you resign, then the people whom God planned to send to you will never see you."
Brother Emmanuel's days are always full. Aside from his role as Local Superior of Boys' Town, he is also co-ordinator for catechism classes at the Church of St. Joseph (Bukit Timah). He helps out with the Prison Ministry as well and is authorized to visit prisoners anytime. "I accompany them through their prison term," he said. Through this ministry he learnt that more needs to be done to help good but misguided and helpless people, such as drug addicts and young prisoners.
Catholic Welfare Services, where he is chairman, has contributed money to aid these sufferers. "God didn't call me to be a man of high expectation but he expects me to be a man of great love. Many of the boys won't remember me as a teacher but someone who's done him something good by bringing them a bit of God's love." "I would still do the same at 92."
Brother Emmanuel regrets the diminishing numbers of Gabrielite Brothers though. He sees this decrease in vocation as a world-wide phenomenon and attributes the situation in Singapore to its modern and rich society. "There are attractions of various kinds in Singapore and these make it difficult for a boy or girl to answer the call of God to greater sacrifices," Brother Emmanuel explained.
Despite the ageing Gabrielite Brothers and a decrease in vocations, Brother Emmanuel remains confident that God will provide "either better Christian lay people to do church work or he will definitely touch the hearts of some of them to a higher calling."
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A caring disciplinarian
THIS GENTLE, SOFT-SPOKEN 72-year old Gabrielite Brother has a nickname "The Smiling Tiger", a disciplinarian whose cane has graced the backsides of many old boys - perhaps even of some priests - who were his students. He was strict but always fair, reasonable and caring. "My policy is, if you are brave enough to break the [school] rules, you are brave enough to take the punishment â€¦ I don't think any of [old students who got caned] have come to me and say I had mistreated them because I always give them a chance to explain themselves," he said. "No one should ever cane a boy on impulse," he cautioned.
Many of those whom he caned have told him of the need for the discipline they received from him and he is happy to know he has been a positive influence in their lives. They tell him, "What you told us is true, Brother." Brother Emmanuel had told them that "if you continue like that, you will end up in prison some day." "And those who went away with bad memories are the ones who return with their children!" Brother Emmanuel laughed. "It is very sacred because when they become role models, it's worth 10 lessons of my catechism classes!"
At 72, Brother Emmanuel has promised God not to stop serving and is living his promise, actively serving the needs of the Catholic community in Singapore, at Boys' Town and through Catholic Welfare Services, just to name a few. The Gabrielite Brother aspires to go on for as long as God is willing.