Mention Novena Church and chances are, everyone in Singapore will know it. Even an MRT station and a mall have been named after this most renowned church in Singapore. Who are the men behind the popular Novena devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help? Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp, takes a closer look at the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, better known as the Redemptorists.

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"Our Lady of Perpetual Help", above, is the missionary icon of the congregation. The mission of the order is to preach the Gospel to the most abandoned. Their motto: "With Him there is plentiful redemption".

THEY CAME HERE in 1934 from Australia. Presently, there are 25 Redemptorists in Singapore and Malaysia, including five brothers (of whom one is English, one Australian and three Singaporeans). Among the priests, there are six Malaysians and 11 Singaporeans.

In Singapore, the Redemptorists run the Church of St. Alphonsus at Thomson Road, better known as the Novena Church. The popular novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help draws thousands of people from all walks of life every Saturday. Many conversions to the Catholic faith have sprouted from this devotion.

The Redemptorists contribute to the building up of the local church of Singapore in the following ways:

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Top, Catholics and non-Catholics alike queue for a blessing from Fr. Jacob Ong, CSsR after a novena session.

- Parish missions; school and youth missions.

- Ordinary pastoral care, counselling.

- Conducting retreats, triduums, the popular devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help on Saturdays.

- HIV/AIDS ministry, prison ministry, prayer groups, etc.

- Conducting the RCIA.

The popular RCIA programme which is now conducted in all parishes throughout the island was first introduced to Singapore by the Redemptorists in the early 1980s. Earlier this year, 120 catechumens from the Novena Church RCIA were baptized.

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St. Alphonsus Liguori

1696-1787

To preach the Gospel to the most abandoned

ST. ALPHONSUS was born in the village of Marianella near Naples, Italy, on Sep 27, 1696. At the early age of 16, he graduated in law. In 1723, he lost a case, and God made use of his disappointment to wean his heart from the world; he studied for the priesthood and was ordained a priest at the age of 30. He was a tireless preacher of the Word of God and a popular writer on theological and spiritual topics.

One of his greatest accomplishments was his ability to preach the Gospel and to explain Catholic spirituality in words and images that ordinary people could readily understand. He was also a musician, artist and poet.

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Below, devotees throng each Saturday to the Novena Church to ask favours from God through the intercession of his mother.

In 1730, Alphonsus Ligouri, exhausted from his missionary labours, was advised to rest and breathe some mountain air. With a few companions, he set off for Scala, on the Amalfi coast south of Naples, in Italy. There, he came face to face with poverty - groups of shepherds who were, at that time, the most abandoned. They came to the missionaries asking for the the Word of Life. Alphonsus was struck by their hunger for the Word of God and recalled the words of the prophet: "The babes cry for food, but there is no one to give it to them." (Lam 4:4).

In 1732, he officially founded the Redemptorists to follow the example of Jesus in announcing the Good News to the poor. He was 36 years old. His life became one of mission and service to the most abandoned. The congregation was approved by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749.

At the age of 66, and suffering from crippling arthritis, he accepted the pope's appointment as bishop of the busy diocese of St. Agatha. He served as bishop until 1775 when, broken by age and infirmity, he resigned this office to retire to his convent at Nocera de Pagani, where he died on Aug 1, 1787.

He was canonized in 1839 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1871. In addition to St. Alphonsus, three other Redemptorists have been canonized: St. Gerard Majella, St. Clement Hofbauer and St. John Neumann. Nine Redemptorists have been beatified.

At present, there are over 5,500 Redemptorists serving in 77 countries. They are aided by many lay collaborators.

Right, the Redemptorist community in Singapore (photo taken in 2003). "Strong in faith, rejoicing in hope, burning with charity, on fire with zeal, in humility of heart and persevering in prayer, Redemptorists as apostolic men and genuine disciples of Saint Alphonsus follow Christ the Redeemer with hearts full of joy; denying themselves and always ready to undertake what is demanding and challenging, they share in the mystery of Christ and proclaim it in Gospel simplicity of life and language, that they may bring to people Plentiful Redemption" (Redemptorist Constitutions, No. 20). Redemptorists05.jpg

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Deacon Gerard Louis - "I'm happy just being a Redemptorist"

Redemptorists08.jpg A candid and gentle person with a sense of humour, Deacon Gerard likes to read books but football is his real passion. His favourite football team is Arsenal, and he played in his school team in Australia while he was studying theology. In the current World Cup, he is cheering for Czech Republic.

GERARD LOUIS was ordained as deacon last March 15. He entered the Redemptorist Congregation eight years ago at the age of 23.

He admits though that he was not very familiar with the Redemptorists before he joined them, "I never had anything to do with the Redemptorists. I did go to the Novena once in a while when I was in town but I was mainly active in my parish of St. Teresa as a server for many years."

He was attracted to the priesthood as a young altar boy. "I love the Eucharist," he says. When he was at school in St. Joseph's Institution, he was also active in several ministries. He was taught by Jesuit Father Gerald Tseng, who was a source of inspiration. "He was such a simple man," he recalls.

While he was in the Singapore Polytechnic studying Civil Engineering, Gerard continued to be active in ministry, and joined the school's Legion of Mary. Upon graduation, Gerard worked for a year for the Housing Development Board. But the priesthood beckoned and through the guidance of the De La Salle brothers, he attended a vocation camp organized by the Redemptorists, which was where his journey with them began.

"As I learned more about the (Redemptorist) charism, I really fell in love with it," he shares. Deacon Gerard has spent his formation years with the Redemptorists in Singapore, Philippines and Australia. He has since December 2003 been spending his regency (a period of full-time ministry) in Singapore.

His main apostolate at present is being part of the Redemptorist Mission Team which comprises two other Redemptorist brothers and two full-time lay workers. The team conducts outreach to schools through retreats for the youth (see accompanying article).

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Deacon Gerard is happy being called to his religious vocation. He reveals, "I don't see my work as work. I feel lucky to be doing my hobby as work - my hobby in the past used to be working in the ministries, in church. Of course it is not as fun as it used to be," he smiles. "Now I have to be more responsible." He also conducts Novena sessions which he describes as "an amazing experience".

About 2,000 devotees attend each of the 10 sessions every Saturday at Thomson Road. But the popularity of the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is not a worldwide phenomenon. Deacon Gerard says that in Australia "we've had novenas to a crowd of two lay persons, the rest were Redemptorists (and) the letters that were read were from Singapore". "In Newcastle, near Sydney we used to have large crowds but that is dying off." However there are three other places in the world where the novena devotion is still popular - Philippines, Brazil and Quebec (Canada).

Deacon Gerard has an elder brother and sister. He shares that his parents "are very happy and supportive" of his vocation. "Religious vocation is not new to the family. I have two uncles who are priests and one aunt who is a religious sister."

"The main attraction for me is to the religious life," he says. "The clerical state, ordination, is not central. I'm happy just being a Redemptorist - preaching to the poor and the abandoned." "The Redemptorists are very approachable people," he adds.

Young people who are interested in a vocation with the Redemptorists are invited to visit www.cssr.org.sg or call Father Simon Pereira at 6386 8019 or email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Young Redemptorists now in formation

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THE REDEMPTORISTS now have one novice who is about to be professed and another who entered the novitiate in April. They also have three postulants who attend philosophy classes at the St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary, and three aspirants. The postulants and aspirants experience the Redemptorist life of service by ministering to AIDS patients at the Communicable Disease Centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, visiting the aged at St. Theresa's Home and St. Joseph's Home, and animating Vine and Branches, the youth group at Novena Church.

From left, Eugene Lee (29, Singaporean), Rajiv Jude (20, Singaporean), John De Agnel (33, Malaysian), Terence Wee (29, Malaysian), Mark Chia (28, Singaporean), Ninõ Raju (21, Singaporean).

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Reaching out to the young in school

The Redemptorist Mission Team has been conducting missions to Catholic schools and receiving a great response since 1977 when Redemptorist Father P. J. O'Neill initiated it.

THE TEAM REACHES OUT to youth regardless of their religion and background, to the lost and abandoned, so that they can experience the love of God in their lives, and thus sow the seeds of evangelization.

The current team comprises Redemptorist Brothers Celestine Toh, Albert Khoo, and Deacon Gerard Louis, as well as three full-time youth workers. Between them, they conducted missions to 19 schools last year. Together, they work to empower the youth to make responsible choices in life, in society and even in their faith.

At each school mission, about 150 students, usually of the same or similar standard, are gathered for a half-day of recollection. The programme normally begins with an icebreaker which can take the form of games or songs. This is often followed by an interactive talk by one or two of the members of the mission team. The mission generally ends with a meditative session which leads the students into a deeper reflection on their lives, coming to terms with hurts and unfulfilled desires, especially those concerning friends and family members.

"I experienced a Redemptorist mission myself when I was studying in St. Patrick's School," said Brother Celestine. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would join the Redemptorists and be doing what I experienced." Interestingly, it was Brother Celestine who conducted the school mission at St. Joseph's Institution which Deacon Gerard attended. He too tells the same story about joining the Redemptorists as Brother Celestine.

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Since the Second Vatican Council, the Redemptorists have been working closely with the laity who now plays a larger role in the mission team. "It is a very recent commitment to have full-time missioners," explained Brother Celestine.

Isabelle Clements, 24, is one of the full-time missioners in the Redemptorist Mission Team. She benefi ted from the mission she received while she was in CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh), and started as a part-time volunteer five years ago, gradually converting to the full-time role she now plays in the mission team.

"I like working with young people, and I enjoy the time spent here," she told CatholicNews. "I don't think many people get to enjoy the work they do. I do, and it is very fulfilling and I always take home something." Isabelle stressed the importance of affirming the youth in whatever they do and who they are, as she spoke of her own experiences in receiving affirmation from the youths she sometimes meets.

Each school mission takes place over two days, during school hours. "It's not a lot, but it's just planting seeds," admitted Brother Celestine.

In addition to school missions, the Redemptorist Mission Team also conducts church camps and school retreats. For the next few years, they will be committed to the Assumption English School as "the principal sees the value" of school missions "and wants us to create a Catholic community in school," said Brother Celestine.

He also hinted that two government schools have seen the value of the work they do, and have approached them to conduct missions in their own schools. "To be frank, we are getting more invitations than we can cope with," he added. "We have also been exchanging resources and ideas with the Salvation Army in our respective training programmes, in order to be better equipped to reach out to the young more effectively.

"However, each school mission is different," Brother Celestine noted. "It is based on the circumstances in the school and the situations we find ourselves in. We always have to think on our feet to react to difficult situations."

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Anti-clockwise from extreme right, Brother Celestine Toh, Brother Gerard Louis, Bhavna Bhardwaj and Isabelle Clements take a group photo with some of the youth from CHIJ Katong Convent during their school mission early this year. "They (the Redemptorist Mission Team) are very inspiring, and they get us to think out of the box," commented Bhavna Bhardwaj, a Secondary Five student from CHIJ Katong Convent. "It is wonderful to see my friends here, knowing that they will think more about the love that their parents have in spite of the way they are sometimes spoken to. The mission really makes us feel more united and allows me to bond with my classmates."

- View the complete list of religious orders in Singapore

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