Up close and personal - Franciscan Missionaries of Mary

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This thriving congregation - 7,000 members worldwide; 33 in Singapore of whom 26 are Singaporeans - are engaged in a variety of ministries, writes Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp.

Above, the community of the FMM Sisters in Singapore today at a recent golden jubilee celebration of two Sisters.

The Foundress

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Mary of the Passion

1839-1904

HELENE DE CHAPPOTIN was born in Nantes, Brittany, France, on May 21, 1839. She had a spiritual experience which convinced her of her call to be a religious when she was 17. In 1860, she entered the Poor Clares but ill health forced her to leave.

Four years later, she entered the Sisters of Marie Reparatrice, in Paris, where she received the name Mary of the Passion. She was sent on mission to India. In 1876, a series of painful and contradictory circumstances led her and 20 other sisters to leave the Congregation of Marie Reparatrice. She then founded the Missionaries of Mary; the institute was approved by Pope Pius IX in 1877. In 1882, the institute became part of the Franciscan Family and became known as the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM).

Mary of the Passion died peacefully in San Remo, Italy, in 1904 and she was beatified in 2002.

The FMM have produced many holy persons, some of whom have been recognized by the universal church. Seven Sisters, martyred among 126 Christians in the Boxer Revolution in China in 1900, were canonized in 2000. Another saintly Sister, Maria Assunta Pallota, who died in 1905 while caring for typhus victims in China, was beatified in 1954.

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Spirituality and mission

THE MISSIONARY SPIRITUALITY of the FMM integrates Gospel witness and proclamation. They draw their strength for their mission from the contemplation of Christ in the Eucharist and are willing to be "sent" on mission.

Like Mary, they centre their lives on Christ in daily Eucharist, Adoration, and prayer.

In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi they help others discover Christ in the simplicity and joy of the Gospel, and by being signs of peace, hope and reconciliation.

FMM Sisters live in international communities throughout the world, especially in areas where Christ is least known and the church least present. Living in communion with one another within a community is one way they communicate the Good News to people they are sent to.

There are now over 7,000 FMM Sisters in 76 countries today.

Mission in Singapore

THE FIRST FMM SISTERS to come to Singapore, Mother Marie Chrysanthe and three others, were sent by the FMM Mother House in Rome to set up a mission here.

At the pier to welcome them on May 1, 1953 were Archbishop Michael Olcomendy and some Infant Jesus Sisters with whom the FMM Sisters stayed during their first months here.

By September, four months after they arrived, they bought a house set amidst lush greenery and tembusu trees at 9 Holland Road, and moved in a month later. This became their convent which they named Maris Stella (Mary Star of the Sea).

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Education

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The Sisters opened a kindergarten in 1954 in response to the need for preschool education in the Holland Road area. Maris Stella Kindergarten (above) was one of the first Catholic kindergartens in Singapore. It cares for 600 students today and is ranked among the top 10 kindergartens in Singapore. Maris Stella has also provided education for special needs children for over 15 years.

Hai Sing Catholic School ("Hai Sing" means "Star of the Sea" in Mandarin) was founded by the FMM in 1959 for girls in rural Ponggol. It relocated from its original Upper Serangoon site to Pasir Ris New Town in 1990 and is now a coeducational school. Up to 1984, the principals of the school were FMM Sisters. Today the Sisters still serve on the school board.

Social reconstruction

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Above, a FMM Sister attends to patients at the Bukit Ho Swee Free Clinic during the 1960s.

Since 1965, the Sisters have been engaged in community services in Bukit Ho Swee. Despite the building of high-rise housing there following a huge fire in 1961 that destroyed the homes of more than 2,600 families, the slum conditions in that area caused much socio-economic problems including poverty, crime, and anti-social behaviour by children without proper parental supervision.

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151.jpgThe Sisters responded. Pooling resources with other religious groups, they started a free clinic for the sick and a kindergarten for the young; cooperatives were formed and other initiatives taken to help the poor residents there.

The Sisters are also involved in the following ministries with support from many volunteers:

- Poverello Teen Centre: It helps delinquent youth develop positive self-esteem and grow to be responsible adults. It is headed by Sister Maria Sylvia Ng.

- Atelier (Vestments Workshop) (above): It designs and sews church vestments. It is an apostolate that supports liturgical celebrations of the Catholic Church and those of other Christian denominations.

161.jpg- Apex Day Care Centre (left): It is a rehabilitation and medical centre for the elderly.

- FMM House of Prayer and Formation: It was at first a vocational school for women, and then the Singapore Pastoral Institute before becoming a centre for spiritual retreat for individuals and groups.

- Filipino Ongoing Development Programme: It provides pastoral care for domestic workers through vocational courses and spiritual formation.

- Madonna Soup Kitchen (below right): It provides meals for newly arrived construction workers three times a week.

- Secular Franciscan Order: It provides Franciscan spiritual formation to lay faith communities.

17.jpgAt present there are 33 FMM Sisters in Singapore - 26 Singaporeans, five Malaysians, one Bruneian and one Korean. There are also Singaporean FMM Sisters presently on mission in Mauritius, U.S., Rome and Australia. Other Singaporean FMM Sisters have served (and returned from) missions in Paraguay, Congo, Ethiopia, France, Canada, Rome, Lebanon, China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Myanmar.

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A young people's Sister

Below, Sister Maria Sylvia says programmes for youth must have an element of fun. Kayaking - she is a trainer - helps build team spirit, responsibility, endurance, discipline and decision making.

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Sister Maria Sylvia's life as a Franciscan Missionary of Mary is never short of excitement - she has recovered decomposing corpses from rivers, and still kayaks with delinquents - but is always filled with love.

SISTER MARIA SYLVIA NG is the youngest in a family of five children. As a teen in Hai Sing Girls High School, boys (from neighbouring St. Gabriel's Secondary), not religion, was her main interest. "I had a few relationships and was a happy-go-lucky girl," she admits.

When she was around 18 and completing her pre-university schooling, Maria Sylvia started to raise questions about her faith, but underneath this "rebellion" was a desire to know God and find the answer to the question, "What is my purpose in life?"

Being an avid reader, Maria Sylvia found some answers when a bookshop opened at Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she read books on saints and spiritual matters instead of novels. When her examinations drew near, she found herself praying more than normal. Listening to praise and worship songs from artists like Don Moen also deepened her relationship with God. She then joined her cousin as a commentator at Mass. She shares, "This brought me closer to the church and the faith as we prayed and had Bible studies together."

Yet religious life was far from her mind. "I've always dreamed of having a lovely family," she reveals. Then one day at the same bookstore, she came across a book entitled, "Have you ever thought of becoming a Sister?" which gave her insights into another way of life that was faith-filled and required total commitment. Maria Sylvia then took the first step into the religious life by journeying with the Canossian Sisters.

Her journey with the FMMs began when she read a notice about a silent retreat with them in the parish bulletin of Church of the Holy Trinity where she had joined the Legion of Mary after her family moved to Tampines. "I felt at home with them and was attracted to their spirituality and missionary spirit," she says. "After watching Brother Sun Sister Moon (a film on the life of St. Francis), I was even more convinced."

When Maria Sylvia broached the subject of becoming a religious sister, her mother replied, "You can't be serious with all your parties and boyfriends!" Maria then decided to give herself five years to make a decision.

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Maria Sylvia enjoyed her friends and her work with a property company, but realized that something important was missing because Gospel values and friendships took second place to business in her workplace. When the five years had passed, Maria Sylvia spoke to her mother again. "My mum plays a big part in my life," she explains. "She is for me a witness of what it means to have God in our lives." This time her mother, who had seen the change in Maria Sylvia, knew she was serious.

She began to cry, Sister Maria Sylvia recalls, but, in the end, said, "If you think God is calling you, I'll pray for you." Although she had received her mother's blessing, Maria Sylvia feared her father's reaction. She prayed two Rosaries before mustering the courage to approach him. "If this is really what you want of me, you have to make it work," she prayed to God. Sister Maria Sylvia shares the memorable moment after she had told her father. "At first he was very silent and I was ready to hear him shout that he would disown me. But then he said, 'If this is really what you want, your eyes should not focus on anything else. If you want to follow God, then follow him right through.'"

Relieved and joyfully surprised at her father's support, Maria Sylvia joined the FMM in 1993 at the age of 23. Her initial formation was in Kelantan and then Petaling Jaya in Malaysia. Upon her first profession, she looked forward to working with parish youth as she felt she could relate best with youth. To her dismay, she was assigned to work with street youth at the Bukit Ho Swee Social Centre. She recalls, "I got frightened as many of them were like hooligans and every sentence from them had a vulgar word." Today, looking back, she says, "Yet that was what formed me. It helped me break out of my sheltered thinking, my comfort zone. I really got to know the meaning of being poor."

Greater formative experiences awaited Sister Maria Sylvia when she went to Pune, India, for her theological studies. There, a most transforming experience came when she helped to collect decomposing human bodies from a river which was used by villagers for their drinking water.

Sister Maria Sylvia made her final profession in September 2001 and has since been heading the Poverello Teen Centre for delinquents in Tampines. Direct counselling and creative programmes from Sister Maria Sylvia, staff and volunteers (mainly parishioners of Church of the Holy Trinity) have helped many young people aged 14 to 21 years change their wayward ways. "We help build their character and help them find value in themselves," Sister Maria Sylvia explains. "Usually once their self-esteem is boosted, everything falls in place."

One of the Centre's programmes is kayaking, with Sister Maria Sylvia as trainer. She explains, "Our programmes must also have an element of fun. Kayaking helps build team spirit, responsibility, endurance, discipline and decision making." The centre also organizes community services locally and overseas (most recently in Thailand and Laos) and expeditions including a climb up Gunung Ledang (Mt. Ophir).

The teens are referred to the Centre by schools or by parents, many of whom are single-parents and also in need of counselling.

Sister Maria Sylvia removes her nun's habit when she goes to the Centre as she feels it is a barrier to connecting with the youth, who are of varied races and backgrounds. Yet her goal is always to make the Gospel values alive for them. She befriends them yet is firm in correcting them through explanation. Many of the youth treat the Centre as their second home. She was touched when one of the youth told her that "you care for me more than my mother".

Life as a Franciscan Missionary of Mary seems to be an enriching adventure for Sister Maria Sylvia. She describes her journey thus far as one that is "God-experiencing and transforming".

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Sister Maria Sylvia's unforgettable, life-changing experience

A SUPER CYCLONE hit the state of Orissa on the east coast of India when Sister Maria Sylvia was studying theology in Pune, India. Relief workers were urgently needed.

Sister Maria Sylvia, filled with the gung-ho idealism of youth and fresh from her studies on Missiology, volunteered with two other Indian FMM Sisters. 14 religious brothers, who were their classmates, also volunteered. Leaving their studies, they travelled to Orissa and offered their help although none of them was a trained nurse.

As unskilled relief workers, they offered to do anything that nobody else wanted to do. Initially Sister Maria Sylvia was asked to help sort out medicine. Soon however, she and her classmates were approached to take on a task that was to be a life-transforming experience for her.

The cyclone had come and gone about a month ago but the river, which was the main source of water for the villagers, was still filled with victims of the cyclone. Sister Maria Sylvia and her colleagues were tasked to remove the decomposing corpses from the river. She vividly recalls the experience.

"As we carried the bodies, sometimes the head would drop off. We also saw different body parts floating - noses, liver, kidney. It was human beings at their lowest dignity. Many had died in agony, in desperation, clutching babies. We could identify the males from the females only through the bangles that the women wore."

Initially, the religious brothers volunteered to remove the bodies; the Sisters were asked to gather branches to burn the corpses. However the Sisters soon proved that a woman's heart was stronger for the task. Sister Maria Sylvia shares that "you could see the colour of the men's faces changing to green!" "They started vomiting and grew weak," she adds. "So we decided to help them remove the bodies. I believe it's something in a woman's heart that helped us get through."

Even though they wore gloves they were not always protected as, at times, the gloves would be cut by the branches they were gathering to burn the bodies. When that happened, the fluids from the decomposing body would seep through to their skin. She shares, "The smell from our hands would stay with us even though we tried to remove the smell with Dettol and kerosene."

Soon the members of the group started to lose weight as many could not eat with the stench lingering on their own bodies. They also had to bear with difficult weather conditions with temperatures fluctuating from 45ºC in the day to 5-7ºC in the night. They risked getting sick if there was an epidemic as they had no vaccinations. "We just prayed that God will protect us without any sickness," says Sister Maria Sylvia.

Eleven days after they embarked on this sad and difficult task, the bishop, concerned for their welfare, asked them to stop and they had to return to school. Sister Maria Sylvia shares, "All that I studied at the Theological Centre, about mission, suffering, caring for someone who is down and out, all these became practical. The experience deepened my spirituality and formed me. I believe I've been changed and transformed from it. I've become more compassionate. I could get in touch with a bigger presence in my life."

She adds, "Our difficult times, our times of suffering are entry points to get in touch with the real presence of God who will dispense a lot of his graces. When in need, we can recognize him more. A sunset meant so much for us then as it was a symbol of hope, that another new day was coming and more could be done."

- View the complete list of religious orders in Singapore

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