Up close and personal: Marist Brothers

The Marist Brothers came to Singapore in 1949 and have contributed significantly to Catholic education since, writes Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp.

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St. Marcellin Champagnat

1789-1840

Founder and history

SAINT MARCELLIN CHAMPAGNAT was born in 1789, the ninth of 10 children of a farmer, near St. Etienne (Loire), a mountain village in the south of France. Marcellin Champagnat grew up during the French Revolution and did not begin his formal education until he was 15 years old. He surprised his family and friends when he decided to be a priest and, despite many difficulties, was ordained.

The region of Marlhes in which the young priest lived and worked had been badly affected by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The local community was poor and uneducated, and ignorant in religious matters. Many of the young were abandoned.

An experience of administering the last sacrament to a dying 17-year old boy who was totally ignorant of basic Catholic beliefs traumatized Marcellin. This incident moved him to encourage two young men to join him in forming the Marist Brothers in 1817. They established a network of village schools catering especially to poor children. The Brothers also ministered to the handicapped and established hostels for the young; they cared for the sick and catechized adults.

Marcellin shattered the conventional wisdom of his day when he set about to establish equal opportunities for the poor among whom he lived.

"I see the urgent need there is to create a society capable of providing children in remote villages with the same quality education that other Religious Orders are giving to children in big cities, but at a lower cost," he said.

The educational philosophy of Marcellin was simple: To teach children one must love them, and secular subjects should be well taught as a means of attracting children to the schools, where they would learn the basic elements of their faith. Marcellin saw God at the centre of life and the Virgin Mary as a model of faith and discipleship.

"Our field of work lies in every diocese of the world," he used to tell his Brothers. When he died in 1840, aged 51, there were 48 Marist schools in France and Oceania and 280 Brothers. By 1856 there were 300 houses and more than 1,500 Brothers.

The Marist Brothers Institute was formally approved in 1863 by Pope Pius IX. Marcellin was beatified in 1955, and canonized on Apr 18, 1999.

At their most numerous, the Marist Brothers numbered about 10,000. Today there are more than 4,300 Brothers working in 76 countries. Over 40,000 laypeople share the Marist mission and spirituality and together with the Brothers educate close to 500,000 children and youth worldwide.

The Marist Brothers are part of the Marist Family which comprises the Marist Fathers, the Marist Sisters, the Marist Missionary Sisters, and the Marist Laity.

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A Marian apostolic spirituality in solidarity with the poor

THE MARIST BROTHERS are religious consecrated to God, and they follow Jesus in the way that Mary did. They live in community and dedicate themselves in a special way to the education of children and young people, with a preference for those who are the most neglected.

Marcellin's motto was "All to Jesus through Mary, all to Mary for Jesus." For the Brothers, imitating Mary means bringing the world to God, serving others, being friendly and warmhearted without being famous.

The last General Chapter of the Marist Brothers states: "We feel called to insist that solidarity is an essential element of our way of educating, and to place our works at the service of the poor. Today, more than ever before, the number of the poor and marginalized is increasing, people to whom no one is announcing the Good News. Out of faithfulness to Christ and Marcellin, we feel called to breathe new life into the Montagne experience, to educate in and for solidarity as a powerful means of working for evangelization."

"How important your work is! How great! At every stage of history, people must read the signs of the times to discover how to communicate God's love to the young, to free them from the problems that they grapple with in striving to reach their full potential. Today, given the world of children and young people as it is, to be a Marist - brother or lay person - and to commit one's entire life to this endeavour is not only possible but most worthwhile," founder Marcellin wrote.

"We seek out young people wherever they may be, even at the risk of entering unexplored territory where their need for Christ is evident in their material and spiritual poverty" (Constitutions n. 83).

The Marist Brothers continue to venture into places where they have never gone before, where the light of the Gospel is having a difficult time breaking through. Throughout the Institute many efforts are underway to get in touch with alienated young people and the vexing problems they face. New communities are springing up to respond to their urgent needs. Brothers and an increasing number of lay people are working together to fulfil the Marcellin vision.

Marist goals

The three ends:

- Our salvation

- The salvation of our neighbour

- Fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church

The four cornerstones:

- Humility

- Obedience

- Poverty

- Brotherly Love

The three 'no's

We say 'no' to:

- Pride

- Power

- Greed

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Ministry in Singapore

THE MARIST BROTHERS in Singapore belong to the Singapore-Malaysia-Hong Kong-China Province. The first Brothers went to China in 1891 and to Singapore in 1949.

Their first ministry was St. Teresa Sino-English School, the school of St. Teresa parish, which had 100 students in Primary One to Four. Classes for Primary Five and Six were added in 1953 and when the Brothers left the school in 1954, the student population was 300. Also, in 1949, four Marist Brothers were invited to teach at Catholic High School in Singapore.

The school had been founded by Father Becheres, MEP, with the help of some alumni of the Marist-run Sacred Heart College in Canton (now known as Guangzhou). A year later the Brothers took responsibility for the administration of Catholic High; a primary section was opened in 1951, and then a boarding house for Catholic students. Under the care of the Brothers the school developed but in 1974 the administration was handed back to the diocese.

The school which the Marist Brothers are most known for today is Maris Stella. It was founded in 1958 by Brother Joche Chanel in response to the overwhelming demand for places in Catholic High School.

In its first year, Maris Stella had 300 students with four Primary One classes and four Secondary One classes, and a staff of 11. The school first borrowed the premises of St. Stephen School (run by the La Salle Brothers) and taught the students in the afternoon. As the classes expanded, Maris Stella functioned at different premises concurrently. It was only in 1967 that Maris Stella moved to its own premises at Mount Vernon Road, where it remains.

Brother Joche Chanel was its principal until his retirement in 1981 and he expanded the school greatly. Its present principal since 1984, Brother Anthony Tan, added many facilities, and initiated programmes to train lay teachers in sharing the Marist spirit so that today the Brothers' mission of "Making Jesus known and loved among children and young people" has become a shared mission with effective and committed lay teachers.

Maris Stella Kindergarten was started during the early 1970s in collaboration with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary Sisters who carried out the day-to-day running. The Marist Brothers provided the facilities and management. The FMM Sisters headed the kindergarten until the 1990s when a lay principal was appointed. The kindergarten continues to function today under the management of the Marist Brothers with 20 staff members and 350 students in pre-Nursery, Nursery, and Kindergarten classes.

Marist Brothers in Singapore

These Marist Brothers are located in Singapore:

- Brother Kevin Doheny (nursing home)

- Brother Noel Wang (nursing home)

- Brother Joseph Dufresse Chang

- Brother Anthony Tan

- Brother Thomas Chin

Brother John Lek - the only Singaporean Marist Brother is currently a missionary abroad.

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Left to right, Marist Brothers Thomas Chin, Joseph Dufresse Chang, and Anthony Tan strive to "follow Christ as Mary did", dedicating their life to the apostolate of Christian education to the young.

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Brother Joseph Dufresse Chang, FMS, 80, was born in China. He entered the congregation in Beijing. In the late 1940s he escaped from the communists by fleeing to Hong Kong and Macau.

He came to Singapore in 1952 after studying in the United States and served as teacher and then principal (1960-1974) at Catholic High School. Fluent in Italian, French, English and Chinese, he still occasionally does translation work. He worked in Rome as the congregation's archivist for six years, returning to Singapore in 1994.

Brother Joseph loves classical music and plays the organ, piano and violin. "Religious life keeps me alive, bodily and spiritually," he said.

Brother Thomas Chin, FMS, 57 joined the Marist Brothers when he was just 12 after his parish priest introduced the congregation to him. Trained primarily in Malaysia, he was both teacher and principal in schools run by the Marist Brothers in Malaysia. He also served as Provincial Superior for nine years for the province of Singapore-Malaysia-Hong Kong-China.

Today the province has 33 Brothers and is in the process of restructuring to include the Philippines and Korea.

Since last year, Brother Thomas has been located in Singapore where he manages the Maris Stella Kindergarten and is responsible for the two elderly Marist Brothers living in nursing homes.

On what appealed him to him as a Marist Brother, Brother Thomas shared that he found the life attractive and meaningful. "It's a calling that is worth responding to; there are joys, efforts and pain. Work can be rewarding when you have direct contact with the people. Everything is worthwhile if looked at from faith."

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Brother Anthony Tan, FMS, 59, whose mother was Buddhist and father Taoist, was anti- Christian when he was young. However his experience as a student in Catholic High in Petaling Jaya (Malaysia), which was run by the Marist Brothers, changed him.

"What changed my mindset was the way the Brothers taught, and their constant, personal touch and presence to you as a person," he said. "I was taught by German and Irish Brothers and the way they carried on, their sense of purpose and compassion, really inspired me."

At 15, Anthony was baptized and started to attend daily Mass at his parish which was run by the Jesuits. At 18, he entered the Marist Brothers as he wanted to be like his teachers who had "come from all over the world, left their home to come to teach and who were leading a challenging and meaningful life".

Brother Anthony spent his formation years in Singapore, Australia and Switzerland and did his religious studies in the Philippines. He taught in Maris Stella High School for eight years before running the school as its principal for the past 22 years. Brother Anthony described his ministry as one that calls for "passion, commitment and guts".

"Our value is anchored on believing in what we're doing," he elaborated. "It's a different value system but it's a ministry that is most satisfying - you touch lives, change people's lives, affect the way they live, give them hope, help them find meaning in life, and motivate them to something." He added that the Marist Brothers' focus is "not so much school results - that is de facto - but what kind of person do we educate".

Brother Anthony takes pride in having many Maris Stella alumni and faculty members choosing to be baptized after being exposed to the Catholic faith in the school, and remaining staunch and committed Catholics.

"The ethos of the school is to nurture faith; we walk and talk our faith and the Christian message. Prayer is part of the school culture, we pray a lot, in the mornings, at meetings. We sow the seeds, the Holy Spirit will do the work," he added.

In recent years, Brother Anthony has been encouraging his Catholic teachers to attend a sponsored diploma course in Religious Education offered by the Singapore Pastoral Institute. He sees this as part of the faith journey of the school as the school depends much on its teachers. "Ultimately," said Brother Anthony, "life is not dependent on us but the providence of God in many things."

On religious life, Brother Anthony said, "It depends on how you respond to it. Trotting the road is never easy. You cannot look back, counting the cost when you face difficulties. Personal prayer and personal commitment is the key to perseverance."

More information on the Marist Brothers can be found at www.champagnat.org/en/220000000.htm. For vocation inquiries contact Brother Thomas Chin at 6281 6653 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

- View the complete list of religious orders in Singapore

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