IF YOU ASK a Catholic where Church of St. Alphonsus is, he probably can’t tell you, but ask about Novena Church, and most everyone, even non-Catholics, can give you an answer.

Novena Church at Thomson Road, as Church of St. Alphonsus is popularly known, is home to the Redemptorist community in Singapore. The Redemptorist congregation was founded by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori in 1732. Redemptorists are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus to the most abandoned and committed to promote a strong devotion to Mother Mary.

The Novena Church’s Saturday services are so popular that some 25,000 people – Catholics and non-Catholics – attend them. There are nine English sessions and one in Mandarin (3.00pm) held each Saturday. These half-hourly sessions are known as Perpetual Novena in honour of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The first session starts at 9.00am and the last at 7.00pm.

A "novena" is a devotion of prayer made nine consecutive times in exchange for a granting of petitions. This practice arose from Scripture in Acts when Mother Mary and Jesus’ followers prayed together for nine consecutive days before they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

It is therefore a traditional belief that when one prays the novena, petitions will be answered and miracles can happen. At Novena Church, these have happened on many occasions, it is believed.

Novena Church has attracted many Catholic and non-Catholic followers, and even Malaysians, who come to pray for their needs.

The church provides those in need "a sense of hope and assurance in day-to-day human struggle", said Father Jacob Ong. "You can see by the number of petitions both private and public, that our Lady helps and strengthens people throughout the journey of life."

The church receives between 700 to 800 letters of petition and thanksgiving every week. People write their petitions and drop them into a box in the church. Some are read to the congregation during the services. Petitioners ask Mother Mary to intercede with Jesus on their behalf for many needs: to get a job, to do well in school, for the spiritual conversion of people close to them, to seek a cure for an ill person, for loving children and spouses. There are also petitions for financial help and even for a successful en bloc sale.

Father Jacob related the story of an old lady who was certified by her doctor as going blind. She went through nine novenas but her sight was not restored. In fact, she lost sight completely but continued to pray. On her 11th
novena, she was completely healed.

"It’s people’s faith anchored to our Blessed Mother that will give them strength to continue in their struggles, and God responds to their need in his own time," said Father Jacob.

Father Jacob explained that one needs to pray with patience and perseverance, like the old lady and not feel disappointed when their prayers seem to go unanswered. "But miracles happen before the shrine of Our Lady," he stressed.

In the process, these people "learn to open their hearts and embrace the faith, as seen by the number of people attending RCIA" at the church, he said. "I believe that for those who pray in faith in other churches, miracles happen too," he added.

John, 65, who has been going to Novena Church since 1958, when he was a student, shares similar views. He was "fascinated by the prayers, sermons and music" together with the "serene environment" and attends the novena services "week after week, come rain or shine" unless he is overseas or is unwell.

"The nine-Saturday devotions to our Blessed Mother is basically to instil faith in the congregation (at least 50 percent of participants are believed to be non-Catholics)," John explained. "Personally, I don’t think you need to attend nine-Saturdays to get what you want, but if you have a strong faith, your prayer will be answered."

John was baptized in 2006 after he married his Catholic wife.

Serin Lee, 27, who started going to Novena Church four years ago to seek peace after a failed relationship, said she had been to Protestant churches but always felt intimidated there. "I went to Novena Church and I just felt very at peace there," she said. That kept her returning. She was baptized in 2006.

Another 34-year-old lady, Juanita, recounted that she heard about Novena Church when a client talked about it. One day, about three years ago, they arranged to meet at the church to sign a document, and from then Juanita began to attend Mass. "To me, coming to Novena Church was like coming home," she said. "I felt very comfortable."

"The Holy Spirit led me here, I feel," Juanita shared. "I feel a need to talk to Jesus after work before I go home." She works near Yio Chu Kang and continues to go to Novena Church daily. Juanita also joined the Divine Mercy and Sowers groups at the church, Praise@Work and Life in the Spirit Seminar. Juanita was baptized this Easter.

Early this year, Juanita’s mother was diagnosed with last stage bone cancer. Juanita prayed for her mother’s health. One month ago, the doctor discovered the cancer had disappeared.

"I asked her to come to the Saturday novenas with me to give thanks," said Juanita. Juanita’s mother agreed. "Each time I finish a service, I feel very much at peace," she said.

Like Juanita and her mother, 24-year-old Ivan Lee too, felt "the atmosphere of Novena Church put [his] heart at ease" from the first time his friend brought him to the church, some four years ago.

"I did know that many non-Catholics frequent the Novena and that made me feel less hesitant in going," he admitted. "I felt myself growing closer to the Christian faith through my growing relationship with Mother Mary and all her intercessions I had witnessed."

Ivan who is now a regular at the church and who is going through RCIA there, had done the nine-day novena too. "Many of my petitions have come true, but not in the way I had expected."

He added that for the many who want to experience firsthand the ‘miracle stories’ they hear about, they discover the church is also "conducive as a place where one can learn more about Mother Mary and draw closer to God".

Perhaps this is what Father Jacob meant when he talked about "an unexplainable presence here in church and at the shrine of our blessed Mother, and a sacredness of our sanctuary where people come to seek solace".  - by Joyce Gan

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