Sr Christine Chia (left) and Sr Maria Ng pose for a photo with Archbishop Nicholas Chia during the FMM nuns’ golden jubilee celebration on Nov 17.
Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) Sister Maria Ng had been a globetrotter.
She had spent 12 years of her religious life crisscrossing 46 countries, visiting her congregation’s communities for a first hand view of their mission, encouraging them, finding out their needs and helping them.
Sr Maria, who celebrates her golden jubilee this year, was the first ethnic Chinese Sister to be elected as one of the General Councillors of her congregation to assist the Superior General. She held the post from 19902002.
Her travels took her to both developed and third-world countries. The Sisters in Japan were “serious and conscientious”, and despite not being in good health due to the effects of the atomic bomb, contributed their efforts to medical, social and education causes, said Sr Maria.
In the rural areas of Ghana, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam, the convents’ conditions were far from ideal. Some had water or electricity for only one hour a day. Sr Maria had to sleep on the bare floor in the sweltering heat. But in experiencing the hardship of her fellow Sisters, she said that she shared in, and was touched by, their selfless dedication to the congregation’s mission.
“That’s missionary life,” she said.
Her journeys took her to war-torn countries such as Liberia and Sri Lanka. She remembers the walls of a convent in Liberia being ridden with bullet holes.
“My life was on the line. I could have been killed anytime… ambushed anytime,” she said.
During a visit to a convent in eastern Sri Lanka during the civil war, Sr Maria and her companions were halfway through their journey in a small van when they were caught in a flood. The travellers had two options – to go forward, or turn back, but both had risks. Yet, they went forward. The van eventually broke down in front of the convent.
The entourage had also been advised by an army soldier to be wary of the Tamil Tigers dressed and masquerading as soldiers. The soldier’s advice: “Don’t stop. You can run over them. Kill them, but don’t stop. If you stop, they’ll kill you.”
Fortunately, the group did not meet with any rebels.
Exploding landmines were a risk. A landmine blew up a bus on the same road Sr Maria had travelled on a day earlier.
She could only pray and trust in God throughout the dangers.
You could see God’s hand at work, she said.
“My satisfaction is really being able to live my vocation to share the love of God with people, to experience the challenges and difficulties of missionary life.”
Her family members told CatholicNews that they feared for her safety, but added that she “did not seem afraid” as she “was physically tough”.
Sr Maria was born Ng Swee Wan into a rather well-off family of non-Christians with no knowledge of Catholicism then. However, a passing street encounter with two nuns dressed in black later made an impression on her.
Although Swee Wan lived near Novena Church, she had reservations about the Novena services. But one day during benediction, she was “touched by the faith of the people, the atmosphere of prayer and by God”.
After her baptism in her late teens, Maria remembered her fleeting encounter with the two nuns, and realised that their lives were given in service to God. She wanted to be like them. An exhibition on Religious life led her to join the FMM Sisters “to share the faith with those who did not know God”.
Her decision met with objection from her parents, especially her father, who wanted her to work in the family’s business, resulting in a three-month delay in entering the congregation. When she entered, her parents thought she would be home within two weeks, she said.
The objection lasted a few years. She told CatholicNews in Mandarin that she never blamed her parents for not supporting her decision, but felt guilty about causing them pain.
It was only before she made her final vows in Australia that the father wrote back to her: “If this is really your choice, if this is really your happiness, go ahead, but you have to be loyal to your vows until the end.”
Her parents later converted to Catholicism.
In her 50 years as a Religious, Sr Maria was principal of the then Hai Sing Girls’ High School from 1969-1983. Under her charge, she had encouraged the then predominantly Chinese school to strengthen its command of English. She was also provincial of the Singapore-Malaysia FMM Sisters for seven years.
Sr Maria lists a readiness to take risks and having a strong faith as essential for being a missionary. With faith and prayer, all will fall in line, she said. One would experience pain and challenges but God is always present, she added.