The Canossian sisters have been serving in Singapore for 112 years. Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp, writes about this vibrant community - 58 strong here - and focuses on two of its members.

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THE CANOSSIAN DAUGHTERS OF CHARITY first arrived in Singapore in 1894. Four sisters from Macau came at the invitation of the Bishop of Macau to work with the Portuguese Mission at St. Joseph's Church, Victoria Street. Over the 112 years of their presence, they have expanded to Malaysia and have been blessed with many local vocations.

Today there are 58 Canossian sisters serving the Archdiocese of Singapore - by far the largest religious congregation in the country. Their large number allows them to be engaged in various ministries. They serve in education (including operating the Hearing Impaired Learning Centre), adult faith formation,pastoral care of the sick and elderly, counselling, retreat and spiritual direction.

They are responsive to contemporary needs and are active in inter-religious affairs, ecumenical concerns, and the AIDS patients, migrants, and prison ministries. The sisters in Singapore also conduct mission outreach in Myanmar. At the heart of their different ministries is the aspiration of their founder, St. Magdalene, "to make God known and loved."

In the spirit of Christ crucified and risen, the sisters conduct their mission through a prophetic witness of a simple, humble and joyful life in community and service, with special attention to the poorest.

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Community life is strengthened at table where meals and laughter are shared.

There are six communities where the Canossian sisters in Singapore live and minister:

St. Anthony's Canossian Convent (Bedok North)

Primary and Secondary School, Student Care Centre

Canossian Eduplex (Sallim Road)

Primary School, Hearing Impaired School, Children's Home, Kindergarten

St. Joseph's Canossian Convent (Jurong)

Nursing Home and Hospice

St. Magdalene's Canossian Community (Jalan Merbok)

Kindergarten, Spirituality Centre

Canossian Formation House (Lorong Low Koon)

House of prayer and vocational accompaniment

Bakhita Community (Woodlands)

Joint religious and lay pastoral community

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St. Magdalene of Canossa (1774-1835)

Canossian02.jpgMAGDALENE GABRIELLA was born on Mar 1, 1774 of a noble family of Canossa in Verona, Italy. At the age of five, she lost her father and when she was seven her mother remarried and left her in the care of a governess.

Drawn by the love of God, she planned to consecrate her life to him at the age of 17. After twice attempting life as a Carmelite, Magdalene realised that her call was to be a contemplative in active works of charity.

In 1808, she overcame her family's opposition and left Canossa Palace to begin her ministry in the poorest district of Verona. In 1828, she obtained pontifical approval for the Institute of the Daughters of Charity. By then they were already present in Venice, Milan, Bergamo and Trent.

Magdalene died in Verona in 1835. She was beatified in in 1941 and canonised in 1988. Today there are 3,300 Canossian Sisters in 32 countries. The Canossian Family includes about 200 Sons of Charity (comprising of priests and brothers), and thousands of lay Canossian Associates.

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In love with Jesus: The stories of Canossian sisters Maria Casarotti and Doreen Soh

Sister Maria Casarotti, FDCC

Canossian07.jpgMOTHERLY, KIND AND UNASSUMING, Sister Maria Casarotti was born in Brescia, North Italy and entered the Canossian Daughters of Charity in 1949 at the age of 20. Her two younger sisters followed suit. She attributes her vocation to her parents who led holy lives and who raised 14 children.

She fondly remembers her father's sense of humour. "My father was so proud to be related to God; he said he has given three daughters to be his spouses. So anything he asks from God, God must give him."

Sister Maria joined the Canossians because she was attracted to the sisters' prayer life and their thirst for souls. From the start, she wanted to be a missionary. "Knowing that Jesus died on the cross and paid for all, to go beyond the mountain and beyond the sea to save souls - that was my dream," she reveals.

Her dream came true in 1957, when as a young professed sister, she boarded a ship bound for Singapore. The journey took 22 days and at that time there was no thought of returning to Italy. The Singapore she encountered then was "still a British colony and very primitive. There were a lot of poor, living in kampongs."

The first thing Sister Maria did was to learn English while helping in the school apostolate. Shortly later, she went to Malacca to teach catechism and care for the borders and orphans at the convent. She recalls that "at times, there was no water and life was hard." "But I felt a joy to allow the Lord to flow his love through me to reach these poor people," she added.

Top, Sister Maria Casarotti comforts a patient at St. Joseph's Home in Jurong. She has seen many miracles of healing while ministering there.

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Sister Maria has served more than 30 years in Singapore - she ministered in other countries too including six years in Manchester, England, where she assisted in opening a new novitiate. Her longest ministry in Singapore is to the sick and dying at St. Joseph's Home, where she currently resides.

She describes her present apostolate as "helping the people to open their hands and put their hands in Jesus' hands, then tocross the river and be with him forever." "I journey with the sick to lead them to die peacefully," she continues. "I believe no matter what religion they are, after they close their eyes, when they open them again, they will see Jesus."

In 2003, after 24 years of ministering to the sick and dying, Sister Maria felt the need to lead a more contemplative life and went to stay at the Canossian Retreat House in Taygaytay, Philippines, for more than two years. It was a period which she found "very rich in resting in the Lord." But "the voice of the dying and the sick echoed in my heart so I asked to come back (to Singapore)," she says.

Being close to the dying, Sister Maria shares that she has witnessed many miracles. One which touched her deeply concerned a resident who had been a medium. He initially avoided looking directly into her eyes but eventually he agreed to be baptised. She relates, "After I baptised him, he held me very tightly and after two days he died."

Another moving experience for her involved a resident who was a destitute with no relatives or friends. She journeyed with him to the final end and recalls, "He was so alone, there was no one for him. Yet just before he died, he looked at the statue of Our Lady, who I told him was our mother. He smiled a beautiful smile, then passed away."

"To make Jesus known and loved, that's the purpose of my life," she affirms.

When asked on the problems she faces as a religious and a missionary, she replies with gratitude, "Truly I don't know what the cross is. I have good health, good humour, a good community, and a good superior. I see all problems just as a passing cloud. And I carry Jesus with me always."

She adds, "Teaching catechism is my passion - to the old and young, preparing for baptism. I feel lost if even for one day I don't talk about God. The meaning of the day for me is to listen to the Lord, be with him, and walk with him."

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Sister Doreen Soh, FDCC

Canossian08.jpgIT WAS HER childhood dream to be a nun but soft-spoken and mild-mannered Sister Doreen Soh only entered the Canossians when she turned 34.

Upon graduating in Sociology and Political Science from the National University of Singapore she worked at the Ministry of Defence for 11 years before finally taking the plunge into religious life.

She explains, "I had to be very sure and took my time. I wanted first to increase my knowledge of God and to know the person of Jesus. After my studies I was so grateful to God, and served as a catechist and the Legion of Mary at Nativity Church. Yet I was still drawn to the world. I was happy at work and enjoyed travelling." However even her travels was God-centred as she spent most of her holidays going on pilgrimages.

As a catechist she worked closely with the late Sister Catherine Wong, a Canossian nun, who became a source of inspiration. "We would conduct home visits together and I admired her zeal to reach out to the people," Sister Doreen recalls. The home visits also drew her closer to God. "I found great fulfilment doing God's work at night, sharing life with the people. I was touched that they open up so easily and entrust their problems to us."

When Sister Doreen decided to attend a Faith Formation course at the Singapore Pastoral Institute, it was a step that not only deepened her faith but also nudged her further in her vocation. She shares, "As I got to know more about Jesus, I fell in love with him. I then started attending daily Mass and making visits to the adoration room."

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As her intimacy with the Lord grew, another factor was also pushing her to make a decision. "I was 33 and my biological clock was ticking," she laughs. "I told myself, I better try and see if religious life is for me. If it's not for me, maybe I better get married but I had to try or else I'll regret it for the whole of my life."

The Canossian Sisters was the obvious choice and two years ago, Sister Doreen made her perpetual profession of religious vows. She shares on one of her joys in being a religious. "Living in community with my sisters is very important for me. I find a lot of support and strength from our communal prayer, meals, and when we share our lives in open, trusting relationships, sharing our faith and God experiences with each other."

Her greatest challenge, she reveals, is "to mould myself into the image of Christ - to practise forgiveness, be more loving, and have a greater sensitivity towards others."

To relax Sister Doreen likes to exercise. "We try to do qi gong and also a bit of basic yoga - taught by one of our sisters." She also enjoys cooking for the community even though that is also stressful, she admits with a grin.

Sister Doreen has recently been appointed the vocation promoter for her congregation. Young ladies interested to know more about the Canossian sisters may contact her at tel: 6284 5170 and visit www.catholic-church.org/canossians-sg

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Photos show the Canossian sisters in Singapore serving in various ministries. They are in education, adult faith formation, pastoral care of the sick and elderly, counselling, retreat and spiritual direction. They are also active in interreligious affairs, ecumenical concerns, and the AIDS patients, migrants, and prison ministries.

- View the complete list of religious orders in Singapore

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