Franciscan Friar Julian Mariaratnam presides over the Christmas Mass for Sri Lankan migrants last year.
Two priests serving migrants at Our Lady of Lourdes Church tell Darren Boon the spiritual and emotional support the parish offers
DAYS of recollection, get-togethers and counselling sessions are just some of the services that Indian and Sri Lankan workers enjoy when they visit the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes at Ophir Road.
The church, which has been serving Tamil- and Sinhalese-speaking migrants for decades, now has two South Asian priests helping to look after their spiritual, emotional and material needs.
The main challenge these migrants face is adapting to their new social environment, says Fr Jacob from Chennai in India’s Tamil Nadu state.
Sometimes these people are at a loss when their companies close and they are left unemployed, says the assistant priest, who has been serving Tamil-speaking migrants since last May.
‘Some we can solve and some we cannot. So it is a matter of just listening to them and being there for them.’ – Friar Julian, who serves Sinhalese-speaking migrants, on the problems that they raise Tamil migrants enjoying a recent outing at Changi.
Many also risk damaging their health as they strive to earn as much overtime pay as possible. Sometimes the Catholics among them find it difficult to even attend Sunday Mass, says Fr Jacob, whose full name is P Yagappa Raja Rethinam.
Franciscan Friar Julian Mariaratnam, who serves the Sinhalese-speaking migrants, says most of the issues the migrants complain about are work-related. “Some we can solve and some we cannot. So it is a matter of just listening to them and being there for them,” he says.
The Sri Lankan priest has been working with the migrants here since 2008.
Hundreds of Tamil- and Sinhalese-speaking migrants descend on Our Lady of Lourdes Church on weekends.
About 400-500 Tamil-speaking migrants, mostly in the construction industry, attend the 6.30pm Sunday Mass. A free dinner for them, provided by some generous people, then follows.
Friar Julian estimates that between 50 and 75 Sri Lankan Catholics, including domestic workers, skilled and non-skilled migrants, students and those who have settled down in Singapore, attend the Sunday 12.30pm Sinhalese Mass.
This is followed by a fellowship session and prayer service at 3.30pm.
The migrants come to Our Lady of Lourdes Church “trusting God will do something” for them, says Fr Jacob. Separated from their families, it is here that they “feel comfort and consolation”, are able to meet with their countrymen, and receive encouragement from a priest whom they regard “as a guide and father”.
Fr Jacob says he counsels the Tamil migrant workers who experience “disappointments”. Sometimes he would visit their dormitories, chat with them and have meals with them.
The parish also organises Charismatic prayer session and retreats for them. Other activities include a cultural night twice a year and a full-day outing or picnic thrice a year. The most recent one, in March, was to Changi Village.
The parish also runs courses on personal grooming, workplace safety and the playing of musical instruments.
F RIAR JULIAN says the Sri Lankan community has grown over the years. There is now a newly-formed youth group, a 10-member choir, as well as a group that takes charge of the Liturgy and Eucharist.
A day of prayer, organised by a group from Sri Lanka, is held twice a year, while a Day of Recollection is held during Lent followed by the Stations of the Cross at St Joseph’s Church in Bukit Timah.
During Christmas, there are carolling sessions and get-togethers even as the community participates in the parish’s festive celebrations. A Games Day is held in April to celebrate the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year.
“We are accepted and welcomed with so much love and care” from the parish, says Friar Julian. “We do not feel alienated. It is like home for us.”
The Sri Lankan community had in the last two years seen 10 adults baptised and received into the Church, and there are presently two volunteers who provide formation for those who want to embrace the Catholic faith.
Two community members are also now on the Parish Pastoral Council.
F RIAR JULIAN says he is also happy to see the workers helping each other out. Sometimes it is the “poor migrants” who pool their resources to help fellow migrants when they are cheated or abandoned by agents, he says.
“These experiences make you feel proud of them and I am proud to be their minister.”
He notes that while most migrants are treated well in Singapore, there are always instances when they have not been given their basic rights,
Sometimes, these culprits are Catholics.
He gives an example of a maid, working for a supposedly practising Catholic family, who was not given one day off per month, and not even allowed to attend Mass on Christmas Day.
“There are many who have to beg for their off days,” says Friar Julian.
“I hope this season of Lent will help [employers] change their ways to treat the workers as their brothers and sisters. This is what Christ wants us to do.” n
The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes can be contacted at 6294 0624, website: http://www.lourdes.sg
By Darren Boon