Above: The boys’ dormitory in the 1940s. Below: The present Canossaville Children’s Home. The home celebrated its 70th anniversary recently.

Former residents and staff of Canossaville Children’s Home share their memories

A former resident of what is now Canossaville Children’s Home remembers it as “a home of love”, where residents were one big family – sharing, playing and praying together.

There, orphans and abandoned children not only received meals and clothing, but also love, discipline and life skills, recalled Mr Tony Tay.

The lessons he learned during his childhood years there obviously paid off. Mr Tay, 64, now not only runs printing and insurance businesses, he also started Willing Hearts, an organisation that provides free meals to the poor.

On Aug 20, the home, started by the Canossian nuns, celebrated its 70th year with a Mass and concert.

Mr Jerome Cheok, another former resident, took part in the celebration and taught present residents there a hip-hop dance.

He said he hopes to do something for the home by teaching residents what he learnt because “he wouldn’t be where he is today if not for the home”.

Sr Elizabeth Law, who headed the orphanage from the 1950s to 1970s, was one of the nuns who left a deep impression on people like Mr Tay.

Sr Elizabeth, now 92, told CatholicNews the children were quite unruly and required constant attention to prevent them from getting into trouble and accidents.

It was also difficult to get them to study. She remembers one incident in which a boy ran away by climbing over the wall of the home. However, she attributed their behaviour to their longing for their parents, some of whom had abandoned them.

She said she always hoped the children would grow up to become good people and not become gangsters.

Other residents also painted a picture of the dedication of the nuns and how they experienced family and character building at Canossaville Children’s Home, which adopted this name in 1979.

Dorothy Chua, 17, who was a former resident together with her two siblings, said they were able to study on their own at the home, thanks to the discipline.

She has fond memories of her life there such as the morning scramble for toilets, sharing meals at the breakfast table, and getting into trouble together.

“I don’t regret having to come here,” she beamed.

She also describes Sr Rose Low, Residential Head from 1989 and Executive Director from 1996-2003 as someone who was strict but fun at the same time.

Sr Rose admitted she had been strict. “I believe that I will do them a disservice if I do not impart values to them. However I also believe that the children need to know that I needed to correct their misbehaviour,” she said.

Sr Rose also worked with their parents as part of the children’s holistic formation and to help integrate them back into the family. The challenge, Sr Rose said, is “when the parents are not only financially poor [but also] morally and emotionally deprived”.

The Canossian nuns founded the home in 1941 under the late Fr Stephen Lee’s vision of starting an orphanage and private Chinese school to educate the poor.

However, the Japanese invasion put a halt to the plans as the Sisters and orphans left for Bahau, Negri Sembilan. They lived there for two years until the Japanese surrender.

The Sisters then returned with more than 150 orphans, and even more orphans joined the home.

However, food scarcity forced the Sisters to focus on vegetable planting and chicken rearing rather than education at that time.

The home grew over the years with a new wing and various initiatives to help the underprivileged. These included a home for the handicapped (Fatima Home), a girls’ vocational training centre, Magdalene’s Kindergarten, before and after school care, and programmes for single parents and children from single parent homes.

A centre was opened to help children with learning difficulties.

In the 1990s, the Canossian Eduplex comprising Canossa Convent, Canossian School for the Hearing Impaired, Canossa Convent Primary School, Magdalene’s Kindergarten and Canossaville Children’s Home, was inaugurated to promote close cooperation among the five sectors.

Today, the home offers residential care to girls six to 12 years old from family situations that may put them at risk. The Student Care Centre has 70 students with special needs.

The nuns’ dedication is summed up by Mr Tay, who says that they “surrendered themselves to God” in caring for the children”.

By Darren Boon
darren.boon@catholic.org.sg

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