Fr Saussard and Mrs Paul with the First Holy Communion children at the Jalan Kayu centre. Photo: Lucia and Jacinta Yong

Jonathan Peeris

On Nov 21, 1970, Archbishop Michael Olçomendy, MEP, blessed and opened the brand new church building for the Parish of St Vincent de Paul (SVDP) at 301 Yio Chu Kang Road.

For the many residents of Jalan Kayu and Seletar Hills, it was the culmination of many years of hard work to build a parish community and to raise more than $210,000 for the church building fund – no mean feat in an area which consisted mainly of poor families. For our first parish priest Father Henri Saussard, it was the joyful end of a seven-year journey that started in 1963 when he was first sent to minister to the needs of the poor families living in Jalan Kayu.

A parish without a church

What makes the parish of SVDP truly unique is that it started even before a physical church building existed. Most parishes are formed around the church building which serves as the base and centre of operations. Ours was formed around the vision of one man and his team of volunteers.

Everyone who speaks about Fr Saussard paints a picture of an impressive shepherd who was strict but fair. He had a heart for the poor people but could equally enjoy a good bottle of wine. He was a dynamic Frenchman but he could speak Tamil and communicate with the predominantly Indian families living in Jalan Kayu.

The shophouse in Jalan Kayu where Fr Saussard celebrated Mass in the basement. Photo: Eugene Wijeysingha

This charismatic priest attracted a team of volunteers who served selflessly and undertook the immense challenges facing them – SVDP’s own pioneer generation who literally built the parish from scratch. They catered to the material needs of the poor living in Jalan Kayu who needed food and medicine, all the while trying to raise money to eventually build a church for them as well. They also had to cater to their spiritual needs without a proper place to celebrate Mass.

Yet these pioneers persevered. Mass was first celebrated in the private home of a generous man named Mr J.S. Gomez and then later on in the basement of a shophouse in Jalan Kayu purchased to meet the growing needs of the parish. Ministries were formed and catechism classes for the children started under the watchful eye of Mrs Paul, another of Fr Saussard’s pioneers. It took them seven years to finally build the Church of St Vincent de Paul – the building that we now call home.

Inspired by St Vincent de Paul

Above all else, Fr Saussard had a heart for the poor, so it was fitting that he should name the new parish St Vincent de Paul after the Apostle of Charity. Vincent de Paul himself also lived during a difficult period in history with the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War creating massive poverty and unrest in France at that time. Initially Vincent studied for the priesthood as a means to advance his position in life, but it was only after he was taken captive by pirates and forced into slavery for two years that he realised his true calling – to minister to the poor and the downtrodden.

He was a passionate speaker and was able to mobilise even the rich aristocracy to aid him in his cause. He even rose to become the spiritual adviser to Queen Anne of France, a position that enabled him to found the Congregation of the Mission, or the “Vincentians” – a brotherhood of priests who took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. With the help of St Louise de Marillac, he also formed the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, an order of women devoted to serving the poor through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

St Vincent did not just preach, but led through his own example, many times living among the poor and rejecting any form of reward or salary. Those who knew Fr Saussard can vouch that this great saint was a major influence on his life.

Strong in the SVDP spirit

It is hard to imagine what life was like back in 1960s Singapore for this pioneer generation of our parish – to not have a church building in which to attend the Eucharistic celebration regularly, or to gather as a community. Who knew that 50 years later, we would find ourselves in the same boat because of Covid-19.

Thankfully, like our pioneer generation, we too have persevered. We have evolved and embraced new technologies like Zoom and YouTube. We can now use apps for Bible reflection and watch Mass online as a family every day should we choose to until things go back to normal.

This year, SVDP will celebrate our milestone 50th anniversary of the construction of our church building. Due to the pandemic, it will be a muted affair, like our parish feast day celebration on Sept 27, far removed from the way we usually sing and dance and rejoice. But in these difficult times, the spirit of St Vincent de Paul still resonates strongly in our parish. We may be deprived of having meetings in person, but ministries still catch up virtually, and community and rosary sessions still continue.

Reaching out to the poor

When restrictions were lifted after the Circuit Breaker, the members of our local conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society immediately sought to resume their home visits to the Friends-In-Need in their care. The poor have been impacted by this pandemic far worse than most of us, so with Advent just around the corner, SVDP will be organising a parish outreach to needy families to provide them with financial support, material goods and a little Christian fellowship, joy and love in the lead-up to Christmas.

In his 2020 Message for the World Day of the Poor on Nov 18, Pope Francis invites us to “Stretch forth your hand to the poor” (Sirach 7:32) and “In everything you do, remember your end” (Sirach 7:36) by which he means that the end-goal of our lives is love, and that we should live lives of sharing, dedication and service for others, especially the poor.

A church is not just a building but the People of God who animate it. In SVDP, we remember not just our end, but also our humble beginnings. Once we were poor, now we are rich in the Lord and His blessings. Thanks be to God in whom all things are possible on our Golden Jubilee!