Despite their diversity of ministries, there are only 11 Good Shepherd Sisters in Singapore - the youngest is in her 40s and the oldest is in her 80s; nine are Singaporeans. Where did they come from? Where are they headed?
The dynamic Good Shepherd Sisters of the Marymount community are involved in a wide range of pastoral ministries to empower the feminine spirit among women in need of healing, all in imitation of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
DECEMBER 1939 SAW the arrival of two Irish Good Shepherd sisters from Colombo (today Sri Lanka). Two other Irish sisters followed a month later. The sisters lodged at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus at Victoria Street while a house for them at 8th Mile, Ponggol Road was being repaired and renovated.
By Feb 1, 1940, the first convent of the Religious of the Good Shepherd Sisters (RGS) was blessed by Bishop A. Devals. Present also were his Vicar General, Mgsr M. Olcomendy, the Infant Jesus Sisters, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Canossian Sisters.
The Good Shepherd Sisters opened their doors to women and girls who were troubled or abused and in need of healing and reconciliation. As the number grew, there was a need to secure larger premises. However the Second World War disrupted their plans and during the Japanese Occupation, the sisters went to Bahau, Malaysia. They returned after the war and stayed in MacPherson Road and Kampong Java Road, eventually moving to Marymount at Thomson Road in the 1950s.
At Marymount, they operated a home for orphans who were mainly post-war children. As there was a need for education, Marymount Convent School was set up. There were a number of local vocations, and the sisters gradually expanded their ministries.
Over the years, as more and more women joined the workforce, many students from Marymount Convent became latchkey children as both parents would be at work. The sisters responded by providing a centre, the Marian Centre, for before and after-school care. By the 1980s it was serving around 80 percent of the student population, around 60 children at that time.
The Good Shepherd sisters continue to respond to the needs of society, always with the mission of reconciliation - in particular they minister to women and children to bring them to a healthier relationship with themselves, their families and society.
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The sisters pray the daily office in Marymount Chapel in the early 1960s.
Apart from Marymount Primary School, the sisters run two kindergartens - Marymount at Thomson Road and the Good Shepherd kindergarten at Nallur Road. They also operate the AHUVA Good Shepherd Children's Home at Marymount Centre which includes the care of children - from 7.30pm to 11.00pm - who otherwise would be alone at night because their parents are out working; many of these children come from single parent homes.
The Good Shepherd Centre at Yishun is a residential centre for women and children who are victims of domestic violence and for migrant workers suffering employer abuse. Rose Villa, at the centre, also takes care of unwed women in pregnancy crisis. The refuge offers a temporary shelter, counselling, and empowerment to its residents.
At present there are 38 residents including children. The sisters also conduct outreach programmes for women at their Nallur Road premises, where counselling sessions are available for women with problems. Stay-in programmes such as Restful Waters, are also held at Nallur Road.
Sister Gerard Fernandez is also actively involved in the Prison Ministry while Sister Elizabeth Lim is involved in the Life Direction Team. The mission of spiritual accompaniment is seen by the sisters as a much needed answer to relationship problems in today's society, which is fast-moving and increasingly impersonal.
Despite their wide range of ministries, there are now only 11 Good Shepherd sisters in Singapore - the youngest is in her 40s and the oldest is in her 80s. Of the 11 sisters, nine are Singaporeans while the other two come from Ireland and the Philippines.
The sisters now work together with many lay collaborators in their different ministries and rely more on networking in their apostolate. At Rose Villa, for example, they concentrate on the residential ministry, leaving areas like adoption to other organisations to take care of. This is unlike the past when the sisters would attend to the different aspects of caring for unwed mothers including adoption options for the baby.
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A desire to reach out to girls and women
"Go after the lost sheep without any rest other than the cross, no consolation other than work, no thirst other than for justice." - St. Mary Euphrasia
St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier (1796-1868)
Rose Virginie Pelletier was born on Jul 31, 1796 in Noirmoutier, France. She grew up in the turbulent aftermath of the French Revolution. At the age of 18 she entered the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge founded by St. John Eudes and was given the name Sister Mary Euphrasia.
She worked tirelessly with girls and women in need of love and guidance. Moved by their loneliness and feelings of rejection, she was filled with a burning desire to reach out to girls and women all over the world. To do this, she founded the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS) in 1835.
The mission of the congregation is to show the compassion of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, for the abandoned, the underprivileged and the lost. To St. Mary Euphrasia, one person was more precious than the whole world.
During her lifetime 110 foundations were opened around the globe. She died in Angers, France in 1868 and was declared a saint in 1940. The Good Shepherd sisters continue St. Mary Euphrasia's work of compassion, affirming everyone that each person is precious. Today there are around 5,000 Good Shepherd Sisters serving in 68 countries around the world.
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Called to be shepherds of today
Right, Sister Gerard Fernandez comforts an elderly person who had supported the sisters in their work during her younger days. Right, Sister Agnes-Claire mingles with her charges at the Good Shepherd Centre in Yishun.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD Sisters take a fourth vow of zeal, which leads them, like Jesus the Good Shepherd, to search for the wounded, the marginalised and broken, especially women and children. Their mission of healing, reconciliation and restoration helps to awaken in the lost and abused a sense of worth and dignity as children of God.
The sisters proclaim their mission as follows:
- To the women and children who are victimised and abused in their own families, we are called to help them rebuild their lives.
- To the teenage girls who are on the fringe of society and at odds with their families, we communicate love, care, support and encouragement; bringing forth reconciliation with self, family and their God.
- To those women and girls who face pregnancy crises, we bring healing, acceptance and hope through the individual, family counselling and group work. We also provide shelter and support.
- To the migrant workers who face loneliness being in a foreign land and those who are abused by their employers, we bring forth friendship, spiritual nourishment and compassion. We provide shelter - a home away from home for those who are abused.
- To those children who lack adult care at home, we create a homely place that is congenial to the continuing formation of the children in their educational needs, physical needs and spiritual formation.
- To those in prison and their families, we bring God's compassion, mercy and hope through counselling and after care services.
- To those seeking for direction and meaning in life, we bring living water to quench their spiritual thirst.
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Shepherding the lost and wounded
Sister Agnes-Claire Koh shares on her call to be a modern day Shepherd among the broken-hearted.
IT WAS AT a Choice Weekend Experience in the mid-1980s that Agnes-Claire Koh first encountered the Religious of the Good Shepherd. Irish Sister Columba Cannon, one of the founding sisters here, was a speaker during that weekend. They became friends and as she got to know more about the mission of the Good Shepherd Sisters, Agnes-Claire was moved to volunteer at the Marymount Teenage Centre along Thomson Road.
The centre cared for delinquent girls who were beyond parental control. The mission to serve the teenage girls brought meaning to her life; instead of just volunteering her free time to the centre, she eventually went to work full time with the sisters there. Agnes-Claire's flair in administration (she graduated with a degree in Business Administration) proved useful.
She shares, "Most of the girls were primary and secondary school drop-outs. At that time there was no ITE (Institute of Technical Education). My work involved looking for jobs for these girls, as well as organising in-house classes for them." Agnes-Claire then realised that God was calling her to a lifetime commitment with the sisters.
"Deep down I knew that I wanted to do something more but I didn't know what," she discloses. "I had that feeling even in my teens. Only after graduation and after I started work did I find time to attend to that inner voice." She realised that her vocation was being unfolded gradually - from volunteer, to staff member, to religious sister.
"I guess God knew that I wouldn't have become a sister all at once, so he led me to my vocation step by step," she laughs.
When she turned 28 in 1989, she entered the Religious of the Good Shepherd convent with blessings from her parents. She was not the first among their seven children to have chosen the life of a religious. Just two years earlier, her younger brother, Peter, had entered the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM). A CICM brochure left casually at home by Agnes-Claire helped to lead Peter to his missionary vocation.
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During her formation years, Agnes-Claire also had opportunities to do mission work. While in Taiwan for her Theological studies, she joined her sisters in their mission to the mountains. It was an experience she found very enriching. "Many young girls from the mountains in Taiwan would fall prey to teenage prostitution in the cities. We did mainly preventive mission work in the mountains, conducting value formation camp, teaching them what city life is all about."
Today Sister Agnes-Claire is the residential manager of the Good Shepherd Centre in Yishun, a centre for abused women and unmarried mothers-to-be. She works with four lay staff, conducting counselling sessions and organising different programmes - sewing, English, computer studies. All the women who stay at the centre are referred there by the police, the Ministry of Manpower and the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
Sister Agnes-Claire and a social worker also man the 1800-Mum-To-Be (1800 686 8623) line on Mondays. One of the fulfilment of being a Good Shepherd Sister is "seeing the women grow from being fearful after a traumatic experience to becoming empowered in their own lives, gaining self-confidence and moving on with more belief in themselves," she explains.
Of the challenges she faces, she reveals, "Being small in numbers, I don't feel there are sisters that I can relate with as much as I'd like to as we are all over the place. We do meet but not as often as we want to."
The whole community of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Singapore meets at least once a month and Sister Agnes-Claire cherishes the time spent with them, especially when they cook together. To relax she also enjoys gardening and going out with friends. With fewer sisters, life as a religious is less structured than before and most of the time she finds herself praying alone.
"That's why the inner conviction has to be even stronger, that this is my life (as a religious)," she shares. "The foundation years are very important otherwise each day can just pass by. What makes me persevere is the belief that I'm doing what God wants me to do - serving the people who are really in need, and particularly our stand as Good Shepherd Sisters - to serve the poor, the marginalised, and the voiceless."