The Catholic Church in Singapore has contributed significantly towards nurturing and supporting the community long before national independence in 1965.
The more visible areas are in education, healthcare and social service. Less conspicuous but no less significant is the Church’s moral influence in society and Catholics’ contribution in the public sector.
The archdiocesan SG50 team is putting together a three-part series featuring the views of Catholics on how the Church has helped in nation building.
Here, we feature thoughts about the Church’s involvement in healthcare and social service, to be followed by reflections on its contributions to education and public service, and faith and moral formation, in subsequent issues.
Q: How would you describe the Church’s contribution towards healthcare in these past 50 years?
Sr Thomasina, 83, a midwife and nurse who has been with the FMDM order for more than 63 years:
Because the ministry of healing is part and parcel of the Church’s mission, the Church in Singapore responded to the needs of the community, and continues Christ’s mission of healing through what happens at Mount Alvernia Hospital to this day.
However, the FMDM Sisters’ association with Singapore began in 1949 when the British colonial government asked us to look after tuberculosis (TB) patients in Tan Tock Seng Hospital. To ensure continuous care, the Sisters set up a TB training school for new nurses. This initiative was a pioneering effort for the first associated school of nursing.
From 1950-1963, the Sisters looked after the Trafalgar home for Leprosy patients. In 1961, they opened Mount Alvernia Hospital (MAH), a not-for-profit general acute care private hospital to bring nursing care and healthcare services to the population.
Villa Francis, a home for the aged, was administered on behalf of the National Council of Social Service by the FMDM from 1976-2001. This was financially supported by Mount Alvernia Hospital. At Assisi Hospice, we provide care for the terminally ill patients, respite and care for the chronic sick and home nursing.
Besides excellent care by physicians and nurses, a team of trained pastoral carers help to address patients’ spiritual and religious needs, regardless of their religion, race, gender or ethnic background.
Since 2009, the hospital has had an active community outreach programme of providing free health screening to the needy, elderly and the less mobile.
Dr John Lee, former master of the Catholic Medical Guild, and current president of the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations:
From the efforts of St Vincent De Paul volunteer physicians to the development of Mount Alvernia Hospital in 1961, the Church has established a viable model of “not for profit” healthcare system.
Catholic nursing homes like Villa Francis, St Theresa and St Joseph are very much in demand because of the love and dedication of the Religious congregations who run them. The Gift of Love Home, started by the Missionaries of Charity, is a wonderful example of a sanctuary for those rejected by society.
Few may know it, but the Hospice Movement in Singapore was started by a remarkable Catholic doctor operating out of her car. Her legacy continues in the work of the FMDM-run Assisi Hospice.
Perhaps the greatest contribution the Church has made to the healthcare system in Singapore is its promotion of pro-life and pro-family healthcare policies by being a conscience of society.
Q: How important is it for Catholics to serve the sick, and how can we get more to serve at hospitals and homes?
Dr Olivia Tian, 28, from the Church of the Holy Spirit:
To serve the least and people when they are at their most vulnerable is also to serve Jesus and when miracles are witnessed it further demonstrates the point that man is fallible and that there is a God.
Serving the sick also allows the dignity of human life to be preserved and this is seen when we opt to maintain the quality of life in patients with terminal illnesses instead of opting for the short cut like euthanasia.
Q: What are the needs of the less fortunate here and how can Catholics respond?
Sr Caridad, MC, 31 years in the order:
In Singapore, our Sisters reach out to distressed and destitute people of all races and religious backgrounds. Like our fellow Sisters in other countries, we also go out to seek the poor, but in urban, built-up Singapore, we go from block to block!
As part of our fraternal values, our home is open to all kinds of people, where the well-to-do ones also come in to help the poor with their time, care and donations.
Christ calls us through His Church to labour for the salvation and sanctification of the poorest of the poor all over the world, and so to satiate the thirst of God lying on the cross, which is the thirst for our love and the love of souls.
Mr Kelvin Lim, 35, polytechnic lecturer, Church of St Vincent de Paul:
It is important to keep on contributing funds to help the less fortunate. However, I believe that while it is relatively easy for Singaporean Catholics to donate money, our time is a much more precious commodity. Perhaps we need to start giving this gift of time instead, by serving the community and seeing the face of Jesus in our brothers and sisters in need.
Milestones of the Catholic Church in Singapore
- 1800s: The French MEP priests set up the first two schools – one in Bras Basah Road and the other in Kranji. In the 1850s, one of the priests, Fr Jean-Marie Beurel returned to France and brought the La Salle Brothers and Infant Jesus (IJ) Sisters to Malaya. The Brothers began their new school in an old chapel at Bras Basah (old SJI), and the Sisters the Town Convent, at Victoria Street.
- The IJ sisters were one of the first to recognise the importance of the family in society, arranging for the betrothal of rescued young women under their charge, to suitable Christian men. This contributed to the stabilisation of a predominantly-male immigrant society in flux.
- In 1885, the IJ nuns also assumed administration of the General Hospital (later SGH) as the Straits Government’s intention to recruit trained European nurses coincided with Bishop Edward Gasnier’s intention to have the nuns establish an alternative hospital. This was in tandem with ongoing hospital visits by other Catholics, who brought spiritual and physical relief to patients in an era without hygienic medical procedures, ethics or antibiotics.
- Although the IJ nuns later withdrew due to problems with the colonial government, Fr Saleilles of St Mary’s Chapel continued to work in Tan Tock Seng Hospital, serving the blind and lepers.
- Apart from the orders, the laity-led St Vincent de Paul Society has, since its establishment in 1883, collected and distributed financial and material aid to families in need.
- During the Second World War, the physical parish buildings were places of refuge as bomb shelters and where women sought protection against rape by Japanese soldiers.
- The idea of setting up a Boys’ Town was conceived in Changi Prison Camp during the Japanese Occupation, between Br Vincent of the Brothers of St Gabriel, and an Australian philanthropist, Mr W T McDermott. After their release, Mr McDermott helped Br Vincent to draw up a master plan for Boys’ Town and also financially supported the project.
- In 1948, Boys’ Town was established by the Gabrielite Brothers to provide vocational skills training and education to orphans. This later expanded to providing boarding and residential care for boys from large, troubled, single-parent and financially needy families.
- After the war, the British government sought to find a Nursing Order of Sisters interested in taking over a women’s tuberculosis hospital. In 1949, Mother Angela of the FMDM Sisters arrived in Singapore from Hong Kong, where it was decided with the local bishop and health authorities that the nuns would take over the TB wards of Tan Tock Seng Hospital (also known as the Mandalay Road Hospital). The nuns also eventually took over care of the Leper Settlement. By 1952, the dream of a Catholic hospital in Singapore began to materialise. Land was purchased on “Thomson Hill” in October 1956, and Mount Alvernia Hospital declared open in March 1961, by the late Lee Kong Chian.
- In 1957, an international group of Franciscan friars arrived, under direction from Rome, to set up a sociological institute for research, printing and distribution of anti-Communist documents to counter Communist propaganda in the region.
- 1970s and 1980s: Anti-contraceptive stand of the Church. Archbishop Michael Olçomendy wrote a pastoral letter in March 1976 disapproving the “priority for sterilisation scheme”. This was accompanied by an ‘Open Letter to the Prime Minister’ written by 15 priests objecting to prioritising sterilisation as a way of getting children into schools. In 1985, Archbishop Gregory Yong, on the Feast of Holy Innocents, called on Catholics to “save people they know from becoming victims of the contraceptive mentality, which is a package deal comprising contraception, sterilisation, abortion and euthanasia”.
- 2006: Caritas Singapore is the umbrella body for 23 Catholic charities whose programmes include soup kitchens, financial assistance, residential care, shelters, befriending, counselling, palliative care, student care and skills training.
sg50.catholic.sg hosts all information pertaining to the archdiocese’s celebration of the nation’s golden jubilee, including the Thanksgiving Mass at the Indoor Stadium on July 4. Check it out.