Recounting his time in secondary school, Friar Rowland Yeo, 58, shared about the difficulties he faced when he “strained to lip-read teachers whose faces he could not always see as they turned to the chalkboard or walked around the classroom.”
Born deaf, Friar Rowland said that when he was finally, after four years, transferred to the Vocational Institute for the Handicapped where he could learn sign language, he felt “a new world opening to him”.
Friar Rowland graduated from the institute in 1975 with a furniture-making certificate.
Speaking to CatholicNews through email and an interpreter, Friar Rowland, who was ordained a priest on Nov 28, shared that being born into a Buddhist family, his first encounter with the Catholic faith was when he was 11.
His aunt who was a Catholic, brought him to the Church of Our Lady Perpetual Succour to attend Mass, and he recalled how “comfortable” he felt despite the service not being in sign language.
It was in 1976, when Friar Rowland was introduced to Redemptorist Fr Gasper by a friend, that he began to take interest in the faith.
He was baptised two years later at the age of 21.
Friar Rowland shared that he developed a love for the rosary and would often ask “Who am I?” as he prayed it. “You are a child of God” was the prompting he received.
During this time, Friar Rowland was working in a furniture company as a carpenter.
After spending seven years there, he went on to work as an assistant clerk at Community Chest for a further two years before leaving for the United States to pursue his studies in 1986.
He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Philosophy in 1992.
He later spent two years in Peru as a lay missionary helping deaf children.
On his return to Singapore, Friar Rowland felt the call to a Religious life getting stronger and soon applied to three different missionary orders, the Jesuits, Redemptorists, and the Franciscans.
Receiving a positive reply from the Franciscans, Friar Rowland felt that “that was what God wanted for me”.
He joined the Franciscan order in 1997 and made his solemn profession in 2003.
However, his formation period had its challenges. When he was in the US and Philippines studying Theology, he had to have one person interprete the lesson in sign language for him, while another would help write down the information.
The communication barrier was a tough challenge to overcome but Friar Rowland credits St Francis of Assisi as a major influence in his life, sharing that the saint teaches him to remain “happy, smiling and patient even during the most difficult times”.
Fr Rowland shared that he later decided to become a priest as he wanted to be of greater service to the deaf community in Singapore and the region by celebrating the sacraments for them.
“God’s calling made me decide to become a priest to preach God’s love to the deaf,” he signed.
Friar Rowland was ordained a deacon in 2014, and began ministering to the deaf community at the Church of St Mary of the Angels.
His duties included signing for the deaf parishioners at the 11am Sunday Mass.
He also gave homilies in sign language, which were then interpreted, to his Franciscan confreres and Infant Jesus Sisters at Mass every Tuesday and Thursday at the Greccio Friary at Chestnut Drive.
Friar Rowland ordained, celebrates 1st Mass
“Please pray for me that I will always... give everything I have, everything I am to the service of God’s people,” signed Friar Rowland Yeo in his speech during his ordination Mass on Nov 28.
Speaking through an interpreter, Franciscan Fr Hozo Sato who serves the deaf community in the Philippines, Friar Rowland also extended his thanks to those who helped him along his journey to the priesthood.
About 600 people gathered at the Church of St Mary of the Angels to join Friar Rowland in the Mass celebrated by Archbishop William Goh.
Members of the deaf community were also present and many queued to receive a special blessing from him after the Mass.
Archbishop Goh, speaking before the Rite of Ordination, had a few words of advice for Friar Rowland: “Remain in the love of the Lord, you need to be intimate with Him, otherwise along the way you will suffer burnout... there will be problems, there will be trials and difficulties.”
The following day, Friar Rowland celebrated his first Mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart.
He urged the 120 people present, mostly from the deaf community, to prepare for the coming of Jesus.
“In a few weeks, we will greet him in the Christmas of Bethlehem,” signed Friar Rowland, who appeared somewhat nervous celebrating his first Mass.
“One day, we will be with Him in the never ending Christmas of heaven,” said Friar Rowland, speaking through Fr Hozo Sato, who is Japanese.