Friar Rowland Yeo, OFM, with Tricks the beagle, his constant companion for six years. Photos by Daniel Tay
THE FRANCISCANS TELL of a time when St. Francis of Assisi saw a trapped rabbit. Taking pity on the rabbit, the founder of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM) freed it and nursed it back to health. When the rabbit recovered, it chose to follow Francis instead of returning to the forest where it came from because it was safer with the saint.
This story has served as inspiration for Friar Rowland Yeo, OFM, in his love and care for animals. Friar Rowland has kept all sorts of animals, including fish, hamsters, cats, and dogs. His favourite pet as of today is Tricks, a nine-year-old beagle that has lived with the Franciscan friars in Singapore since 2003. It formerly belonged to another friar’s cousin who had to travel to the U.K. and had to leave the dog behind.
In its first three years with the friars, it was Friar Rowland who trained Tricks. But rather than respond to voice commands, Tricks responds to sign language, because that is how Friar Rowland communicates. Friar Rowland is deaf.
Friar Rowland Yeo, OFM uses sign language to tell Tricks the beagle and King the German Shepherd to ‘sit’.
Even though Tricks is rightfully shared among all the friars who live at St. Anthony’s Friary located within the grounds of the Church of St. Mary of the Angels, the beagle has taken more than a liking to the full-bearded Friar Rowland. When it was allowed to freely wander the grounds of the friary, it frequently sat outside Friar Rowland’s room, often scratching the door, begging to be let in.
Tricks used to live with Friar Rowland, being his constant companion whenever the friar was home. When someone knocked on Friar Rowland’s door, the deaf friar could not hear it, but Tricks could and it would alert him to his visitor. This also means that Friar Rowland is blissfully oblivious to the dog’s barking and whining, and it falls to the other friars to quieten the dog when it makes a fuss.
A later decision by the community superior required Tricks and the other dogs to be kept in a play area in the back of the friary. But whenever Friar Rowland heads to the back, Tricks would be eagerly waiting to dash out to greet him.
“He’s always looking out for me,” signed Friar Rowland. “Tricks knows sign language. I taught him to sit, beg, lie down, roll over, and jump.”
If allowed to, Tricks would follow him everywhere, and when I [travel], he cries, signed Friar Rowland. Deacon Derrick Yap, OFM, who provided the translation during the interview, has observed that whenever Friar Rowland travels overseas, Tricks gets depressed and does not eat for a couple of days.
Friar Rowland, now 52, joined the Order of Friars Minor in 1997, and made his solemn profession on Sep 29, 2003.
He works in the parish columbarium, and compiles Mass intentions. He signs for the deaf community in the parish every Sunday morning at the 10.45am Mass, and helps out in the parish thrift shop. He also teaches sign language twice a week, and conducts RCIA for deaf catechumens in the parish.
When asked if he thought animals go to heaven, Friar Rowland signed that he has never thought about it, but knows that his deceased fish had to be buried and were not allowed to be placed in the columbarium.
One thing he knows for sure is that “if Tricks is not around, I would surely miss him”.
• Church of St. Mary of the Angels will celebrate its annual Animal Blessing on Oct 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, 4.00pm at the piazza.
By Daniel Tay