GEORGE BERTRAND JOINED the Gabrielite Brothers in Montreal in his teens and was ordained a priest in 1977 at the age of 47. He has returned to his roots in Montreal as chaplain for 10 Gabrielite Brothers living in the Provincial House there.
At 75, Father George is not ready to retire. Rather, he sees the next lap of his life journey as an opportunity for him to care for those older and less mobile than he is. That's right, even at 75, he would be one of the youngest there because seven out of 10 of the brothers in the commuity are above 80, Father George smiled in amusement at the situation.
"I would have liked to stay back [here in Singapore]," but after much prayer and considerations for his own deteriorating health, he decided that it was better to return to Canada.
Although his health deteriorated in recent years, Father George continued to serve others. Many of those who know him were won over by his compassion, sincere smile and simple attitude to life.
After 12 years in Singapore, he will be greatly missed, most by his students at Boys' Town, who know him as Brother George, and by members of the Singapore Catholic Deaf Community, to whom he was Father George, the lovable and caring chaplain.
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"Those who have known him keep wonderful memories of him," commented Brother Emmanuel, superior of the Boys' Town Fraternity of Gabrielite Brothers. "He was a friend, a mentor and a counsellor to many of his teachers who, year after year, kept visiting him and writing to him," Brother Emmanuel added.
While George Bertrand's commitment to the Gabrielite Brothers was made in his teens, his journey to the priesthood spanned decades.
He recalled how, throughout his life, God had called him and then patiently waited for his acceptance.
At the age of 10, his parish priest approached his family to ask that he join the priesthood. Father George clearly remembered how the priest had pleaded, "At least listen to me!" when he declined. "I must have been a good boy!" Father George laughed as he tried to explain why his parish priest wanted him to be a priest.
"God must have been waiting for me at the next corner!" Father George repeatedly said about how he had heard God calling for the next six years. His response was to join the Brothers of Gabriel in Montreal as he had a passion to teach. He was 16 then.
"In the novitiate, I became free, joyful [and] peaceful. And more like my father - a joker! My relationship with others became very smooth," he remembered. In the next two years, Brother George grew from being an unsure novice to being the president of the commission that linked novices and their masters. He grew into an active sportsman as well. Looking back, he felt that those were all signs of his positive change.
But it was about ten years later that he took on overseas missionary duties, and it happened in a most unlikely way.
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The Brothers of St. Gabriel had an ice hockey match with the Brothers of Sacred Heart, which the Sacred Heart team won largely because of one skillful brother. When Brother George talked to him after the game, he learnt that this brother had received offers to play professional ice hockey in his younger days but had decided to enter the religious life and work in Haiti instead.
"So I said to myself, if there is a man who can be so generous, there must be a God who (is) in the backgroundâ€¦ I must do the same," he thought. That led him to seek missionary work and this eventually led him to Malaysia and Singapore (both territories were known as Malaya then).
However, thoughts of becoming a priest stayed with him and when he was 43 he returned to Canada to attend a 30-day retreat with the Jesuit priests to discern his vocation. He told himself that he would discern his vocation by the end of the retreat.
"That was not easy," Father George remembered. He wrote to his parents to inform them of his decision to be a priest. His father replied, a most unusual thing since it was normally his mother who wrote.
Father George burst into boisterous laughter and cried happy tears all at the same time as he remembered his father's words:
"Smart guy. Did you not know that 35 years ago, I asked the Lord to have one priest in my family? Why did you wait so long?"
Father George also recalls with fondness memories of his parents. They were his models of faith. "From our room, we could hear them reciting the rosary every night," he said. He shared how his parents suffered during the great depression and how they never harassed debtors to repay their debts, even when they were close to being forced to sell their business. Their kindness was rewarded when their debtors repaid their debts as the economic situation improved, he remembered, his tears flowing.
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After his ordination, he travelled to India, Indonesia and Belgium. He also spent eight years in Papua New Guinea to serve refugees there before coming here.
Looking back today, he is able to see how God has inspired him throughout his life.
"We don't see the hand of God (immediately) in a clear way but only when you study the old patterns [in our lives]," Father George said.
He continues the work that God has given him in Montreal where it first began.
Left, the passionate Father George dons a Chinese emperor's outfit at Tang Dynasty several years ago.