11 Feb The Long & Winding Road to St. Joseph’s in Singapore
by Estella Young
PHOTO CREDITS: Dominic Wong and Dominic Lee
Catholicism came to Singapore in 1832 with priests from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP). They built churches and brought Religious to build schools, orphanages and a seminary. Today, some Catholic schools rank amongst the nation’s best, and are famous for providing an excellent academic education alongside a solid moral and ethical formation. As of 2012, there were 303,000 Catholics in Singapore (5.7% of the population), with 31 churches and around 140 priests, four of whom celebrate EF Masses.
The story of the Latin Mass in Singapore is the story of the mustard seed. This “seed” was watered, not by Western expatriates or foreign priests, but by the patient prayers and material contributions of a tiny group of laity, who remained faithful even when the “ground” seemed dauntingly rocky.
Prior to 2005, there was little knowledge of the EF in Singapore. The archbishops had not allowed the EF to be celebrated publicly in decades. Long-timers can recall only two EF Masses, celebrated by FSSP Superiors-General who were visiting a prospective applicant, Mr Duncan Wong. Attendance was low as the archdiocese had instructed attendees not to publicise them.
Hundreds of Catholics Flocked To the Church
In August 2005, the newly ordained Fr. Duncan Wong FSSP visited en route to his posting in Sydney, Australia. Fr. Wong had many friends and supporters in Singapore, where he had taught for several years in a Catholic school. Archbishop Nicholas Chia granted Fr. Wong permission to celebrate two Masses at a parish church.
The Archdiocesan Liturgical Music Commission put out a call for men who could chant the Mass Ordinary and Propers. Once the word was out, hundreds of Catholics flocked to the church each night – young and old, lay and religious. For many of the young, it was their first encounter with the traditional liturgy.
Five young men who met while singing for Fr. Wong’s Masses carried the momentum forward by founding Singapore’s only Gregorian chant schola on 26 December 2005: the Schola Cantorum Sancti Gregorii Magni. Several dozen young Catholics coalesced around the Schola’s Vespers and Compline service (OF, Latin) at a downtown parish one Sunday a month: an hour of worship followed by impromptu fellowship at a nearby café.
In 2006 and 2007, in addition to the monthly Vespers, the Schola and a group of altar servers – including a former FSSP seminarian – organized the occasional chant OF Mass in Latin. Schola leader Mr Francis Nyan, who had studied Gregorian chant at Solesmes in France, ran two introductory chant courses for the archdiocese.
Working for a Regular Mass
But the faithful had higher hopes. A small group approached several priests before finding one – Fr. Augustine Tay, assistant priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour – willing to host the LMC at his parish. At the start of 2008, the Vespers service evolved into a monthly Sung Mass (OF, Latin) celebrated by Fr. Tay. He also learned to celebrate the EF, under the tutelage of the former FSSP seminarian, and began saying Low Mass on weekdays.
It was a case of “All hands on deck” for the LMC to pull off a monthly Mass. Most of the young men joined either the Schola or servers. Three middle-aged sisters – from a traditionalist Catholic family of 10 siblings – sewed the vestments and altar linens with loving care. Others built or paid for the candlesticks, silverware, and other necessary items.
This arrangement ended after just one year, when Fr. Tay was transferred to the chaplaincy of a retirement home. There, he offered EF Masses on Sundays and solemnities at his tiny chapel. These were attended by a small but growing number of the faithful.
Fortunately, the principal of St. Joseph’s Institution (International), a private Catholic school, generously let the LMC use his school’s chapel on alternate Sundays and solemnities. The LMC was based there from 2009 to 2013. Mass was provided first in the OF, and then, from 2011, exclusively in the EF.
The LMC flourished in its new home. There were baptisms and weddings. Local interest in the EF surged in 2012 when the nation’s leading English newspaper featured the LMC in an Easter special on unconventional Christian groups. A few months later, the Schola sang at the nation’s largest concert hall for a sacred music festival. They returned for a repeat performance in 2013.
Entering the Catholic Mainstream
Yet it was not until the installation of a new archbishop in May 2013 that the LMC finally entered the Catholic mainstream. Archbishop William Goh, not a traditionalist himself, made it a priority to reach out to all the groups in the archdiocese that nurtured the spiritual growth of Catholics.
Two months after his installation, he decreed that the LMC would take up residence at St. Joseph’s, one of Singapore’s most historic and beautiful churches. He also instructed that Mass be provided on a weekly basis, instead of just twice a month. Fr. Tay was named the priest in charge of the LMC.
Archbishop Goh’s attendance in choir at an EF Mass in September 2013 was the first time in decades that a reigning archbishop had attended an EF liturgy.
Today, four local priests are rostered to offer the EF Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s on a weekly basis. Mass is attended by some 200 people. The vibrant community offers children’s catechism and a Latin class, and several of its youth have been inspired to explore vocations to the religious life, both in Singapore and abroad. Last year, Br. Gabriel Marie Pophillat, 28, made his simple profession with the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. At least four other Singaporeans – two women and two men, have joined the FI.
Beautiful St. Joseph’s
Founded in 1851 by Portuguese missionaries, St. Joseph’s is one of Singapore’s oldest and most famous Catholic churches. The first church was completed in 1853 with a grant from the King of Portugal. It was replaced by the current building, in the Iberian Gothic style, on the same site in 1912. In 2005, the Singapore government declared St. Joseph’s a National Monument.
St. Joseph’s boasts Singapore’s largest collection of stained glass windows, with its 72 panels manufactured a century ago in Belgium and Italy. They underwent extensive restoration from July 2012 to November 2014, having fallen into a poor state over the years. The S$1.2 million (US$900,000) bill was split 50-50 between the Archdiocese and the Singapore government.
The Latin Mass Community was fortunate to be assigned to St. Joseph’s in 2013 when Archbishop William Goh granted the LMC a permanent place in the Archdiocese. The church is in the heart of Singapore’s historic business and civic district, just 310 metres (350 yards) from the Cathedral. Attendance at the EF Masses boomed after the LMC moved to St. Joseph’s.
St. Joseph’s is home to an eclectic mix of worshippers. In addition to Masses in English, it has regular Sunday Masses in French, Vietnamese and Tagalog. The rector, Fr. Ignatius Yeo, has been very welcoming. He does not celebrate Mass in the EF, but he hears Confessions before Mass and assists in the distribution of Holy Communion.
VOICES OF THE FAITHFUL
(Compiled by Michael Feng, Luke Yeo and Greg Tan)
“Personally, it is also an escape from the hubbub of the city. God in His mercy and goodness has blessed the community here in Singapore with an army of dedicated Altar Servers and an angelic Schola Cantorum, both of which contribute to the atmosphere that is most conducive for meditation and prayer.” Anthony Lin, 26
“I think people are attracted because we focus on God not on people. The chant gives a sense of the sacred not like the pop music which robs the mass of its sacred character. The canon prayed in silence, cultivating a sense of mystery. I can see the fervour and devotion of the young people who are involved in singing or serving the mass.” Rev. Fr. Augustine Tay , 66
“The EF has helped me to develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of the role of the priest as father, leader, father and brother of the Christian community – from the externals of the liturgy and then into daily living.” – Seminarian, Name Withheld on Request
“The Chants in Latin appeal to the regular Catholics who have found this way of worship very enriching and helping them to be stronger believers in Jesus Christ. I notice too that more and more young men are coming up to assist closely at the EF Mass. Among these we hope that some will hear the Lord calling them to be Priests and join in the Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. “ Rev. Fr. Anthony Ho , 72
“In the church today there has been a lot of talk about ‘building communities’ and actively engaging in ‘New Evangelisation’. I see that we have been able to do just that by simply coming together for a common purpose: to worship and adore the lord. Centred on Christ, we have managed to Radiate Christ first to each other and the diocese as a whole.” Luke Alexander Yeo, 20
“What I like most about masses in the EF are the periods of silence. These periods allow me the time and space for introspection, and ultimately to lift my heart and mind up to God.” Norman Lee, 37
“There is a sense of community despite us coming from different backgrounds and parishes. – initially out of curiosity, but I think that those who return and attend regularly do so because they have fallen in love with the liturgy which captures so well the great mystery given to us as a gift. The interplay of chant and silence also fosters an exterior and interior environment which is very conducive to prayer and reflection.” Jeremy Wong, 22
“As a former Protestant previously accustomed to very hollowed-out and undisciplined liturgy with no historical depth, I was readily captivated by the Ordinary Form of the Mass. The Extraordinary Form of the Mass has deepened my Christian journey even further, as its theological sophistication, incredibly rich heritage and celebration by untold generations of Christians past have helped improve my life of worship and relationship with an unchanging and timeless God, the Beauty Ever Ancient and Ever New, and put me in deeper communion with 2000 years of the living, breathing Christian experience.” Mark Wee, 36
“I have grown in love with the Mass and it has driven me to desire greater participation by praying the Divine Office. My love for Our Lady has grown. I take my faith much more seriously and feel more connected to the many Saints I have read about. I have become more evangelical and I have helped to have members of my family return to the Church and grow in faith.” Louis Benedict Figueroa, 36
“I found fellowship with committed, orthodox Catholics who worshipped together and prayed for each another. We laughed, loved, and feasted together. I learned much about the Church’s history and liturgy. And most unexpectedly, it gave me a family. For at that first EF Mass, I met the man who would become my husband. (I don’t remember the moment, but he does!)” Estella Young, 36
Timeline of major events
1997 (or thereabouts) – FSSP Superior-General Josef Bisig celebrates a Low Mass at a private chapel for a handful of the faithful.
2000 (or thereabouts) – FSSP Superior-General Arnaud Devillers celebrates a Low Mass at a parish church for a few dozen of the faithful.
August 2005 – Visiting priest Fr. Duncan Wong FSSP celebrates two Missa Cantata at a parish church for hundreds of the faithful.
2006-2007 – Sung Vespers and Compline (OF, Latin) at the Adoration Room of the Church of Ss. Peter & Paul one Sunday per month
2008 – OF Sung Mass (Latin) at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour one Sunday per month
2009-2010 – OF Sung Mass (Latin) at the chapel of St. Joseph’s Institution (International) two Sundays per month
2011-2013 – EF Sung Mass at the chapel of St. Joseph’s Institution (International) two Sundays per month
Oct 2013 to date – EF Mass at St. Joseph’s Church (Victoria Street) every Sunday
Articles Online about the Singapore Latin Mass Community
Aug 2005 – A personal blogger’s account of Fr. Duncan Wong FSSP’s Mass: http://infernoxv.blogspot.sg/2005_08_01_archive.html#112351651253304617
Dec 2007 – CatholicNews article on Mr Francis Nyan’s Gregorian Chant course: http://www.catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=568
29 Apr 2012 – CatholicNews coverage of Schola performance for the “A Tapestry of Sacred Music” festival: http://www.catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7498
21 Apr 2013 – Business Times’ article on the Schola
15 Sep 2013 – CatholicNews coverage of Solemn High Mass attended by Archbishop William Goh: http://www.catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9226
8 Dec 2014 – CatholicNews coverage of Solemn High Mass for the sacerdotal anniversaries of two of the LMC priests, attended by Archbishop: http://www.catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10475