By Frances Yong
The four pioneer Canossian Sisters arrived in Singapore from Macau on 11th December 1894 accompanied by Mother Teresa Lucian (Superior of Macau) and Mother Maria Stella (Superior of Hong Kong).
They were invited by the Bishop of Macau to take over St Anthony’s Girls’ School, started by the Portuguese Mission. The Sisters were accommodated in St Anthony’s Convent which was built by the same Mission and what was known then as “St Joseph’s Church (Portuguese Mission)”, along Middle Road.
As the Sisters settled in their new mission, they ventured zealously to gather girls for religious instruction and opened an “Oratorio” (Sunday School) to keep the girls away from moral dangers by offering them an enjoyable and sound environment.
In a multi-cultural and multi-lingual milieu, it was not easy for these Sisters as they were mainly conversant in the Portuguese and Italian languages. Besides having to learn English and Malay, they had to accustom themselves to the hot climate as well as to the new cultural context. Despite their early struggles, the Sisters received their first local vocation, Sr Ermelinda d’ Rosario, in 1898.
The pioneer Canossian Sisters laid the foundation for numerous initiatives in Singapore to live out the exemplary life of their Foundress, St Magdalene of Canossa. They fulfilled their spiritual mission through three key aspects of education, evangelization and caring for the sick. In the early days, the Sisters took over St Anthony’s Girls School, which was later renamed, St Anthony’s Convent School (Portuguese Mission) and the Sisters were known as the Portuguese Sisters because of their close association with the Portuguese Mission of St Joseph’s Church. They also started an orphanage and boarding home in conjunction with the Convent School.
From the very early days, the Sisters taught the orphans and pupils about Christ, inculcating Christian values and helping them to grow in their faith. The pioneer Sisters were also not daunted by the language barrier. Through their compassionate action, they visited the poor families in the “kampongs” (villages) and the lonely elderly living in the cubicles in the city, sharing what little they had with the community. Their selfless example set the foundation for subsequent sisters and students to continue with community outreach to the poor.
Following the footsteps of their Foundress, St Magdalene of Canossa, in ministering to the impoverished sick, the Sisters used to make weekly visits to the lepers in Trafalgar Home. During post-war Singapore, the Sisters operated a Mobile Clinic which made basic medical assistance more easily accessible to the people living in the “kampongs”.
The Canossian Sisters have also dedicated themselves to a wide variety of ministries. They have inspired lay people to follow their spirituality of “Humility in Charity” to the extent that lay partnerships are formed to widen the reach of evangelization. These include the Sodality of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Association of Lay Canossians and most recently, Canossa Mission Singapore (CMS).
One Love, One Mission, One Canossian, Celebrating 120 Years in Singapore. (2014). Singapore: Canossian Daughters of Charity, Singapore.
The Canossian Daughters of Charity (n.d.). History of St Anthony’s Province. Singapore: Singapore Canossian Archive.
This article has been edited for brevity and published with the kind permission of the Canossian Sisters. Read more about their mission and good works on their website at http://www.canossians-sg.org/.