The Franciscan friars in Singapore are part of the Custody of St Anthony (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei), which comprises five communities of friars and three parishes in Singapore, Kuching and Johor. The friars in Singapore are in charge of the Church of St Mary of the Angels.
On 28 March 1957, Friar Vergil Mannion stepped off the ship Peleus, landing on Singapore soil. Singapore in the 1950s was still a British colony, even though a limited self-government had been granted in 1955. Fishing and agriculture was very much a way of life, and poverty and illiteracy were widespread. Chinese communist ideology and guerrilla activity had swept through Indochina and across Southeast Asia, and Singapore had been in a state of emergency since 1948.
As Singapore was considered a strategic hub, as a result of dialogue between Rome, leaders of the local Church and Franciscans in Italy, America and Hong Kong, an international group of Franciscan Friars was brought to Singapore in 1957 to establish a sociological institute for outreach, research and publications to counter communism. The literature included Christian teachings on justice, equality, fraternity and brotherhood. This proved to be very constructive and served to challenge the Communist propaganda.
The first friars resided in what was then known as the Bishops’ Palace on Victoria Street but later moved to Bukit Timah, where they lived at Boys’ Town before obtaining their own property in present-day Bukit Batok. On 26 August, 1958, Archbishop Michael Olçomendy of Malacca-Singapore officially declared the presence and ministry of the Franciscan Friars (Order of Friars Minor) at what was then Jurong Road, 8¾ mile. Within two months, Rome would issue a formal decree on the canonical establishment of this new community.
Alongside their work of translating Christian literature, the friars were also actively engaged in pastoral work and involved themselves in teaching, giving retreats and spiritual direction, and preaching in Singapore as well as in Malaysia. In 1966, with the diminishing of the communist threat, the decision was taken to move the sociological centre to Taiwan.
Although the Church of St Mary of the Angels is often associated with the Franciscans, it is a little known fact that it was not actually the first Franciscan parish in Singapore. In 1958, by arrangement of the Province of St James of the Marches in Italy, the Franciscans ran a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima in the small fishing village of Tuas at the end of Jurong Road. Later, they entered into a 25-year pastoral contract with the Archbishop to establish a church in the north-western part of Singapore, starting with the chapel in Bukit Batok. In 1971, a parish centre was built in the new Boon Lay Garden and in 1976, the new parish Church of St Francis of Assisi was built nearby. In 1982, upon expiry of the pastoral contract, the friars handed over the running of the Boon Lay parish back to the Archdiocese of Singapore.
In May 1991, the Franciscan Custody of St Anthony of Padua in Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei, dependent on the Australian Province of the Holy Spirit, was officially constituted, with Friar Phillip Miscamble OFM as the first Custos. Ten years later, between 2001 and 2003, the entire Bukit Batok property underwent a major facelift. Today, the Franciscan Friars continue to stay in the St Anthony and San Damiano friaries on the St Mary’s compound.
This article has been published with the kind permission of the Friars of the Custody of St Anthony and edited for brevity. The full article can be read on their website at http://franciscans.sg/about/custody/.