Saint Laurent Marie Joseph Imbert was probably the very first Saint to step on the shores of Singapore back in 1821. He was born at Marignane, a commune in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône in southern France, on 23 March 1796. He enrolled in the seminary of the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris (MEP) on 8 October 1818. Subsequently he was ordained on 18 December 1819. A year later, he sailed from France on 20 March 1820 for his missionary duties. Fr Imbert first when to Penang, Malaysia where he assisted at the College General, Penang. It was during this time that Fr Imbert was requested by Bishop Esprit Marie Joseph Florens, Apostolic Vicar of Siam, to call at Singapore. Fr Imbert, who was scheduled to sail from Penang to China, obliged the Vicar.
After spending a week in Singapore, he wrote back to Bishop Florens on 15 December 1821 saying that “I have reached Singapore on 11th instant, and have visited according to your Lordship’s request the Catholics of this new settlement. There are only 12 or 13 in number and seem to lead a wretched life.”
On 26 April 1836, Fr Imbert was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Korea. Almost a year later, he was consecrated and proceeded to cross into Korea in secret as it was undergoing a period of Catholic persecution. In 1839, the persecutions were intensified with authorities ordering all Christians to be killed. A tip off led Bishop Imbert and his Korean converts to be arrested on 10 August 1839. Realising his capture was imminent, Bishop Imbert celebrated mass before surrendering himself. Once he was arrested, the authorities spared no time in torturing Bishop Imbert, hoping that he would reveal the whereabouts of the other foreign missionaries. Believing that the lives of his Korean converts would be spared, Bishop Imbert wrote a letter to two other missionaries, Fr Pierre-Philibert Maubant and Fr Jacques-Honoré Chastan, who were in hiding. In his famous letter to them, Bishop Imbert wrote that “The Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for his sheep.”
Fr Maubant and Fr Chastan did surrender, however that did not stop the authorities from continuing to terminate the Korean converts. Eventually after more torture, the trio were eventually beheaded for their faith on 21 September 1839 at Saenamteo, Korea.
When news of Bishop Imbert’s beheading reached Singapore, it coincided with the time when Fr Jean Marie Beurel and Bishop Jean Baptist Bucho were considering a name for the new church of Singapore. It was then decided to dedicate the church to the Good Shepherd, inspired by the note that Bishop Imbert had written just before his death. Thus was the Church of the Good Shepherd blessed on 6 June 1847.
Together with Fr Maubant and Fr Chastan, Bishop Imbert was later beatified on 5 July 1925, later canonized by Pope John Paul II on 6 May 1984. His feast day is celebrated on 20 September together with the other Korean martyrs.
Meanwhile in Singapore, a little casket with the relics of Bishop Imbert was found on the first floor of the sacristy of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd by Fr Rene Nicolas, then Procurator of MEP, and assistant priest at the Cathedral. The relics of Saint Laurent Imbert can now be found at the Cathedral’s baptistery.
In 2006, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Singapore, and the 20th anniversary of the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to Singapore, a statue of the Saint in the grounds of the Cathedral was unveiled and blessed by Cardinal Renato Martino.