Archbishop Gregory Yong was born on 20 May 1925 in Taiping, Malaysia. He studied in St George’s Institution in Taiping, and thereafter at St Michael’s Institution in Ipoh. As a young boy, he was moved by watching the priest celebrate Mass, and enjoyed the Mass, while not yet understanding the importance and meaning behind it. In 1940, at the age of 15, he entered the St Francis Xavier Minor Seminary in Singapore, and the College General Penang in 1944. After spending three years in Penang, he taught in the minor seminary in Singapore before returning in 1950 to complete his studies.
On 3 December 1951, he was ordained a priest by Bishop Michel Olçomendy. Thereafter, he was posted to the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Singapore, where he served as an Assistant Parish Priest. In October 1953, he proceeded to St Peter’s College in Rome to study Canon Law. When he obtained his Doctorate in Canon Law in 1956, he became the first priest from the Singapore-Malaysia-Brunei region to have done so. Upon his return to Singapore in August 1956, he served at the Church of the Sacred Heart. He resumed teaching at the Minor Seminary where he taught for the next eight years. Some of his students included Fr Anthony Ho, Fr Eugene Vaz and his successor, the current Archbishop Emeritus Nicholas Chia. Next he served at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, after which he returned to teaching, this time at the College General Penang.
On 1 July 1968, he was ordained as the Bishop of Penang, taking over Bishop Francis Chan. On 2 April 1977, he was officially installed as the Archbishop of Singapore. Concurrently, he had served as a co-opted member of the Presidential Council of Minority Rights.
During his tenure Archbishop Yong focused on strengthening the faith of Catholics and helping them know more about the faith. One of his initiatives was the establishment of the Singapore Pastoral Institute (SPI) in 1978, with then-Fr Nicholas Chia. The SPI offered courses on different topics on theology with the aim of helping Catholics better comprehend their faith and to see links between their faith and today’s society. He also worked on strengthening the local faith through the media, by inviting the Daughters of St Paul, whose charism is using the media to spread Catholic teachings, to establish houses in Singapore.
The problematic issue of the dual administration of the Church of St Joseph (Victoria Street) was resolved during Archbishop Yong’s tenure. His predecessor, Archbishop Olçomendy had already initiated the process of discussion and negotiations with various parties. On 26 July 1977, and agreement was made between the Archbishops of Singapore and Macau which placed the Church of St Joseph solely under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Singapore. This dual administration system officially ceased on 1 July 1981. Archbishop Yong celebrated Mass in the church on 5 July the same year.
During his tenure as Archbishop, the Archdiocese of Singapore was privileged to host the visits of two famous personalities in the Catholic Church. The first was Mother Teresa’s visit to Singapore in 1985. The following year in 1986, Pope John Paul II paid his historic visit to Singapore as part of his tour to various countries including Australia and New Zealand.
Archbishop Yong’s term also saw the opening of new Catholic landmarks, including the St Francis Xavier Major Seminary. He made the decision to establish the major seminary in 1982, when Singaporean seminarians in the College General Penang could no longer receive or renew their visas from the Malaysian immigration authorities. In August 1985, Archbishop Yong blessed the project during the ground-breaking ceremony. Three years later, 28 January 1988, he was on hand to officially open the St Francis Xavier Major Seminary. In 1980, he established the Church of the Holy Cross, which was the first church to be built during his tenure. In 1982, he blessed and opened the Church of Christ the King. The Church of the Holy Trinity was established in 1990.
Having reached the age of 75 on 20 May 2000, Archbishop Yong submitted his resignation in accordance with Canon Law. It was accepted by Rome on 14 October the same year, after which Msgr Francis Lau became administrator of the Archdiocese of Singapore until the appointment of the new Archbishop. On 7 October 2001 Archbishop Nicholas Chia was ordained as the Archbishop of Singapore.
In his years as Archbishop, Gregory Yong was remembered as a man who lived a simple life and for his generosity to others. Msgr Francis Lau recalled that Archbishop Yong collected piles of two-dollar notes which he donated to the poor who approached him, and that nobody left without receiving anything.
On 25 July 2001, he took up residence at the St Francis Xavier Minor Seminary where he lived until September 2004, when he shifted to the St Joseph’s Home owing to ill health. On most days, he woke up at 7:00am for his prayers and on Sundays, he would go to the chapel for Mass, where he concelebrated when his health permitted. In his later years, he spent his Saturdays with his friends from the Catholic Spirituality Centre, who brought him on a wheelchair to places like Jurong Point and Vivocity. He also enjoyed receiving visitors because they filled his room with joyful exuberance with their presence. And like in his earlier years, anyone who visited him always left with a gift.
On 28 June 2008, at 2.40pm, Archbishop Emeritus Yong passed away at the St Joseph’s Home. He had received Communion that very morning, and those who accompanied him just before his passing prayed the Rosary. His death was followed by condolences sent from the Apostolic Nuncio and Pope Benedict XVI. Archbishop Emeritus Yong’s Funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd was attended by huge crowds, who spilled out on to the grounds of the church compound. Archbishop Nicholas Chia, the main celebrant, urged those present to ‘’carry his mission to live out his faith’’.
On 10 October 2008, Archbishop Gregory Yong’s remains and those of his predecessor, Archbishop Michel Olçomendy, where interred in the walls of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.