Agnes Chan – Cradle Catholic
As a child, Agnes Chan stayed at Lorong Santun, next to the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her entire family was Catholic, with her father working for the Europeans as a labourer. During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, her father was captured by the Japanese along with many of his acquaintances and sent to Punggol End under the Sook Ching operation. Many Teochew Catholics were taken from Aukang. That is why after the Japanese surrendered, the church arranged for those who lost their kin to register the names of the dead in a small chapel at Punggol. On the first day of the English calendar month, then Fr. Francis Chan (before he was ordained Bishop of Penang) would wait for all the laity in the Church. They would then proceed to that little chapel singing Latin songs and praying the rosary for the dead. Upon reaching there, he would celebrate a mass for the departed souls. There were so many names on the list, all captured by the Japanese behind the church and at Kangkar. It was a memorable ceremony for Agnes Chan. She recalls how those ladies that were very proficient in Latin hymns would lead the procession by foot all the way. They refused to sit in vehicles because they wanted to do some penance for the souls that way.
The community at Aukang was very prayerful. Although they didn’t understand what they were saying, Agnes Chan remembers how they would follow the leader until they were proficient in praying and singing in Latin. “Fr. Francis Chan used to tell us that when we pray, we need to set a fixed time for communal prayer every night. He also told us not to make the prayers too long as the children would grow restless and they would have school the next day and needed to sleep early.” Agnes’ mother prayed together with their neighbours every night; “Our mothers were very close – people knew them as a dynamic duo: the ‘tall and lao bibik’. They would go around and pray for others at times too.”
Agnes also fondly remembers helping her mother in volunteering their services to the church. She particularly remembers her mother baking Eucharistic hosts for the Masses. “They would tell my mother that they were running out of hosts, and we would help to make them. Those that had holes or were defective, they would always give it to us to eat. We children would be so happy!”
Volunteering in church was a family affair. “Every Saturday morning, all the mothers would help to sweep the church. The pews were often too heavy for the old people to lift, so they would bring us youngers to help them.” If the brooms were spoilt, the dynamic duo would spend their own money to buy brooms for the church. “My mother loved Jesus very much. She would even go to hospitals to pray for the sick. They would always call out, ‘Lao bibik please pray louder for me’, and oftentimes my mother would pray and keep watch until they died. For these actions she didn’t take a single cent, even if they wanted to give a hongbao, she would politely refuse.”
Agnes Chan, now a mother of 11 and a grandmother of 17, says that she was inspired by her mother to bring her children up in the same faith. Her children are active members of the various churches in the Serangoon district, continuing the legacy of their grandmother through their acts of service and prayers. Agnes herself still attends the Teochew Mass at Nativity Church every Saturday without fail, reminiscing about the good old days; “Even now when we go for confession, the priest would immediately know we are from Aukang because a whole generation of Aukang Catholics learnt to pray the same prayer in Teochew.”
Excerpts from interview conducted on 6 Jan 2017 by Bryan Benjamin Goh for his thesis “The Rhythms of a Catholic-Teochew Community: Church, Family and School in Hougang (1945 – 1981)”, Department of History, National University of Singapore, AY2016-2017