The Custody of St Anthony (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei) turns 30 this year. A lot has changed in those three decades. When the Custody was formed in 1991, there was just one parish community and one formation house in Singapore. Most its friars were in initial formation and its ministries were dependent on missionaries.
Today, there are three parish communities and two formation houses in three dioceses. There are 40 friars, 32 of whom are Solemnly Professed and in full-time ministries. Most of them are from Malaysia and Singapore.
Today, even those who do not know the Franciscan Friars know when they see the customary brown hooded habit that the man wearing it is a friar.
The history of the Franciscan Friars in Singapore, however, dates much further back than 1991. The first friars arrived in Singapore from Europe and China in 1957. These missionaries from the Catholic religious order founded by St Francis of Assisi more than 800 years ago were, as their contemporary brothers are today, dedicated to restoring God’s church through three main objectives – witnessing by living as brothers, boldly proclaiming the Gospel to the world, and showing the world that God can be encountered in every person and every created thing.
Objective 1: Witnessing by living as brothers
Franciscans serve together in their corporate ministries in support of the greater Franciscan family. They engage in inter-faith and ecumenical dialogue, recognising all of creation as one family while upholding justice and peace. The friars also foster individual and communal lives of prayer and devotion.
Objective 2: Boldly proclaiming the Gospel to the world
The Franciscan Friars strive to communicate the loving face of a God who became one with humanity. Much is invested in formation and education not only of friars, but also of the people they serve, reaching out to those who have not yet encountered God as the Good News. The friars recognise that God’s people can be found in the most unexpected and inaccessible of places, and will do and use what is needed to proclaim the Gospel.
Objective 3: Showing the world that God can be encountered in every person and every created thing
In every person and every created thing, there is innate goodness and inherent beauty. Believing that God can be encountered through this goodness and beauty as well as in the simple things in life, the Franciscan Friars celebrate simplicity and beauty, providing liturgies and settings that enhance the experience of prayer, contemplation and community.
In 1958, a year after they arrived, the friars constructed St Anthony Friary – with its adjoining chapel building
– along Old Jurong Road. It was established as a sociological centre for translating the Church’s social teachings into Chinese as a tool to counter communist propaganda. It was also a base for apostolic outreach to the entire Jurong area up to Tuas village. The friars taught catechetical courses, assisted at the Catholic Chinese Central Bureau, lived and worked with the students and teachers in the largely underdeveloped western Jurong area, and taught Christian philosophy at the newly-founded Nanyang University.
In 1970, the friars’ chapel was converted into a parish church and christened the Church of St Mary of the Angels.
The next big local milestone took place 17 years later. In 1987, Friar Michael Goh become the first local friar to be Solemnly Professed. A year later, Friar John-Paul Tan became the first local friar to be ordained a priest.
Then in 1991, the Custody of St Anthony of Padua (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei) was formed, with Friar Phillip Miscamble from Australia as the first Custos. Between 1996 and 2002, the friars ran the Franciscan Retreat Centre in Jurong West while in 1999, a new community and parish ministry was set up in Kuching, Sarawak.
The Franciscans continued to establish HDB-based communities in Bukit Batok and Hougang, Singapore, before a new Franciscan complex that included the Church of St Mary of the Angels was inaugurated in Bukit Batok in 2004. In 2008, another new community and parish ministry was formed in Malaysia, this time in the Diocese of Melaka-Johor.
For many years, friars from Australia, United States, Germany, India and Sri Lanka had been missioned to serve in the Custody. However, in more recent times, Singaporean and Malaysian friars have been sent to serve in full-time ministries and missions overseas.
With the Custody’s commitment to ongoing formation in service of the Order and local Church, some Solemn Professed Friars have been sent overseas for further studies in fields such as scripture, theology, liturgy, canon law, formator’s training, counselling and spiritual direction. In addition, the Initial Formation programme in Singapore has included students from Indonesia, Korea, China, East Timor, Australia and New Zealand.
The ministries have expanded considerably and now include parish, formation, columbarium, chaplaincies in schools, prisons, migrants and minority ethnic/language groups, persons with disabilities, prayer sessions, talks, retreats and spiritual direction, and inter-faith and ecumenical dialogue.
In the next few years, the Custody of St Anthony hopes to consolidate its presence and commitment to the service of the local Church in Singapore, Sarawak, Johor and Penang; to engage in formation at all levels – pastoral care of vocations, Initial and Ongoing Formation; and to continue to focus on mission and evangelisation.
May God guide us in our endeavours to be the light of Christ to all peoples.