22 May 2023

The Road to Autonomy and Beyond

The Franciscan Friars, also known as the Order of Friars Minor, have a rich and continuous history in Singapore over the last 65 years. On 26 August 1958, the Order entered into a contract with the Archdiocese of Malacca-Singapore, which allowed the Franciscan Friars to establish their first official foundation, consisting of a friary and attached public oratory, at 8¾ Mile Old Jurong Road. The first community of friars in what is now the residential township of Bukit Batok comprised friars from America, Europe and Asia. 

During the first 10 years, the friars were involved in activities such as translating the scriptures and social teachings of the Church, providing pastoral care to Catholics in Jurong-Tuas, conducting catechetical training and retreats, and serving as professors and chaplains at Nanyang University. 

In 1969, the Province of the Holy Spirit in Australia agreed to accept the friary as a house of the province, and a year later the friary oratory was formally established as the church of the parish of St of St Mary of the Angels in Singapore. In the 1980s, the friars began to attract local vocations, with young men joining their ranks such as Friar Michael Goh, the first local member of the Custody to be solemnly professed, Friar John-Paul Tan, the first local member to be ordained, and Friar Arul Sagayaraj Mariadass, the first Malaysian member to be solemnly professed and ordained. 

In 1991, the Custody of St Anthony of Padua (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei) was formally established, assisted by friars from Australia and India who served as leaders, formators and pastors. 

On 25 April 2023, the Franciscan Friars celebrated another important milestone in their development and in the history of the Order. On the feast of St Mark the Evangelist, the Custody of St Anthony (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei) was declared an Autonomous Custody during a Special Assembly. The declaration of autonomy by the Minister General of the Order, Friar Massimo Fusarelli, was a moment of great joy and pride for all the members of the Custody. 

This declaration of autonomy followed a process of careful study by the General Government of the Order, consultation with and documentation by local friars and Provincial leadership, and the recommendation of the leaders of the Franciscan Friars in the region of South and Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania. 

For more than three decades the Custody has focused on formation, pastoral ministry, missionary commitment and expansion into Sarawak, Johor, Penang and Sabah. The growing number of friars living and transmitting the Franciscan charism, together with the active commitment to formation and evangelisation, provided the basis for the autonomy of the Custody. By the mid-2000s, the leadership was made up entirely of local friars, and the leadership and financial sustainability of the Custody also played a decisive role in its recognition as an autonomous entity. 

I am truly grateful to have been able to be present at this significant moment in the history of our Custody, both in my official capacity as Definitor General for Asia-Oceania and as a member of this Custody. As a member of the Custody who serves in the international leadership of the Franciscan Order, I have a dream that this Custody will continue to grow and broaden its focus. My hope is that the friars will continue to be radical in their witness to the Gospel, unafraid to proclaim the Good News in ways that are meaningful and relevant to all people. 

The Franciscan tradition has always been about living the Gospel in a practical way, with a focus on fraternity and minority. This means reaching out to those who are suffering and have not yet encountered the Gospel as Good News in traditional ministries and in new. The Custody could extend its presence into the digital realm, including online platforms and the metaverse. It could also share the rich heritage of Franciscan spirituality through prayer communities and hermitages. 

The Custody would benefit from engaging in dynamic partnerships with non-governmental organisations, as well as ecumenical and inter-religious organisations, in order to uphold shared values and work towards common goals. These partnerships can be a powerful means of caring for our common home, upholding the dignity of human persons, and building up the wider Kingdom of God. Finally, the Franciscan intellectual tradition is another important aspect of the Custody’s heritage which should be developed and shared more widely. 

With a strong commitment to the Gospel and a willingness to reach out to all people, the friars of the Custody of St Anthony (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei) can make a real difference to the lives of those around them. This Custody has the potential to be a beacon of hope and witness to the Gospel of Christ, not only in Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei, but throughout the world. 

Friar John Wong OFM 

Definitor General for Asia-Oceania 

A recording of the Thanksgiving Mass can be found in the Custody’s YouTube channelFranciscanFriarsMySg

Learn more about the history of the Custody in “The Genesis: Special Edition 2023” at franciscans.sg/thegenesis-special-edition-2023.

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