The Custody of St Anthony (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei) comprises five communities of friars and three parishes in Singapore, Kuching and Johor.
On 28 March 1957, Franciscan Friar Vergil Mannion stepped off the ship Peleus, landing on Singapore soil.
Singapore in the 1950s was very different from Singapore today. It was still a British colony, even though a limited self-government had been granted in 1955. Fishing and agriculture was very much a way of life, and poverty and illiteracy were widespread. Chinese communist ideology and guerrilla activity had swept through Indochina and across Southeast Asia, and Singapore had been in a state of emergency since 1948.
But Singapore was considered a strategic hub and, as a result of dialogue between Rome, leaders of the local Church and Franciscans in Italy, America and Hong Kong, an international group of Franciscan Friars was brought to Singapore in 1957. Their mission was to establish a sociological institute for outreach, research and publication of documents to counter communism in the region. The literature included Christian teachings on justice, equality, fraternity and brotherhood. This proved to be very constructive and served to challenge the Communist propaganda.
The first friars resided in what was then known as the Bishops’ Palace on Victoria Street but later moved to Bukit Timah, where they lived at Boys’ Town before obtaining their own property in present-day Bukit Batok. On 26 August, 1958, Archbishop Michael Olçomendy of Malacca-Singapore officially declared the presence and ministry of the Franciscan Friars (Order of Friars Minor) at what was then Jurong Road, 8¾ mile.
Although originally an international group of friars, over the years a steady stream of friars followed and the community grew. Alongside their work of translating Christian literature, the friars were also actively engaged in pastoral work and involved themselves in teaching, giving retreats and spiritual direction, and preaching in Singapore as well as in Malaysia. In 1966, with the diminishing of the communist threat, the decision was taken to move the sociological centre to Taiwan.
Over the years, a steady congregation had built up at the small public chapel next to St Anthony Friary. By 1970, after the Sociological Institute was moved to Taiwan, the friars’ chapel was turned into a parish church at the request of Archbishop Olçomendy. A year later, it was formally given the name the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and Friar Sylvester Campbell from Australia became its first parish priest.
St Mary of the Angels was technically not the first Franciscan parish in Singapore. In 1958, by arrangement of the Province of St James of the Marches in Italy, the Franciscans ran a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima in the small fishing village of Tuas at the end of Jurong Road. Later, the Franciscans entered into a 25-year pastoral contract with the Archbishop to establish a church in the north-western part of Singapore, starting with this chapel. In 1971, a parish centre was built in the new Boon Lay Garden and in 1976, the new parish Church of St Francis of Assisi was built nearby. In 1982, upon expiry of the pastoral contract, the friars handed over the running of the Boon Lay parish back to the Archdiocese of Singapore.
A new era
In May 1991, the Franciscan Custody of St Anthony of Padua in Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei, dependent on the Australian Province of the Holy Spirit, was officially constituted, with Friar Phillip Miscamble OFM as the first Custos. Ten years later, between 2001 and 2003, the entire Bukit Batok property underwent a major facelift. Today, the Franciscan Friars, parishioners of St Mary of the Angels and our friends and visitors enjoy the prayerful surroundings, excellent facilities and award winning architecture of a new complex where the friars continue to be housed in the two communities of St Anthony and San Damiano.
In 1999, the Franciscans moved beyond the shores of Singapore to Sarawak, with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Custody and the Archdiocese of Kuching to run St Ann’s Mission in Kota Padawan.
In 2008, the Custody extended itself into West Malaysia when two friars were invited by the Bishop to work in the Malacca-Johor Diocese and commenced ministry at the Church of St Teresa, Masai. This marked a renewed interest in serving and being with the poor, and where the local Church needs us to be.
The extension of the Custody beyond Singapore and the enlargement of ministries beyond the parish at St Mary’s have meant that more has had to be invested in the Formation programme.
By the grace of God, the friars’ presence and ministry from their original 1958 base at 8¾ mile Old Jurong Road, renamed as the new town of Bukit Batok in the 1980s, has continued to grow in strength and diversity.
Milestones (St Anthony’s Custody):
1950s – The Vatican decides that there is a need to promote the Social Teachings of the Church and to reach out especially to the Chinese in the region
1957 – Franciscan Friars officially begin working in Singapore
1958 – Official Dedication of the new St Anthony Friary in Old Jurong Road, Singapore
1970 – The friars enter into a contract with the Singapore Archdiocese to run Church of St Mary of the Angels, Bukit Batok, Singapore
1984 – Commencement of local friars’ Formation programme in Singapore
1991 – Establishment of Custody of St Anthony (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei)
1999 – The friars enter into a contract with the Kuching Archdiocese to run St Ann’s Mission, Kota Padawan. St Francis Friary is officially erected in Kota Padawan, Kuching
2002 – Official Dedication of new development comprising St Anthony Friary, Church of St Mary of the Angels, San Damiano Community and Franciscan Columbarium
2007 – Greccio Friary is officially erected in Chestnut Drive, Singapore
2008 – The friars enter into a contract with the Malacca-Johor Diocese to run Church of St Theresa, Masai
2010 – St James of the Marches Friary is officially erected in Plentong, Johor Bahru