Strive to be faithful to that which God has called you.
– St Angela Merici
Angela Merici was a lay Franciscan who founded the Company of St Ursula – named for the legendary princess and virgin martyr St Ursula, patroness of universities – in 1535, with the purpose of educating girls.
Born on a farm in 1474, Angela was orphaned when she was ten years old. She and her sister were taken in by an uncle. When her sister died suddenly without the last rites, Angela was very distressed. She was comforted by a vision of her sister in Heaven with a procession of angels and virgins, like Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28:12).
A Solemn Vow
The 15-year-old Angela became a Franciscan tertiary, a laywoman living by the spirituality of St Francis. She was very beautiful, and people often complimented her lustrous hair. To avoid the attention, she covered her locks in soot. She had vowed to dedicate herself completely to God as a consecrated lay virgin.
When she was twenty, her uncle died, and she returned to live with her brothers, on her own property which would have been her dowry had she chosen to marry. She received another vision, that she was to establish an association of virgins who would devote their lives to teaching young girls, ensuring they received the Catholic faith.
In obedience to God’s will, Angela gathered twelve young women in the city of Brescia and began her life’s work. These women made a commitment of their lives on 25 November 1535, the feast day of St Catherine of Alexandria, another early Christian virgin martyr. They were the very first teaching order of female religious sisters.
Angela’s aim was to nourish and sanctify families through educating future wives and mothers in Christian virtue. She observed: “Disorder in society is the result of disorder in the family.”
Angela also wrote in her Spiritual Testament: “Mothers of children, even if they have a thousand, carry each and every one fixed in their hearts, and because of the strength of their love they do not forget any of them. In fact, it seems that the more children they have, the more their love and care for each one is increased.”
She knew that the family is the domestic church, the first school of love for every child, and if she and her religious sisters could foster the faith and intellect of young girls, that would produce significant positive flow-on effects for future generations.
Charity Begins at Home
Angela made a pilgrimage to Rome to gain the indulgences of the Jubilee Year. Pope Clement VII had heard of her virtue, and invited her to expand her work to Rome. However, Angela disliked the limelight, and chose to return to her humble hometown.
Angela taught her religious sisters to serve God while remaining in the world, teaching the girls in their own neighbourhoods, meeting regularly for prayer, and practising a form of religious life in their own homes, following a Rule of Life emphasising celibacy, poverty and obedience. Pope Paul III approved her Rule in 1544.
When Angela died in Brescia on 27 January 1540, there were 24 communities of the Company of St Ursula serving throughout the region. Her body was clothed in the habit of a Franciscan tertiary and was interred in the Church of Sant’Afra, where Angela had spent many hours praying at the tombs of the Brescian martyrs. Her body remained there until the church was destroyed by bombs in World War II. Angela’s incorrupt remains survived the bombing, and are still available for veneration in Brescia.
Woman of Faith
St Angela Merici’s life is a testament to the good which can flourish when a single person assents to God’s calling, becoming a flame which lights other candles, causing a cascade of love throughout space and time. Today, the Secular Institute of Saint Angela Merici or the Angelines are present in 23 countries throughout the world, including Singapore.
How is God calling you to serve today? Are there ways in which you can display God’s love to those in your neighbourhood, as St Angela did?
Do not lose heart, even if you should discover that you lack qualities necessary for the work to which you are called. He who called you will not desert you, but the moment you are in need, He will stretch out His saving hand.
– St Angela Merici
With the commencement of the new school year, various school leaders have been reassigned to new posts. After eight years of service as principal of CHIJ Katong Convent, Ms Patricia Chan has taken on a new posting, moving to the Ministry of Education (MOE) as Director of English Language and Literature in the Curriculum Planning and Development Division (CPDD).
Reflecting on her time in the CHIJ family, Ms Chan shares that her favourite memory is of Book and Music Week (BMW), a well-loved school tradition dating back more than fifty years. She explains: “It is a time where the formal confines of the classroom make way for spontaneous and experiential learning through the love of music, the written word and the arts.”
The spunky principal has aimed to do something memorable for her students in commencing the festivities each year. “In my first year, I dressed up as William Shakespeare and delivered my opening in iambic pentameter, while for the SG50 celebration in 2015 I performed a soliloquy as a Samsui Woman to celebrate the pioneers of Singapore,” Ms Chan reminisces. “Last year, I donned the IJ uniform to mark my coming of a full circle as a student and a principal, to drive home the message of time and space.”
(Photo: CHIJ Katong Convent Facebook)
Recalling a more challenging task, Ms Chan says: “Moving the school to a holding site for two years, overseeing the re-building of the school and moving the school back to Marine Terrace to its newly renovated and refurbished campus was also quite an experience. Embracing all the technicalities of construction, engineering and design was not without its difficulties – I was a fish out of water – but keeping sight of the core focus that we are building a conducive environment for work, play and study made the process exciting.”
Trust in God
Ms Chan ponders how her Catholic faith has guided her through her career: “As a person of faith, I know that God has a plan for everything. His ways are not our ways, and He always makes things good in His time.”
Recognising the hand of Divine Providence throughout her life, Ms Chan states: “I have learnt not to seek answers or solutions readily when things don’t turn out right; over time, I know the Lord will provide, I just need to have the faith and trust in Him.”
“More often than not,” she adds, “The answers or a way out is frequently through words and actions of others, or a change in the course of events, or sometimes, an inspiration of a brainwave which comes during unexpected periods.”
Turning to Scripture, Ms Chan reveals how the Word of God has sustained her: “My favourite quote from Philippians 4:13, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, has given me the strength to embrace the unknowns or the seemingly dire situations.”
Hope for the Future
Ms Chan expresses her hopes for the future of CHIJ Katong Convent, that it may “grow from strength to strength as a Catholic IJ school.”
“Specifically,” she adds, “For the staff – that they continue to grow in spirit, mind and skills for themselves and the charges they care for, and for the girls – that the school develops in them the strength of character to lead with care, to learn with passion, and to live with purpose as contributing members of society.”
Ms Patricia Chan donned the IJ uniform at the opening of her final Book and Music Week as the principal of CHIJ Katong Convent and reflected on how an IJ school inspired by the spirituality of Nicolas Barré set them up for life. (Photo: CHIJ Katong Convent Instagram)
A New Leader
Considering her successor, Mdm Hilda Tan Hwee Tsian – who has been rotated from Meridian Secondary School – Ms Chan says: “CHIJ Katong Convent is blessed to receive another IJ alumnus as her new principal. As IJ alumnus, Mrs Hilda Tan already has a shared experience and a common identity she can tap in charting the next directions of the school.”
Ms Chan continues: “The appreciation (Mdm Tan) has of the school’s history and heritage enables her to write the present in order to chart the growth of the school for future generations. She will have a good starting point.”
A Great Responsibility
Contemplating how her time as a Catholic school principal has formed her as a person, Ms Chan shares: “The oft-said statement that with authority comes responsibility, couldn’t have resonated more. As a Catholic leading a Catholic school, I take it as a personal accountability to uphold the Catholic ethos and identity of the school.”
Drawing upon a Biblical theme, Ms Chan continues: “I pretty much likened it to the parable of the talents, where I am privileged to be leading a Catholic school and therefore much is to be expected of me. Leadership has forced me out of my comfort zone in making my own faith journey more visible.”
Referring to the founder of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus schools, she affirms: “Understanding the charism of Blessed Nicolas Barré has also led me to grow in faith and spirituality in the way I lead the school and interact with my students and staff. This mindfulness has helped me calibrate how I need to think and act, especially with others.”
She concludes, “Being Principal of a Catholic school has given me the lens to consider how I might create an encounter with Christ for the people with whom I interact. This is a gift which I will continue to treasure and take to wherever I am.”
The teacher is like the candle which lights others in consuming itself.
– Giovanni Ruffini, Italian poet (1807-1881)
You have most likely heard of St Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant Dominican friar who wrote the Summa Theologiae, a compendium of all of Catholic theology. But do you know he was taught by St Albertus Magnus – Albert the Great?
As a young member of the Dominicans or Order of Preachers, Albert taught theology throughout Germany. In 1245, he became a Master of Theology and then a full-time professor in the University of Paris, where Aquinas began to study under him.
Albert was the first in medieval Christendom to produce commentaries on all of Aristotle’s writings, introducing Greek and Arabic science and philosophy to Europe. He was also a keen botanist, biologist, mineralogist and astronomer, studying the natural sciences. He is thus recognised as one of the 36 Doctors of the Church, as the Doctor of Science and the Universal Doctor, because of the depth and breadth of his knowledge and teaching. The word “doctor” is Latin for “teacher”. The Doctors of the Church are saints who made significant contributions to theology or doctrine through their research or writing.
Aquinas’ fellow students teased him for being rotund and reticent, calling him “The Dumb Ox”. Albert overheard them and said: “Ox he is, and his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world.”
Building on his mentor’s work, Aquinas produced the pinnacle of scholastic philosophy, the Summa Theologiae, systemising Catholic teaching in harmony with Aristotelian principles, a profound marriage of faith and reason, the fruit of three decades of collaboration between Aquinas and Albert.
In 1260, Pope Alexander IV appointed Albert as the Bishop of Regensburg in Germany. Though he occupied an esteemed position, Albert refrained from owning or riding a horse, in accordance with his order’s vow of poverty. He walked all over his considerably large diocese, earning him the affectionate nickname “Boots the Bishop” from his flock. He also founded the University of Cologne, Germany’s oldest university.
Albert passed away on 15 November 1280, six years after his star pupil Aquinas. His body was discovered to be incorrupt upon exhumation three years after his death. Albertus Magnus is a patron saint of scientists, philosophers and students.
Reflecting on Albert’s life, we see how he gave glory to God through his vocation as a teacher, encouraging his students like Thomas Aquinas to reach their full potential and even surpass him. He was not just academically gifted, but also had a pastor’s heart, faithfully tending to the members of his diocese despite the daunting distance on foot. He is a shining example to teachers everywhere, to maintain the virtues of humility and charity while serving God, being a model of Christian discipline and bringing out the best in their students. From Albertus Magnus, we learn to appreciate God’s handiwork throughout all creation, from the tiniest plant or mineral to the glorious stars in the heavens.
Prayer to St Albert
Dear Scientist and Doctor of the Church, natural science always led you to the higher science of God. Though you had an encyclopedic knowledge, it never made you proud, for you regarded it as a gift of God. Inspire scientists to use their gifts well in studying the wonders of creation, thus bettering the lot of the human race and rendering greater glory to God. Amen.
For many who graduate from school, what endures beyond the grades and accolades is friendship. True friends share in each other’s joys and support one another through challenging times; they help each other grow in virtue, knowledge and maturity. St John Bosco, an educator of street urchins and founder of the Salesians, counselled:
Pope John Paul II, born Karol Józef Wojtyła – whose feast is on 22 October, the day of his papal inauguration – knew the importance of friendship as a young man. The German Nazis and Russian communists invaded Poland during his university days in 1939; the university was shut down and he was forced to work as a manual labourer, quarrying limestone. During that time, he met Jan Tyranowski, assigned by a Salesian priest as a student mentor. Jan introduced Karol to the Living Rosary youth groups, which continued to meet throughout World War II, keeping the faith while their priests were imprisoned.
Karol soon discerned a vocation to the priesthood, and Jan managed to attend his ordination on 1 November 1946 before dying of tuberculosis. As a young priest, Fr Wojtyła formed youth groups as his friend Jan had. These young men and women went hiking, attended retreats, and put on plays, despite being in a war zone. In these groups, the youth found freedom which was denied them by the oppressive regime which had seized control of all institutions, including schools. Through the apostolate of friendship, they were able to cultivate human flourishing in the midst of violent turmoil, helping one another grow holistically.
A young John Paul on a hiking trip. Source: voiceofthesouthwest.org
The word “friend” comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning “to love”. Pope John Paul II wrote in his book Love and Responsibility:
This echoes St Thomas Aquinas, who said, “Love is to will the good of another.”
In fact, what Jan and Fr Wojtyła did reflected what Jesus Himself did during His earthly mission. He gathered a group of friends around Him (John 15:15), teaching them about God the Father through His words and actions. These friends of Christ spread the Word of God throughout the world, inviting each of us today to join them in becoming friends of God. The most effective evangelisation is based on a solid foundation of friendship, where one receives the love of God through a friend. How can you share God’s love with your friends today?
This evening, the Infant Jesus Sisters invite everyone to join in the celebration of Holy Mass commemorating the 400th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Nicolas Barré, the founder of their order. Mass will be live-streamed online on YouTube, celebrated by Fr Derrick Yap, OFM.
Today’s feast concludes the jubilee year of the fourth centenary of his birth, a celebration which began last October 21. Nicolas was born the eldest of five children to Antoinette and Louis Barré on 21 October 1621 in Amiens, France. He was their only son; they probably expected him to take over the family business.
However, educated by Jesuits from the age of ten, Nicolas witnessed their prayerful life integrated with charitable action; the Jesuits provided free lodging for poor students. The Jesuits were a missionary order sending priests all over the world to share the Gospel. Nicolas was inspired to be a priest.
Serving the Poor
Instead of joining the Jesuits, he decided to become a Minim, living among the poorest people in town and serving them throughout the epidemics, famines and wars of mid-seventeenth century France. Their motto, Caritas, later influenced the spirituality of the “Charitable Teachers” assembled by Fr Barré: the Infant Jesus Sisters.
Fr Barré was a noted philosophy and theology lecturer, as well as director of the library at the Minim convent of Place Royale, Paris, France. He witnessed the terrible poverty of the people of Paris. During a period of illness, he prayed and reflected that many social ills were the result of youth lacking education, and hence a sense of purpose and direction in life. Fr Barré decided to invite two young women, twenty-year-old Marguerite Lestocq and eighteen-year-old Françoise Duval, to help teach impoverished girls. Three other ladies soon joined the work, known as “Little Charitable Schools”.
Growth of the Mission
After four years of running these small schools, Fr Barré invited the teachers to live as a religious community under the care of Divine Providence: the Charitable Mistresses of the Schools of the Holy Infant Jesus.
He wrote: “We should live in a state of complete dependence on grace, and however great the gifts and effects it produces, we should always focus on God Who is its source. As to our good deeds, we should remember that it is God Who deigns to act through us.”
Summoned back to Paris by the Minims, Fr Barré discovered that news of his schools had spread, and a wealthy woman, Marie de Lorraine, invited him to open more with her financial help. Together, they founded ten schools and a small hospital.
In time, the Infant Jesus Sisters became an institute of pontifical right with communities in five continents, educating children throughout the world. Fr Barré was consulted by St John Baptist de la Salle, who founded the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools to educate boys.
Arrival in Singapore
When founding the LaSallian St Joseph’s Institution in Singapore, Fr Jean-Marie Beurel wrote to the Infant Jesus Sisters in France, asking them to send missionaries to start a girls’ school. The sisters arrived in 1854 after an arduous journey by ship, and founded both a school and an orphanage for babies abandoned at their “Gate of Hope”.
The sisters trusted in God’s providence, teaching by day and supporting themselves as embroiderers by night. Their mission expanded to Japan in 1872 and Thailand in 1885. In Malaya and Singapore, they established 83 schools. Today, there are eleven Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) schools in Singapore.
The CHIJ badge, designed by French students in 1894, bears the motto Simple Dans Ma Vertu, Forte Dans Mon Devoir: Simple in My Virtue, Steadfast in My Duty. It is a reminder to persevere in one’s responsibilities despite all challenges.
An IJ education forms students holistically, building their characters for the lifelong love and service of God and others. As the hymn to Father Barré says: “Touch many hearts to follow in your footsteps/To dedicate their lives to youth and poor/… to make Christ known and loved.”
At Blessed Nicolas Barré’s beatification in Rome, on 7 March 1999, Pope John Paul II said: “Nicolas Barré tirelessly sought to lead both the people he directed and the charitable teachers to the prayer of the heart, inspired by contemplation of the inexpressible mystery of God Who out of love became a human being and even a little child.”
Today, we celebrate his legacy of faith and love which has formed so many young Singaporean women throughout the generations. Join the IJ community in praying the Mass at 8pm on YouTube.