A Foreigner I Will Always Remember

Holy Dove Sun

 

When I was a kid, my parents, along with my older brothers and sisters, would make regular trips to our parish church - the Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit along Upper Thomson Road.
 
These visits to the church, which was within walking distance from our home, were borne out of necessity. With 12 children to feed, my parents always had to struggle to make ends meet and we had to depend on the charity of the church. Each trip would see my siblings return with bags of rice, sugar and assorted goodies.
 
When you are poor, these foodstuffs are a godsend. I also remember being elated at seeing new things. It was not a frequent occurrence that we had such new stuff. So when we do, I was always happy, like any other kid I guess.
 
The main culprit of such compassion was the parish priest, Father Anthony Schotte. Even now, some 40 or so years later, I still remember him distinctly. Always dressed in his cassock of saintly white, Father Schotte was a gentle soul. His white goatee, cotton-white hair and glowing complexion (which I always thought was a consequence of his bountiful capacity for love) were a sight to behold. His speech was always gentle, and he always smiled and there was an apparent divine aura about him.  
 
It was only years later that I found out more about him.
 
Father Anthony Schotte
Father Anthony Schotte
 
Father Schotte was born in 1905, and was a Belgian missionary priest from the Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae (Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary - CICM) order. 
 
According to its website, "In Singapore, CICM is popularly known as Scheut Missions. The name Scheut, meaning shot (the distance an arrow flies) or, according to others, shoot or sprout, refers to a suburb of Brussels, Belgium. It is here that in 1862 Father Theophile Verbist, a Belgian diocesan priest, founded a Missionary Institute with China as mission field uppermost on his mind."
 
Father Schotte had spent 22 years as a missionary priest in Ningxia, China, before he was expelled and moved to Singapore in 1958. In 1960, he founded the Holy Spirit Church.
 
He was an inspiring priest, despite his soft-spoken ways. He would visit us at our home to see how the children were doing. Although I don't remember much of what exactly he had done for us (because I was more interested in goofing around with friends and playing football and catching spiders), I remember his visits. Nonetheless, these were enough to leave an impression on me till this day. Of course, as we attended church service without fail every weekend, I also remember him at the altar, conducting mass and the catholic practice of holy communion and confession.
 
I always was silently awed whenever the eucharist was offered - this saintly man in such close contact with God himself. Only the special, chosen ones are given such privilege, I thought.
 
As a kid, these acts of kindness by Father Schotte were instructive and uplifting. It showed me that there are people in this world who would go out of their way to offer you a hand. The two priests of Holy Spirit, the other being Father Fossion (who was the longest serving priest in Singapore who died at the age of 92), were mainstays of my childhood. They were always either visiting us or we would see them at church.
 
I guess it was they - and my very devout parents - who instilled in me the value of compassion and charity. It is one thing to be told to be charitable, it is quite another to see and experience it. The latter is much more effective in terms of inculcating these values in the young, in my opinion.
 
In those days, churches were not air-conditioned like they are now, and priests lived frugally. They were like de facto Members of Parliament (MPs), making visits to homes and providing help when they can.
 
When our landlord wanted to evict us because we couldn't pay the rent, it was again the church and Father Schotte who helped us. Fortunately, it turned out well and the landlord relented. I remember the worried look on my dad's face as he faced the prospects of his entire family - 14 people in all - being turned out onto the streets. Fortunately, we were allocated an HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio soon after. And so, 14 of us ended up in a 4-room flat. But we were glad. It's better than being left on the streets.
 
We couldn't have survived all those years in the seventies if Father Schotte and the church had not helped us. I will always be eternally grateful to them.
 
Although I no longer am a catholic, I am fully aware that the churches do very good - and much needed - work. They supplement and complement what social workers do. Without these charitable people, me and my family's life would have been much harder.
 
Father Schotte passed away in 1980, a year after we moved in to the 4-room flat in Ang Mo Kio. He was 75.
 
I wish I was older when he died, so that I could have paid my last respects. He had been buried at Choa Chu Kang cemetery but in 2008, his remains were moved and interred at the Holy Spirit columbarium.
 
A fitting resting place for a priest who dedicated 22 years of his life to caring for the less fortunate in Singapore, a country which is a long way from his own home in Belgium.
 
He is one foreigner I will always remember.
 

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