SR. AGNES-CLAIRE CELEBRATES 25TH ANNIVERSARY
A Conversation with Sr Agnes-Claire, Good Shepherd Sister for 25 years
What is the main takeaway for you during your sabbatical?
I spent 10 weeks at the Redemptorist Renewal Centre located in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains and the Sonoran Desert, Arizona, USA.
The main takeaway during this time is that in all my life, God is there for me. My painting depicts my sentiments.
It was also a time of rest and to enjoy God’s creation in the Sonoran Desert. This is a very green desert, so I could admire and appreciate nature in its full glory – all kinds of cacti, flowers, birds, deer, scorpions, rattle snakes, quails, sunrise and sunset and many more, as seen in the following photos.
What is the theme for your Anniversary celebrations? What is your reason for choosing the theme?
The theme I have chosen is, “Great is the faithfulness of God”. As I look back at my life, I see God being there all the time for me. I might not see Him as I was going through the experience, but when I ponder and reflect later, as in hind sight, I will see God’s hand in there.
Briefly describe the roles you have undertaken as a Good Shepherd Sister for the past 25 years. Please share with us some unforgettable person(s) or incidents.
I served as Care Staff, Counsellor, Social Worker and Residential Manager. I have worked with young girls, teenage girls, young adults, single mothers, women who experienced spousal violence, abused domestic helpers, trafficked persons. Some of these clients are from Singapore, while others come from different parts of Asia.
The plight of most of the abused foreign domestic workers have touched me generally. But I am most amazed by those who claimed they were 24 years old but were actually below that age. The youngest I met was 16 years old. I cannot imagine having to work at 16 years old in a foreign country to help my family out financially. My heart goes out to the young girls, who in their big-heartedness to come to Singapore (a foreign land for them) to earn money so that their family back home would have food, shelter and education for their children or siblings, have been hoodwinked into becoming sex workers. I can just imagine the trauma that they went through, yet they had to continue because they got sucked unwittingly into the system.
Above all, I admire their resilience – practically every one of them. They come to our Centre, so broken, so disillusioned, so lost, so confused. Yet given the amount of care and rest, time and space, they recover, bounce back and live life again, stronger, and willing to learn whatever the Centre would teach so that they could be equipped with vocational and language skills to make a comeback either in their own homeland or in another country.
One girl that stood out for me is Nur (not her real name) who came to the Teenage Centre at the age of 14. She was a gang member with tattoos on both her forearms. She was under Probation Services, under the then Ministry of Community Development and Social Services and had to stay for 1.5 years in our Centre with restrictions such as curfew hours. After she settled into our Centre, she went back to school and became very responsive to our programme. At that time she owed the gang members some money and we made cookies to help her raise funds to pay them back. Later we also looked into ways to help her remove her tattoos. She became one of our leaders in the group and was very helpful in encouraging the younger residents to stay on the right path. I asked her once, “Nur, what made you change and what made you so determined to stay on track?” She said it was because she was really down in the pits, reached rock bottom when she was sent to us. And she said the only way was up and out, so she decided to change and to focus on her future by studying and keeping to the restrictions of her probation officer. That freed me from carrying the burden that I must make all girls change to become better when they are in our programme. Nur helped me to realize that we can only do our best and the clients themselves choose whether they want to change and grow or not.
The other person was May (not her real name), a woman who had been physically and sexually abused by her husband. May stayed with us for about 2.5 years. She left only after her divorce was finalised and she had a rental flat from HDB. May came to us with her 5-year-old daughter. Both suffered from the trauma of her sexual abuse. May was sickly with lots of physical ailments – migraine, back ache, high blood pressure, diabetes and growth in her liver. Her daughter suffered from severe allergy to lots of food items, asthma, bed wetting and sleep walking. May was on financial assistance from the Family Service Centre for a long time. Her daughter was on Financial Assistance Scheme from the Ministry of Education. May wanted very much to have her own flat so she could cook and bake to earn some income. The limitation of staying in our Centre was that we did not have a separate cooking facility for her to put her talent to use. She often felt frustrated that her case moved so slowly, and that she was full of physical ailments. In the beginning, May often went into a rage and would speak harshly to our staff and her daughter. She also misunderstood our concern for her, for example, initially when we asked if she was able to get a job, she became angry because she thought we wanted her to pay for her stay at our Centre. It took a long while to clarify with her that we were just concerned about her well-being and that making a monetary contribution to the Centre was secondary. After about 2 years, May became more positive, and believed that we genuinely cared for her and her daughter. She became more expressive and could share with us her problems and struggles. Even though she was living on financial assistance, when our migrants were going home, she would give them some money to bring home or buy things home for their families. When she finally settled her divorce and subsequently obtain her HDB rental flat, she was overjoyed. We helped her to move, supplied her with the essentials that she needed, such as mattresses, fridge, stove, oven, and washing machine to help her settle in.
May continues to visit us at the Centre. She does home catering and baking and is financially independent. Very often, she would buy and bring groceries for the Centre. Recently, she connected with a women’s group and she advocated for us and influenced this group to donate groceries to our Centre as well. May is very grateful that when she was down and out, we took her into our Centre and gave her and her daughter food and shelter, prompting her to pay it forward. I am very touched by her gratitude, and her spirit of wanting to give back, now that she is more stabilized emotionally and financially.
Who would you like to thank for your Good Shepherd journey?
My Parents and Family
First of all, I am very grateful to be born in my Catholic family. My Catholic roots go back all the way to China. My great-grandfather left China for Singapore because of persecution of faith at that time, probably in the late 1800s. My siblings and I have been very steeped in our faith, thanks to our late parents who did their best to bring us up as Catholics. They were the first to give me life and my faith in God. From my father who was a farmer, I learnt to be practical and yet depend on God. As a child I witnessed my father calling for our parish priest to bless our pigs when they fell sick. It was after the blessing that he would call for the vet to see what was wrong with the pigs. Our mother was responsible for teaching us to pray. As soon as we could talk, we learnt the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and I Believe in Teochew dialect in preparation to join in the family Rosary every night. From her, I witnessed how praying and reliance on God was so important in our lives. At her death bed, she called for Jesus, Mary and Joseph to help her.
When I look at my Formation as a Religious, I would say my parents were my first formators. Who I am today is largely influenced by the upbringing in my family. So I thank my parents and my family members for how I turned out today.
Good Shepherd Family
I also thank my Good Shepherd Family for the influence they have in my religious life; their generosity in accepting me as a member, the spiritual and professional formation I received over the years have helped me to be the Good Shepherd Sister I am today. Special mention to Sr Columba Cannon, (RIP in 2000) who was responsible for inviting me to look at my call as a Religious to the Good Shepherd, and who also showed me what it meant that “One person is of more value than the whole world.”
Over the years, I have also been blessed with many Spiritual guides who accompanied me in my Spiritual journey. And every one of them came at the right time, thanks be to God. I want to make special mention to Bro Ron Fogarty, (RIP in 2009) Marist Brother from Melbourne, who met me in Singapore when I was still a very young Pre-Novice in 1989. He journeyed with me from then till about 1996. He came to Singapore or Malaysia every year to give formation to the Temporary Professed sisters. I used to write to him very often and he would reply just as regularly, answering all my questions about Community living, religious and prayer life, and encouraging me on in my journey. He was the first person to help me see that God loves me for who I am. And I know my Spiritual journey springboard from there – to love myself for who I am as God would have loved me.
What is your wish or hope for Good Shepherd Sisters for the next 3 years?
That we would be a Community that gives witness to our Shepherd’s love for each other, that we really connect with each other as sisters, and also that when others see each one of us, they would see the face of the Good Shepherd in us.
What is one advice you would give to young women aspiring to join Good Shepherd Sisters?
Come and see… the journey is worth it, even if at the end you do not choose to be a religious.
On the occasion of her 25th Anniversary as a Good Shepherd Sister on 22 October 2017 with Mass celebrated by her brother, Fr Peter Koh, CICM and Fr Pat Devlin, SM and buffet dinner served at Good Shepherd Place, Singapore, Sr Agnes-Claire penned a beautiful prayer, Magnificat of Gratitude, which she kindly shared.
Magnificat of Gratitude
My soul proclaims the Lord, my God
My Spirit sings God’s wonderful praise
God has called me to Himself
And never will God forsake me
My journey started on a tedious note
At times I seemed so tired and lost
But the Grace of God was there
And tears at last do turn to joy
Truly I have grown closer to God
And God has taught me to love Him
It’s not in vain I sing this song
My joy dwells deep in my heart
In gratitude I come to You
The memories of Your great love
With heartfelt thanks I sing my song
My soul doth magnify my God
Sr Agnes-Claire with Good Shepherd Family