Originating from the Latin word ‘Frater’, which translates to ‘brother’, St. Francis of Assisi’s Ordo Fratrum Minorum (Order of Friars Minor) has a Rule which is, to simply live the gospel in poverty and chastity. The Franciscan friars in Singapore are a part of the Custody of St Anthony, comprising five friary communities and three parishes.
In the 1950s, the Vatican faced the rising threat of communism in South-East Asia. As a counter measure, Franciscans were sent to Singapore to establish a Sociological Institute for outreach, research and translation of various pieces of Christian literature into other languages for an extensive range of dissemination. These works included teachings on justice and equality, brotherhood and fraternity.
In March 1957, four acres of land were bought at Old Jurong Road by Irish Friar Vergil Mannion, and work for the sociology centre and chapel began in mid-1958. In the next decade, many friars came from different countries to engage in various works inclusive of translating Christian literature, pastoral work, conducting retreats, spiritual direction and preaching in Malaysia and Singapore.
Not many are aware that the Church of St Mary of the Angels is not the first Franciscan-run church in Singapore. In 1958, a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima in the small fishing village of Tuas was run by some Franciscans. Upon entering into a 25-year pastoral contract with the Archbishop to establish a church in north-western Singapore, a parish centre was built in Boon Lay in 1971, followed by the church of St Francis of Assisi located nearby in 1976. Upon expiration of the contract in 1982, the Archdiocese of Singapore took over the operations for the parish in Boon Lay.
When the Sociology Centre relocated to Taiwan in the 1970s, operations for the chapel St Mary of the Angels as a parish community began. Australian Friar Sylvester Campbell was the first parish priest for a mere 500 Catholics. Since being totally redeveloped in 2004, the Church of St Mary of the Angels now has a parish population of at least 8,000, with the St Anthony Friary to house friars and just recently, the San Damiano Spirituality Centre to promote Franciscan spirituality, Franciscan formation and retreats.