When I was a child, I looked forward to Chinese New Year, not just for the feasting, but also because a special guest would come round to visit. As I come from a very Catholic family, the presence of Father Gerald Tseng S.J., or Uncle Jerry in our house was always an honour, and most of my relatives would try to coincide their visits to be at our place when he came by.
Father Jerry is one of the most congenial men I know. Always smiling and eternally affable, his mild manners and gentle ways are for me the epitome of Christian gentleness. I’ve always had a fascination with people who receive the Calling and consequently dedicate their lives to God. I asked Uncle Jerry about his journey and it was interestingly his school experiences that converted him to Catholicism and subsequently to becoming a priest.
Father Jerry studied at St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) for most of his early school life,except during WWII when he hunkered down with his family in Devonshire Road.
During those tumultous years before and after the war, school was a place that had a semblance of normalcy for most teenagers. The La Salle brothers who taught at SJI had a profound influence on Father Jerry and he aspired to be a teacher like them, dedicating his life to moulding young boys to be men for the future.
Father Jerry wanted to be a priest as well as a teacher and therefore chose to be a Jesuit. After receiving his Senior Cambridge certificate at SJI at the age of 21 in 1950, he left Singapore to join the Jesuit Novitiate in The Philippines.
What followed then was a path round the world in an arduous 13-year journey to become a Jesuit priest: seven years in The Philippines; another four years studying theology in Dublin, Ireland (he hated the cold); a year of tertianship (the final year of formation in the Society of Jesus) in Murcia, Spain, followed by a final year stint in London at St. Mary’s College.
After his ordination in 1963, Father Jerry was posted to Kowloon to teach before transferring to St Francis Xavier church in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia for eight years. He finally returned to Singapore in 1976 to teach at his alma mater, SJI while playing the role of chaplain at the Catholic Junior College hostel.
Father Jerry’s quiet spirituality touched many throughout his journey as a priest and teacher, and ex-students speak fondly of him as one of the nicest teachers at SJI. “Father Tseng taught me Science and he was very kind. He would tell us to mark topics in order of 1st importance, 2nd importance and 3rd importance, Basically, if you studied only the 1st importance topics, you would be all set,” reminisced Matt Lee, an old boy of SJI who was taught by Father Jerry in the eighties.
Father Jerry speaks with pride about the many boys under his care who have gone on to be ordained as Brothers and Priests in various Catholic denominations. He recalls how he encouraged many boys, even non-Christians, to join the Legion of Mary, and it was through a deeper experience with prayer and fellowship that led to many finding their calling. In a recent Catholic News article, Deacon Gerard Louis cited Father Jerry as a source of inspiration during his days as a student at SJI. “He was such a simple man,” he recalls.
Father Jerry is retired now, and passes his days in prayer and contemplation at Kingsmead Hall, a residence for the Jesuits located next to St. Ignatius church in Bukit Timah. I drop by to see Uncle Jerry every few months, and I always come away with a sense of peace after my visits. With him, the passage about Ezekiel’s encounter with God (1 Kings 19:11-13) comes to mind: that God comes not as a strong wind or force but as a gentle breeze. Or like the shepherd in Isaiah 40:11: He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
One does not need to be a rockstar preacher to be a fisher of men, and Uncle Jerry, the quiet evangelist, is a shining example.