A Woman of Substance: Sister Valerie Tseng IJS

Sister Valerie in the 1950s
Sister Valerie in the 1950s

Sister Valerie Tseng, or Aunty Mary will celebrate her 91st birthday this year. It will also mark the 62nd year of her vocation as a nun with the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, a Catholic order founded in France in 1675.

While many of us would be in awe of her life-long commitment to her vocation, it is her achievements within the Order that mark her truly as a woman of substance.

Sister Valerie was born in 1924. She was the third in a large family of eight siblings, and the only girl. Originally named Mary, she was confident, intelligent and outspoken. They were Anglicans but after a few years of attending school at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, she and her brothers, who attended St Joseph’s Institution decided to convert to Catholicism. She remembers that her brothers egged her on to represent the siblings to get permission from her mum and dad. Her parents were strict, and it took guts to broach such a sensitive topic, but she did it. The parents relented, and they converted shortly after.

Aunty Mary never intended to be a nun. She was a qualified teacher, had a steady boyfriend and the plan was to get married and settle down.

Mary at her family home

God obviously had other plans for her.

It was 1950. The boyfriend had gone for an extended business trip to India. While he was away, Aunty Mary went with her friend, Margaret, to Kota Kinabalu (it was called Jesselton then) to promote the Legion of Mary in the nearby villages. The mission trip was far from easy. There were no roads, no running water, no proper sanitation. Her mode of transport was on foot via  muddy ruts through padi fields and the Mill House Congregation of nuns that worked in the area lived with only the barest of necessities.

It was then that she received the calling to serve.

“Why me, Lord? I have a boyfriend already!” was her initial reaction. Confused, she returned to Singapore and went to her parish priest, Father Meisonniere, for guidance.

Father Meisonniere, however, sent her on her way. “It is not a calling,” he told her. Little did she know that this was actually the padre’s test. The religious life was not for everyone, and it would mean a lifetime of sacrifices for Mary.  If the calling was real, it would persist.

Mary (centre in flowered dress) with her family

True enough, the gentle urging never went away. “No matter how hard I tried to push the voice away, it kept coming back,” she reminisced. She was conflicted and confided in Margaret. “If I were you, I would go see Father again,” urged Margaret. When she went back again to see the priest, he knew that this was the real thing. “When he finally confirmed that this was genuine and I accepted that this would be the path I would take, the urging went away and I felt a great peace,” she said.

In her nun's habit
In her nun’s habit

The priest then asked her which religious order she planned to join. The Mill House Congregation based in Jesselton was her first choice but at the time, they did not accept local girls, as it was a British order. The Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus (now known as the Sisters of the Infant Jesus) was the other option that she was familiar with but it was not her preference. She had an unpleasant experience with a few of the Lay Sisters, Europeans who were too “colonial” in mindset. They were kind and friendly to the privileged but were rude and gave no time of day to the poorer students. Father Meisonniere had a different view point. “Pray, don’t imitate the Lay Sisters. Be a good religious and an example for them to follow,” was his advice.

A full fledged sister of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus
A full fledged sister of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus

So it was settled. Mary joined the Infant Jesus Sisters and was sent to Penang. After her first year, she took the first formal step with the Pris D’Habit, or the donning of the habit. Wearing the nun’s habit in the fifities was a sacrifice in itself. Made for the cold European climate, the habit was made of serge and and comprised many layers. Aunty Mary remembered quite a few novices passing out from the heat at the Pris D’Habit ceremony – it was just too hot in those clothes!

As a young nun, Mary’s task was to teach Mathematics to the senior middle students in the Ave Maria Convent in Ipoh, a task she initially found daunting as she felt she was not qualified enough to teach Advanced Mathematics. Nevertheless, she soldiered on.

Three years flew by and in 1957, Mary travelled to Paris, France where she received her Final Vows and took on the name of Sister Valerie. Thereafter, she was sent to Liverpool in the United Kingdom to study Advanced Mathematics for a year before returning to Malaya to teach.

The Malaya that Sister Valerie returned to was radically different. It was no longer a British Colony and was now an independent nation. As a holder of a Malayan passport, Sister Valerie taught at the IJ Convent in Pulau Tikus, Penang, for the next 13 years.  A capable and strong leader, Sister Valerie was eventually elected Mother Superior in Malaysia.

In 1971, Sister Valerie was sent to attend the General Chapter, a meeting of the IJ Order that took place once every five years to chart the future of the Order and to elect the international leadership team. At the General Chapter, Sister Valerie was one of five Council members elected to assist the Superior General, Mother Maria Del Rosario Brandoly, in leading the Order. This was a significant step as Sister Valerie was the first ever Asian Sister to be elected to the Council. She went on to serve two terms on the Council, each lasting six years.

For the next 12 years, Sister Valerie was based in Rome, Italy, as part of the core group that developed the new constitution for the Order. As part of the Council, she had a hectic schedule and travelled the world, accompanying the Superior General in seeing to the smooth running of the Order. Not unlike a busy CEO, Sister Valerie travelled from Japan to Spain to Bolivia, learning Spanish, Japanese and Italian to better communicate with the people in each market. She did not like Rome much – ‘much too hot in Summer, and dust everywhere!’, but relished her travels, as it opened her to new experiences and viewpoints in engaging with the community and ensuring the growth and renewal of the IJ Order.

With IJ students in Malaysia
With IJ students in Malaysia

When her term was over, Sister Valerie returned to Asia where she was tasked with explaining the recently amended constitution to IJ institutions in the region. Ironically, despite being home, she did not feel entirely welcome. The nuns in Asia were too much in awe of her ‘seniority’, and kept her at arms length. “They sent me to Cameron Highlands when I first returned. I guess they had no idea what to do with me and probably felt a little threatened. It was a bit of a double-edged sword,” she mused.

Sister Valerie, ISJ, hale and hearty at 90 years
Sister Valerie, IJS, hale and hearty at 90 years

Over the years, she went wherever she was needed, travelling throughout Asia and moving from Convent to Convent in Malaysia as a teacher.

Today, she lives quietly in Johor Bahru, still helping out with the community. Until recently, she cared for a little girl who was abandoned by parents who were drug addicts. Looking back at her life, she says simply: “This was my path. The Lord had planned it this way. No matter how hard you try, if he calls, you follow, or you will never truly know peace.”


The Quiet Evangelist: Father Gerald Tseng, S.J.

Father Gerald Tseng S.J. with my family in the sixties
Father Gerald Tseng S.J. with my family in the sixties. I was not born then.

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.

SJI football team, 1946. Father Jerry on the front row, extreme right
SJI class football team, 1946. Father Jerry on the front row, extreme right
Class Photo SJI, 1948. Brother Ignatius and Uncle Mallen were his teachers
Class Photo SJI, 1948. Brother Ignatius and Uncle Mallen (Nicholas) were his teachers. Father Jerry is standing behind Bro. Ignatius

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 Gerald Tseng's ordination in Dublin, Ireland in 1963
Father Gerald Tseng’s ordination in Dublin, Ireland in 1963

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.

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