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.”

Letter from The Past

An old letter from Peking that tells a little more of our past

An old letter from Peking that tells a little more of our past

This post would be appreciated most by the Tseng clan, but anyone with an interest in old letters and China in the last days of the Qing dynasty may find something in it.

My Uncle Michael (Mike) Tseng faxed me an old letter a few weeks ago. It was dated 1978 and possibly the last letter from a relative still residing in China to our family. It was written by our Grand Uncle, Professor Gordon Kuo Cheng Wong, to Roland Tseng, eldest son of Harry Wei Han Tseng.

The letter sheds a little light on the childhood of Peter and Harry, the forefathers who brought us Tsengs to Singapore. I’ve tried to copy it verbatim so you’ll see some grammatical mistakes (this was not his native language), but bits have faded away and the Chinese characters are garbled.

Bear in mind that when he wrote this, he had been living in Communist China for decades already and correspondence with family and friends outside China would have been limited. It’s long but it is family history, after all:

Peking, March 10, 1978

My dear Roland,

 It is indeed a great surprise to me to receive a dear letter from the Tseng’s family. Your brother John’s last letter to me, was about a year ago. I was longing for his answer, but no result. I don’t know the reason and I am intending to write to him, and I get yours.

As relatives, the Wong family and the Tseng family were very closely and intimately related to each other. In the olden days,  I and your father lived, ate, drank and slept under the same roof, and went to school together. That was a joyful and delightful memory. It is my duty to tell you your family tree and our relationship. It was so many years ago, and now I am already seventy-five years old and have a bad or poor memory of the past which was so many years ago. But anyway I shall try my best to recollect and to tell you what I can remember (of) the old facts. To begin with, in regard to your family tree. As far as I can remember your great grandfather when I was only three or four years old, I saw him. He was a tall fellow, with a small moustache under his nose and wearing spectacles. At present, I cannot recall his name.*  He spoke very good English and was educated in Hongkong. He had a wife and a concubine with six sons and nine daughters. His first son or eldest one was your grandfather (Ho Tung) had a wife and two sons. The eldest son (Wai Mun)** your uncle, you must have seen and his family when you were young in Singapore. The younger son was your father (Wei Han).

Your grandfather was a customs clerk for the Ching dynasty which was controlled by the Imperialist British and other foreigners. The foreign service commissioner, because your father was in ill health, dismissed him. He was out of a job then. So since 1908, he and his family came to Hankow and lived with us and were taken care of by my mother and father. We were getting along very happy and well. Your father and uncle’s education was taken care of by my father*** because your grandfather was out of a job, without any income. Their early education, in the middle school in Hankow was (XX–couldn’t make out the Chinese character) middle school. I and my sisters with your father and uncle went to the same school. Later your father and uncle were graduated from XX school,  and they were sent for higher education to Shanghai, St John University, this was also taken care of by my father. While in the University, your father was a good athlete, he was chosen to be the team member of the football and crew varsity team.  

Staff of the Bank of Communications in China. My father, Peter Wai Mun is seated cross legged. His Uncle, the head of the bank is on the extreme left.

Staff of the Bank of Communications in China. My father, Peter Wai Mun is seated cross legged. His Uncle, the head of the bank is on the extreme left.

In 1914, my father was transferred to Singapore as the Manager of the Bank of Communications, then my family and your family were all sent to Singapore and lived together. Your father and uncle then worked in the Bank of Communications as accountants and ever since your family has settled in Singapore.

In 1919, I as an overseas’ representative, took an examination in the Chinese Consulate office, got the scholarship and entered the Tsing Hua College in Peking. This college was sponsored by the American Boxer Indemnity Fund board and was controlled by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. When I graduated (I was) automatically sent to America for high education. When I went to America in 1926 I entered Oberlin University in Ohio and in 1923 I went to New York to take up graduate study in Columbia University till 1931, then I came back to China and worked in the banks***. After liberation**** I and my family came to Peking and got into the Institute of Foreign Trade, as professor. In 1972, I retired with a monthly pension. Now I live in a suburb in the northern part of Peking. 

Your ancestors’ place of origin or native place was the village (Sai Kiu San or Xi Qiao Shan) in the county (Nan Hai) Kwangtung (GuangDong) Province in South China.

Your great grandfather (Tseng Hai) was born in Hong Kong and educated there an once the Consulate-General of Honolulu for several years, after retired he died in Hongkong.

Your father (Harry Wei Han) returned to China twice:

1)In 1925, I was in Tsing Hua College then, so I did not see them. Your father and mother came to Shanghai, to paid a visit to my father and mother and your sixth granduncle and they also visited Hangchow, I was told they had a very good time. Your granduncle had no son, so he adopted your father as his legal son. My father was the witness, and your father was entitled to at least a share of your granduncle’s inherited properties. But after the death of your granduncle, his second wife ran away with the inherited properties, perhaps to Hongkong, nobody knows.

2. In 1932, when he came to Shanghai to attend your sixth granduncle’s funeral, which I did not see him also because I was not in Shanghai then and went for a business trip. So far the above summary, are what I remember now and later if I recall anything regards your family  shall write and tell you about it. Good-bye and good luck to you and your family.

Yours affectionately,

K.C. Wong*****

*He was referring to Tseng Hai, father of Tseng Ho Tung, my great grandfather

**Wai Mun was my grandfather, Peter Tseng

***I know, the dates don’t add up but that’s what was on the letter

****Notice that he called the rise of the Communist regime “liberation”

*****KC Wong was the son of Tseng Ho Tung’s sister, who married into the Wong family who managed the Bank of Communications.