The Good Shepherd

Sunday, 3 July 1887 - Singapore

Today I visited the Church of the Good Shepherd on Brass Bassa Road. Built in 1847 it was the first Catholic Church in Singapore, but is no longer the only one. I was here to record Good Shepherd while it is still a church. Next year it will be made a Cathedral.

Right now most Christians in Singapore are Catholics. That will change in the next century when most will be Protestant. I expected the church to be full of Europeans but was surprised to see mostly Asians. I assumed these were all new converts and that the missionaries had been very busy.

After the service I admired the lovely statue of Jesus with a shepherd’s crook and a lost lamb carried on his shoulders. I then noticed an elderly gentleman of Chinese descent in a suit beside me. Obviously one of the prosperous merchants.

“Very nice statue,” I said to be polite. I nodded and turned to leave.

“Yes, most don’t understand the significance of it.” Except for a slight accent, his English was as good as mine.

“It’s Jesus Christ as the savior of lost souls, isn’t it?”

“It’s shepherds laying down their lives for their flocks.”

“Then it’s a symbol of the Crucifixion?”

“It’s a symbol of the martyr Father Laurent-Marie-Joseph Imbert.” Tan said patiently.

“I never heard of that saint. Why did the church of Singapore pick this Imbert chap?”

“He was the first priest to give mass in Singapore.”

“This Father Imbert was martyred here?” I found that difficult to believe.

“No, if he had stayed here he could have died of old age. The British and the people of Singapore tolerate other faiths. We may not agree with each other, but we live and let live.”

I introduced myself to this gentleman who seemed quite interesting. He introduced himself as Tan Po Chan. “Please,” I said, “If you don’t mind, tell me about this Father Imbert.”

Mr. Tan sat down and proceeded to tell me about the history of the Catholics in this corner of the world. Tan’s own family was from the Peranakan, the Chinese merchants that settled along the Malaccan Straits centuries ago. His family had been Catholic for generations. The first missionary, St. Frances Xaviar, came here in the 1500s. Other missionaries followed over the years to continue Francis Xaviar’s work.

One of these was Laurent-Marie-Joseph Imbert who left France in 1820 to work in China. On his way he stopped in the newly founded city of Singapore to access the needs of the town and send back a report. He is believed to have also given the first mass here.

He reached China and did so well he was promoted to Vicar Apostolic of Korea and Titular Bishop of Capsa in 1836. The interesting thing about Korea is that the first missionaries were Koreans. They read a Catechism written by a Jesuit priest in Beijing and wanted to know more. One brave chap went to China to be baptized and came back to spread the faith. We may never know his name, because he had to do this all in secret.

Korea was a closed country and did not allow any contact with foreigners without the permission of the government. Alien ideas like Christianity were suspect and illegal. Despite that the Christian community was growing and needed a Bishop.

Imbert knew going in that this was dangerous work. Yet he felt he couldn’t ignore the Korean Christians. He had to sneak across the border and attend his flock in secret.

By 1839 the Korean authorities discovered Imbert’s work. He surrendered to them, not wanting to endanger any of his parishioners. He was taken to Seoul and tortured for the whereabouts of other foreign missionaries.

Believing that the converts would be spared if all the missionaries surrendered, Bishop Imbert sent Fathers Pierre-Philibert Maubant and Jacques-Honoré Chastan the following message: “In desperate circumstances, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Maubant and Chastan did just that.

This time all three were tortured for three days for the whereabouts of their converts. They refused to break. and were beheaded. They were not the only ones. It is estimated 10,000 Christians were martyred in Korea this (the 19th) century. Luckily that has recently stopped.

When Singapore heard of the fate of Bishop Imbert, they resolved to name the church they were planning in his honor. Since he was not an official saint, they named the church “Good Shepherd” in reference to his message to the other missionaries.

I later checked my historic records and discovered that Laurent-Marie-Joseph Imbert would be made a saint in 1984, along with 103 other martyrs from these bloody persecutions. Although Imbert was canonized in Seoul, the church here in Singapore, named in his honor, will hold his relics.

I think any priest willing to die to try to protect his flock is indeed a saint by any definition.

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