The priest who started a farm and rebuilt the church

Born in the year of the Chinese Revolution, Father Joachim Teng was ordained in 1937 and posted to St Francis Church, Malacca. He moved around in Malaya till the end of the war when he ended up in Taiping, his last post in Malaya, before arriving in Singapore in 1949.

In April that year, Father Teng stepped into St Joseph's, where he would remain for almost two decades. Almost immediately, he demonstrated his fierce tenacity and dogged determination to visit all the outposts attached to St Joseph's as well as to teach in the St Joseph's Sino-English School himself, for at least two hours daily, after the school's English-language teacher left. He had two classes of 50 boys and girls.

Father Teng then took on the gargantuan task of building a new church for his growing congregation. The old church could seat only up to 250 people. By 1950, many had to stand on the sides during mass. He built the new church himself, as he was his own contractor. This new edifice would seat four times more people than the old one. He actually supervised his own masons and carpenters.

Father Teng also started an annual fun-fair during the Feast Day to raise funds for his new church and various building projects. And in so doing, he started the annual Food and Fun Fair tradition which is still organised till this day. And before the cement of the new St Joseph's could dry, he started building the Catholics of his Mandai outstation their own church.

In the same spirit as his MEP (the missionary group Missions Etrangeres) predecessors, Father Teng was a true missionary in modern times. As he spoke the Teochew dialect well, he had no problem communicating with the people in the district. So, he started visiting families who had settled around the church. And they would walk up to his house and have a chat with him through the night after a hard day's work, just as it was during the days of Father Mauduit. No one should wonder why the years Father Teng sojourned at St Joseph's were also the period the parish reached the apex of its development.

Father Teng leading parishioners in a procession to the church in 1962 to celebrate his Silver Jubilee.
Father Teng leading parishioners in a procession to the church in 1962 to celebrate his Silver Jubilee. PHOTO: ST JOSEPH'S CHURCH (BUKIT TIMAH) ARCHIVES

Father Teng left on Jan 24, 1972, for St Stephen's Church in Salim Road where he would stay for the next 10 years before retiring. He also completed the building of this church. He died on Feb 13, 1994, at the age of 83 at Bethany Home (next to the then Little Sisters of the Poor) in Upper Thomson Road.

FRUIT FROM THE EARTH

One way in which Father Teng generated much needed revenue for his parish was to plant fruit trees in the church's compound. Fruits like durians and rambutans were sold and the income went to the maintenance of the parish.

Before the new church was built, Father Teng also kept goats and cattle on the church compound. And these livestock, while they were still around, had the freedom to roam about, even up to the steps of the church. St Joseph's was then an old rustic countryside church with a parish community of simple people. The cattle were transported down from Malaysia and were kept in front of the church where the big carpark is today.

From these livestock, Father Teng had milk which he sold or made into butter for sale. Unfortunately, though, this parish dairy-farm business did not last long. Father Simon Yim recalls very well the tragic end of this "Bull Story".

"Father Teng was nearly killed by the bull. The bull charged at him. (Fortunately, Father Teng was alerted when) the children shouted at him, (and he managed) to hold on to the bull by the horns. But the beast lifted him and threw him against the trunk of a coconut tree which left him unconscious. The bull then "went in for the kill" and charged at Father Teng (while he was still on the ground). The children (seeing the danger), shouted at Ah Soon (for help). Ah Soon (came quickly. Seeing the situation), he shouted the bull's name. It stopped in its tracks. And that saved Father Teng! Ah Soon was the one who fed the cattle daily and they recognised him."

Following this near-death event, Father Teng got rid of the cattle and goats. Besides, after the British pulled out, many soldiers who lived in Chestnut Drive had already left, reducing the demand for his dairy products.

Also, when health inspectors started surveying the area at this time, they found Father Teng's livestock and told him to remove the animals. Consequently, he gave his goats to the surrounding people, and some to the people of Mandai. He sold the cattle. There were six cows and a bull. Father Teng had wanted the herd to multiply for its milk, not its meat. And there ended Father Teng's "St Joseph's Farm".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 28, 2016, with the headline 'The priest who started a farm and rebuilt the church'. Print Edition | Subscribe