Good Shepherd Sisters bid adieu to Marymount Centre after 64 years

Sister Gerard Fernandez (left) and Sister Elizabeth Lim in the garden of the Marymount home of the Good Shepherd Sisters. Their Marymount Centre (below) will make way for the building of the North-South Expressway.
Sister Gerard Fernandez (left) and Sister Elizabeth Lim in the garden of the Marymount home of the Good Shepherd Sisters. Their Marymount Centre (below) will make way for the building of the North-South Expressway.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
Sister Gerard Fernandez (left) and Sister Elizabeth Lim in the garden of the Marymount home of the Good Shepherd Sisters. Their Marymount Centre (below) will make way for the building of the North-South Expressway.
Sister Gerard Fernandez (left) and Sister Elizabeth Lim in the garden of the Marymount home of the Good Shepherd Sisters. Their Marymount Centre (below) will make way for the building of the North-South Expressway.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG

Good Shepherd Sisters will miss Marymount haven but also look forward to new home

For 64 years, the Good Shepherd Sisters have lived on a quaint hilltop haven with the gates always open to devotees and those needing a break from city life.

But by next month, the Roman Catholic order of nuns will have to leave their beloved Marymount Centre, where major work on the North-South Expressway will start next year, for a new five-storey building in the bustling neighbourhood of Toa Payoh.

That means giving up their garden for balcony space, and unlocked gates for ones with card access for security reasons.

"It's hard to let go of a place that you love dearly. Many of us were crying when we first heard the news in 2011," said 76-year-old Sister Gerard Fernandez, who still hopes that the buildings, which are "still sturdy", can be saved.

Like her, most of the eight nuns there are in their 70s and have spent more than three decades at Marymount.

"It's a pity that we have to go because the hilltop location and ambience help in giving peace and healing to the distressed," said Sister Elizabeth Lim, 74.

The centre has played a significant role in the history of the order, which originated in Angers, France, about 180 years ago. It was set up here in 1939 by four Irish Good Shepherd Sisters. In 1947, they were given the plot of land at 790 Thomson Road by the British government.

Three years later, the centre cemented its place in Singapore history. It was where Dutch girl Maria Hertogh was sent by the authorities as her Dutch-Catholic biological parents and Malay-Muslim foster mother fought a custody battle.

On Dec 11, after the foster mother lost the case, rioters tried to force their way into the centre but were stopped by the police.

But the centre also houses more personal memories.

Sister Gerard, who joined the fold at 18, can still recall her father walking up the muddy Marymount hill, cake in hand, on her 21st birthday.

"There was no proper road then and I remember him trudging up a dirt track," she said.

Christian missionary Angela Mah, from New Zealand, who has attended three retreats at the centre over the past few years, said she will miss the place - especially its garden. "It's quiet, tranquil and close to nature," said the 50-year-old.

While the Marymount Convent School, which the Sisters started back in the late 1950s, along with a kindergarten, will be allowed to remain, three low-rise buildings will have to go. These contain a residential home for children, a convent, a chapel and a retreat centre open to people of all religions.

Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin said the place has social and historical significance that connects generations. It also brings diversity to an otherwise homogeneous urban landscape.

Goodbyes have already been said. On Nov 21 last year, Archbi-shop William Goh celebrated a Thanksgiving Mass there with the Sisters and 1,000 guests including former Marymount pupils and residents of the centre.

While the nuns will miss this chapter of their lives, they are optimistic about their move to their new Toa Payoh building. The 30-year land lease and building costs were covered by compensation received from the Singapore Land Authority.

Standing on the site of the former Braddell Primary School, the centre, called the Good Shepherd Place, will have a chapel, a multi-purpose hall, elderly friendly living arrangements for the Sisters and space for the children's home and another kindergarten.

Said Sister Gerard: "It will be a new beginning for us and we look forward to reaching out to a new crowd."

melodyz@sph.com.sg

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