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French missionary cared for Singapore's lepers and blind

MEP priest Father Casimir-Jean Saleilles served in Singapore for 39 years until his death in 1916

French MEP missionary Father Casimir-Jean Saleilles is hailed for serving lepers and blind people in Singapore during his 39 years of missionary service

French MEP missionary Father Casimir-Jean Saleilles is hailed for serving lepers and blind people in Singapore during his 39 years of missionary service. (Photo: Singapore Archdiocese)

Published: June 15, 2022 07:08 AM GMT

Updated: June 15, 2022 09:44 AM GMT

The Singapore Church has paid tribute to a French missionary priest who was known for his unflinching love for lepers and the blind.

In a message Singapore Archdiocese remembered Father Casimir-Jean Saleilles, a member of Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) who spent 39 years as a missionary in the city-state before his death in 1916.

He was the parish priest of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary from 1881 to 1911 and hailed for the construction of the beautiful neo-Gothic style present church that opened in 1901.

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“Father Saleilles started his ministry at the Bukit Timah mission station in 1877. He was also active in the hospital apostolate at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and particularly devoted himself to the spiritual welfare of lepers and the blind,” reads the message posted on the archdiocese's Facebook page.

Born in 1852, he entered the MEP Seminary in 1873 and was ordained a priest in 1876.

His first missionary assignment took him to Malacca in Malaysia. He soon moved to Singapore and learned the Chinese language to serve the Chinese-speaking community who make up the majority in the city-state.

"Besides unloading 300-pound barrels of cement, he also raised the new bell to the belfry when the workers were unable to do so"

Following four years at St. Joseph Church in Bukit Timah from 1877 to 1881, he moved to St. Mary’s Parish, where a small chapel on the hilltop struggled to accommodate the rising number of Catholics.

Father Saleilles mobilized resources to construct the new church, co-opted fellow MEP missionary Father Charles Benedict Nain for design work and named it the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

He secured funds for the church from Catholics in the parish as well as from all over Singapore.

“So devoted was he to his vision that when construction began, he not only supervised it but also worked on the site. Besides unloading 300-pound barrels of cement, he also raised the new bell to the belfry when the workers were unable to do so,” Singapore Archdiocese noted.

During his long tenure at the church, he became active in the hospital apostolate. Besides tending to patients at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, he also frequently visited inmates as the hospital in a leper colony near the parish.

Serving the lepers was a challenging mission for the missionary. In a letter dated 1892, the priest noted how he managed to convince them.

“I visited them quite often and for a long time I could approach only the two foreigners [Europeans]. The Chinese, full of prejudice against Catholics, were afraid; as soon as I entered the ward, they quickly disappeared, those unable to walk hiding under their blanket. I could only pray to God for them, but I went on visiting them regularly,” he wrote.

“It took a very long time before some of them finally accepted to talk to me.”

“At the Singapore hospital, 25 blind Catholics occupy the same ward. They are so calm and peaceful that they force the admiration of doctors and hospital staff"

In the 1950s, nearly three decades after his death, the Sisters from the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood (FMDM) took over the leper colony.   

Father Saleilles also served the blind and wrote about his experience in MEP's mission journal Annales De La Societe.  

“At the Singapore hospital, 25 blind Catholics occupy the same ward. They are so calm and peaceful that they force the admiration of doctors and hospital staff. I am myself quite surprised to see the kind attention given them,” the priest wrote.

Thanks to his ministry to the blind, some of the inmates later became Catholics.  

“For the feast of the Assumption, about 15 new inmates will be baptized. They keep on praying all the time and, thanks to the benevolent attitude of the hospital authorities, much good is done,” Father Saleilles noted.

The missionary died on June 15, 1916, in Singapore.

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