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Singapore-born nun left everything for the Lord

Sister Valerie Tseng Yeok Ying had a long, illustrious religious life spanning the globe

Singapore-born nun left everything for the Lord

Sister Valerie Tseng Yeok Ying with students in Malaysia. (Photo: Viala Tropica)

Tributes have been pouring in for Sister Valerie Tseng Yeok Ying, a Singapore-born nun from the Infant Jesus Sisters who spent most of her life in community animation, education, social work and Biblical apostolate in Malaysia.

Sister Valerie died on April 12 at the age of 96.

The Church in Malaysia led by Archbishop Julian Leow of Kuala Lumpur joined her family members including her brother, Jesuit priest Father Gerald Tseng, relatives, friends and the Infant Jesus community to mourn her demise.

A funeral service following Covid-19 protocols was held for the nun at IJ Community chapel in Cheras near Kuala Lumpur on April 13.

Sister Valerie, a former superior of the Infant Jesus Sisters in Malaysia, had a long, illustrious religious life celebrated by many including those she had touched through her services and fellow confreres.

To her beloved nephews and nieces, Sister Valerie was known as Aunty Mary, referring to her original name after birth.

The trip was challenging as the area had no roads, no running water and poor sanitation

Mary was born on Dec. 16, 1924, in Singapore, the third of eight children of Anglican parents. She was the only daughter in the family. From her early life, Mary was known as a confident, intelligent and outspoken girl.

Despite their parents being strict Anglicans, the children expressed a desire to become Catholics thanks to their education and influence in prominent Catholic-run institutes in Singapore. Mary studied at the Convent of Infant Jesus School and her brothers were schooled at the renowned St. Joseph Institution.

Mary lobbied for herself and brothers to embrace Catholicism. Her parents were upset at the beginning but later conceded to the request, leading to their conversion shortly afterwards.

Mary, however, never wanted to become a nun; rather, she wanted to have an independent life. By 1950, she completed her education, joined a school as a teacher and had a steady boyfriend whom she planned to marry and settle down with.

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God, however, had plans for her, so in 1950 the course of Mary’s life changed forever.

That year, Mary’s boyfriend was on a long business trip to India and Mary joined her friend Margaret on a religious excursion to Kota Kinabalu (then called Jesselton) in Malaysia. They accompanied a parish group to promote the Legion of Mary in local villages.

The trip was challenging as the area had no roads, no running water and poor sanitation. They were forced to trek muddy village roads through paddy fields to reach out to the villagers.

The trip was a spiritual awakening for Mary

There she found a group of nuns from Mill House Congregation living and serving the local community with all these threadbare amenities.

The trip was a spiritual awakening for Mary and she started thinking about serving people like the nuns.

On the other hand, Mary became confused as she already had a good career and a good boyfriend with whom she planned to settle down. “Why me, Lord? I have a boyfriend already!” Mary reacted.

She returned to Singapore and met with her parish priest, Father Meisonniere, for guidance.

The priest sent her back by saying “It is not a calling” and warned her that religious life was not for everyone. In fact, the priest was testing Mary to see if her calling was real and would persist as entering religious life would mean a lifetime of sacrifice.

Back home, Mary became restless as the inner calling became stronger. Her friend Margaret advised that she must see the priest again. The priest realized it was a genuine call and advised her to respond accordingly. Father Meisonniere told her to “become a good religious example to others.”

Once Mary made up her mind to join religious life, she “felt a great peace,” she recalled in an interview later.

Initially, Mary expressed intentions to join Mill House Congregation in Jesselton but was disheartened to know the British order did not accept local girls.

She then joined the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, a French Catholic order founded in 1675 and she was sent to Penang, Malaysia, for religious formation. Her first assignment was to teach mathematics to the senior middle school students in the Ave Maria Convent in Ipoh. At the beginning Mary found the task difficult as she thought she was not qualified to teach the subject, but she carried on her assignment sincerely.

In 1957, Mary traveled to IJ headquarters in Paris where she pronounced her final vows. Sister Valerie became her new religious name. From Paris she moved to the English port city of Liverpool, where she studied advanced mathematics for one year before returning to her teaching job in Malaysia, which by then was no longer a British colony but an independent country.

Long permanent residency allowed Sister Valerie to obtain a Malaysian passport and for the next 13 years she spent her life teaching at IJ Convent in Pulau Tikus in Penang. As a nun, she demonstrated leadership skills, and thus she was appointed mother superior of her order in Malaysia.   

In 1971, Sister Valerie joined the General Chapter, a five-yearly meeting of the IJ order that maps out future course and elects international leadership team for the congregation. Sister Valerie was elected as one of five council members to assist and counsel superior general, Mother Maria Del Rosario Brandoly. Sister Valerie was the first Asian to be elected to the council and she went on two serve two terms, each for six years.

Sister Valerie rescued and cared for a little girl who was abandoned by her drug addict parents

In her 12 years in Rome, Sister Valerie became an integral part of a group to develop the new constitution of the congregation and traveled around the world with Mother Superior to help her run the order effectively. As she visited various countries from Japan to Spain to Bolivia, she also learned other languages including Japanese, Spanish and Italian to better communicate with the people. Her travels broadened her mind and enriched her experiences as she engaged with different communities in different places.

Upon her return to Asia from Europe, Sister Valerie was tasked to explain and train the IJ communities on recently amended constitution of the order. The new ideas and vision for the congregation as well as strong leadership of Sister Valerie didn’t go down well with all nuns. Although a bit upset, she didn’t get disheartened. She kept traveling throughout Asia and moving from convent to convent to teach and train her fellow nuns over the years.

In 1994, Sister Valerie joined the IJ Community in Cameron Highlands, serving in the kindergarten, catechetics and formation of the youth. From 1997 to 2017, she also served in Malacca-Johor Diocese in Johor state, administering to migrant workers, at the home for the elderly and formation of Basic Ecclesial Communities.

She also helped her colleagues support the local people, especially poor and helpless children and parents.

In one particular case, Sister Valerie rescued and cared for a little girl who was abandoned by her drug addict parents.

In 2018, Sister Valerie returned to the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur and spent her final years at the IJ Convent in Cheras, mostly in prayer.

Looking back on her eventful religious life, Sister Valerie thanked God for leading her in the path of life all these years.

“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,” she said.

This article uses materials and photos from Viala Tropica blog site

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