Nuns bid haven farewell after 64 years

SINGAPORE - For 64 years, the Good Shepherd Sisters have lived in a quaint hilltop haven where the the gates have always been open to devotees and those needing a break from city life.

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

That means giving up their garden for balcony space, and unlocked gates for ones that require card access.

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

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

"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, 1950, after the foster mother lost the case, rioters tried to force their way into the centre but were stopped by police.

The centre also houses more personal memories. Sister Gerard, who joined the fold at 18, recalls 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.

While the Marymount Convent School, which the Sisters started back in the late 1950s, along with a kindergarten, will remain, three low-rise buildings - containing a residential home for children, a convent, a chapel and a retreat centre - will have to go.

Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin said the place has a social and historical significance that connects generations.

It also brings diversity to an otherwise homogeneous urban landscape.

While the nuns will miss this chapter of their lives, they are optimistic about the 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 Good Shepherd Place, will have a chapel, a multi-purpose hall and elderly-friendly living arrangements for the Sisters, as well as 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."

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