Singapore-born nun left everything for the Lord

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.

Apr 17, 2021

Sister Valerie Tseng with students in Malaysia. (UCA News photo/Viala Tropica

By Rock Ronald Rozario

Sr Valerie Tseng 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 Fr 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.

Sr Tseng, 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, Sr Tseng was known as Aunty Mary, referring to her original name after birth.

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 Catholicrun 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 her 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.

God, however, had other plans for her and, 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.

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, Fr Meisonniere, for guidance.

The priest sent her back saying “It is not a calling” and warning  her that religious life is 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 realised it was a genuine call and advised her to respond accordingly. Fr Meisonniere told her to “become a good religious example to others.”

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

Initially, Mary expressed an intention to join the Mill House Congregation in Jesselton but was disheartened to learn that 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 for religious formation. Her first assignment was to teach mathematics to the senior middle school students in the Ave Maria Convent in Ipoh. In 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 travelled to IJ headquarters in Paris where she pronounced her final vows. Sr 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 Sr Tseng to obtain a Malaysian passport, and she spent the next 13 years 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, Sr Tseng joined the General Chapter, a five-yearly meeting of the IJ order that maps  out their future course and elects the international leadership team for the congregation. Sr Tseng was elected as one of five council members to assist and counsel superior general, Mother Maria Del Rosario Brandoly. Sr Tseng was the first Asian to be elected to the council and she went on to serve for two terms, each for six years.

In her 12 years in Rome, Sr Tseng became an integral part of a group to develop the new constitution of the congregation and travelled 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, Sr Tseng was tasked to explain and train the IJ communities on the recently amended constitution of the order. The new ideas and vision for the congregation as well as the strong leadership of Sr Tseng didn’t go down well with all the nuns. Although a bit upset, she didn’t get disheartened. She kept travelling throughout Asia and moving from convent to convent to teach and train her fellow  nuns over the years.

In 1994, Sr Tseng joined the IJ Community in the Cameron Highlands, serving in the kindergarten, catechetics and formation of the youth. From 1997 to 2017, she also served in the Melaka-Johor Diocese in Johor, administering to migrant workers, at the home for the elderly and the 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, Sr Tseng rescued and cared for a little girl who was abandoned by her drug addicted parents.

In 2018, Sr Tseng 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, Sr Tseng 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.–– ucanews. com

This article uses materials and photos from Viala Tropica blog site

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