By Amelia Tan & Jennani Dura
STUDENTS at Catholic mission schools used to address their principal as either Brother or Sister, given that the educators were also members of the religious order.
But that will stop when the year ends. The last two such principals will relinquish their jobs, leaving all 35 Catholic schools with lay people at the helm.
Catholic Junior College's (CJC) Brother Paul Rogers, 59, also a former principal of St Joseph's Institution (SJI), will be returning to Australia to head the Melbourne boys' school De La Salle College. He will be replaced by former CHIJ St Theresa's Convent principal, Mrs Christine Anne Kong.
Maris Stella High School's (MSHS) Brother Anthony Tan, 62, will be retiring after 25 years at the helm. His current vice-principal, Mr Joseph Lim, will be stepping into the role.
The moves, to take place in December, mark the end of an era in which Catholic nuns and brothers helmed the schools founded by their predecessors. Catholic schools were founded with the objective of developing the mind, body and spirit of their students.
They are also known for being inclusive, taking in students regardless of their religion or race.
The oldest Catholic school in Singapore is SJI, which was set up by the La Salle Brothers in 1852. The 35 Catholic schools range from primary schools to junior college.
While brothers and nuns used to teach and run many of the schools, their numbers started thinning and the trend of lay people taking over became evident in the 1980s.
Mr Bernard Chen, chairman of the Archdiocesan Commission for Catholic Schools in Singapore, said fewer people worldwide are deciding to devote their lives to the Catholic Church. And even if they do, many opt for social work or take up lives of prayer and self-reflection instead.
Acknowledging the trend, Brother Paul said: 'We are an endangered species. It is unfortunate that the religious teaching orders in Singapore have not been able to attract sufficient young men and women to join their ranks...
They add diversity to the perspectives of the school community working alongside lay people who may be single or married.'
With the departure of the two remaining principals, there will be fewer than 10 brothers and nuns who remain as teachers in mission schools.
But the culture and traditions they instilled remain strong, said Mr Chen. Many nuns and brothers still sit on the board of governors or management committees of the schools, allowing them to influence policies in the schools, including having a say on who will be principal.
While it is not a must that principals of Catholic schools be of the same faith, it is preferred that they are. While all school principals are appointed by the Ministry of Education, management committees of independent and government-aided schools have some leeway in identifying potential candidates. Alumni bodies also play a key role in keeping traditions alive.
CJC Alumni Association president, Dr Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said: 'It is good to know you belong to a community of people who have the same values and have shared memories... We appreciate the emphasis that Brother Paul placed on maintaining this sense of belonging.'
Brother Paul said the decision for him to return to Australia was made by the head of De La Salle Brothers in Australia, Brother Ambrose Payne. But he added it was a good time to leave CJC because the school is doing well and he does not believe in spending more than 10 years at a school.
He has been its principal for the past eight years. 'You will start repeating yourself if you stay on too long,' he said.
Brother Anthony, the third and longest-serving principal of MSHS, was previously vice-principal of Holy Innocents' High School. He is on medical leave.
The school's vice-principal (academic), Mr Stephen Tay, described Brother Anthony as 'a tower of strength to both the staff and pupils'.
Mr Lim, an old boy of the school, has vivid memories of the outdoor activities and adventure camps that Brother Anthony had put in place. 'He believed that education is about developing the whole person,' he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.