A Life Shaped By Fathers – Vincentian Highlights

In 1959, Thomas Tan was all of 8-years old, the older of 2 boys from a small tight-knit peranakan family, living in the Henderson area.

One day at school, a teacher asked his class if they attend Church, drawing on the blackboard a picture of a building with a cross on top. Upon seeing the picture, without hesitation, Thomas quickly raised his hand, not realising at that moment, he had taken the first step to embrace the ultimate Father and changed the course of his life, and that of his family forever.

Thomas, a self-professed playful boy by nature, was questioned closely by the strict Patriarch (his father!) when he started leaving for school earlier once a week to attend Catechism conducted by Father Pierre Abrial, MEP. His family were not Catholics; his father Johnny was a free thinker and his mother Margaret was a practising Taoist and neither stopped him from attending Catechism.

Young Thomas enjoyed his lessons and remembered how he had to ask his father for 20 cents to buy “some beads” upon Father Abrial’s instruction. Some weeks later; he proudly showed his father his new rosary.

One Saturday morning, he found his parents missing from the home. To his astonishment, he found out his father had approached Father Abrial and his parents started Catechism classes at the newly built St Bernadette’s Priest Office!

In December 1960, the Tan family was baptised and quickly became immersed in Church activities. Thomas recounted, “One day my father told me, ‘come, we are going to church.’ At Church, he gave me instructions to pack rice, cooking oil, milk powder etc and would check that the items I packed were in order…I remember people would queue up outside a door by the back of the Priest’s quarters to collect the packs.” That was the day Thomas started helping at SSVP, under the guidance of his father who became a life-long Vincentian.

Thomas also remembered with a shudder, one day when he was 10 years old, the sky turned red. It was the day of the Bukit Ho Swee fire disaster that left more than 15,000 people homeless. Interestingly, it was only decades later when he saw a photo in St Bernadette’s 50th Anniversary book that he connected the dots. It was a photo of his father’s good friend, Mr John Yeo, a Vincentian distributing rations to the hundreds who were queuing up, displaced by the Bukit Ho Swee fire – the very same ration distributions he vividly remembers helping in.

Fonder memories included those playing big brother to the many young orphans, some as young as 3 years old. These children were left at the the “Gate of Hope” at the old Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and SSVP organised annual picnics at Changi Beach for them.

However, in Thomas’ mind, the “SSVP clock” only started ticking in 1980, when he moved to Clementi and became a founding member of the Conference of the Holy Cross. That puts him “officially” as a member for 43 years. He joked, “I got stuck at SSVP at Holy Cross…it was a natural progression when they started the Conference and I became their 3rd president.” Here, his path crossed with his beloved Father Abrial again as he was appointed the Assistant Parish Priest in 1983.

Clementi was a new town with a mixed profile of poor, middle-class and more affluent residents and though new, had a strong base of 40 members from inception. And the FINs did indeed see Christ through the work of the Vincentians. It was a surprise to Thomas when he saw an elderly FIN in her 80s attending mass. When approached, she shared that it was their action and love that made her curious about God that led to her conversion.

In 1991, Thomas moved to Tampines and joined the Conference of the Holy Trinity and has since remained there. To his surprise in those early days, there were only about 10 Vincentians who took care of over 60 FIN families from Simei, Pasir Ris and Tampines. They were indeed sorely stretched but stepped up to the challenge.

There, Thomas befriended a young Catholic family who approached the Church for help. The young mother of 3 children was a working professional with a good salary but her husband had abandoned them for a new family. The young mother spent almost her entire paycheck to pay for the mortgage of the condominium they were living it. An economic nose-dive back then meant selling the condo at a huge loss was also not an option she could afford. Despite some misgivings, the Conference helped the family out of this tight spot.

Another “Father” – former Archbishop of Singapore Nicholas Chia, was another influential figure in Thomas’ life. His Grace would always preach “Concretise your faith”. To Thomas, this was realised through the work of SSVP and reiterated how he was “living my faith” and “fulfilling the will of God”.

As Singapore progressed in the last 6 decades, Thomas has witnessed modern Singapore when it was very poor and how it has become an affluent red dot. But the poor are still amongst us and need our love, friendship, and aid. “Here, we have the urban poor, but at least they have the basics… water, electricity, fridge etc.” There is much work than can be done in Singapore and even more so in our neighbouring countries.

In 2004, Thomas took on a new portfolio when he was appointed by the Society’s 14th President General Jose Ramon to be Zone Coordinator for Asia Group 2 overseeing 8 ASEAN countries. Then in 2010, the 15th President General Michael Thio inducted Thomas into Council General International (CGI) by appointing him International Territorial Vice-president (ITVP) for Asia 2 Region. When Thomas started in this new role, he was at the forefront of starting SSVP in Cambodia. He shared how during one pre-COVID trip in 2018, come Vincentians who accompanied him were shocked to see FINs living on the lake on dangerous “boat” platform kept afloat by plastic soda bottles that could be easily destroyed in a storm. The group immediately started a collection amongst themselves to help pay US$250 for a more secure home for the FIN family. In a short span, Cambodia has grown to 28 Conferences.

Thomas may be a busy man; between running his own business when he was younger (he’s retired now) and being involved in many community and religious endeavours, but he always has time set aside for his family

In fact, when the children were younger, he would deliberately plan holidays off the beaten track; visiting indigenous communities in Sarawak and Thailand so that the children could witness and experience life without the trappings of the gilded. Today, Thomas believes that “the seeds have been planted”. His children were active in Church activities during their younger days and he has no doubt that in time they will also concretise their faith in their own way. Till then, they are both 100% in support of their father’s work at SSVP.


Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.