Michael Olcomendy



Michael Olcomendy (b. 29 August 1901, St. Etienne de Baigorry, France–d. 4 July 1977, Singapore) was the first Catholic archbishop of Singapore.1 He rose from being a parish priest to become the metropolitan archbishop of the Malacca-Singapore Archdiocese, then the archbishop of Singapore from 1973 to 1976.2 He served the church in Malaya and Singapore for over 50 years before retiring as an archbishop emeritus.3

Early life
Olcomendy began his education in 1913 at the College of St Joseph in his native city in the Diocese of Bayonne, France. From a young age, he displayed a religious inclination and keenness for priesthood, spending hours in prayer and meditation.4

Upon completing his studies, Olcomendy entered the Petit Seminaire of the College of Notre-Dame de Belloc.5 In 1918, he was sent for higher ecclesiastical studies at the Diocesan Seminary of Bayonne, where he obtained his sub-diaconate at the age of 24. Subsequently, he entered the major seminary of the Paris Foreign Missions, an order of secular priests dedicated exclusively to missionary work, and was ordained a deacon and priest on 29 May 1926. On the orders of his superior, Olcomendy set sail on 12 September 1926 to begin his missionary work in Malaya.6

Priesthood
Upon arriving in Malaya about a month later, Olcomendy was assigned to St Anthony’s Church in Kuala Lumpur as an assistant priest. He quickly picked up the local languages of English, Tamil and Chinese. In 1927, he became vicar of St Louis Church in Taiping and, in 1937, the parish priest of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Singapore.7

As a priest, Olcomendy not only ministered to the parishioners in his church but also reached out to other Tamil-speaking Catholics in Singapore and the staff in many rubber estates in South Johor. Besides fulfilling the many commitments involved in parish work, he devoted much of his time to helping with the advertising and financial sections of the Malayan Catholic Leader, a Catholic newspaper.8

Olcomendy’s dedication and abilities were recognised and he rose to become the vicar general of the Diocese of Malacca in 1937, and then vicar capitular of the Diocese of Malacca in 1945. This was followed by a promotion to the position of bishop of the Diocese of Malacca in 1947 and subsequently archbishop of the Archdiocese of Malacca in 1953. Two years later, he became the metropolitan archbishop of the Malacca-Singapore Archdiocese.9 In 1973, he became archbishop of the Singapore Archdiocese, a position he held until his retirement in 1976.10

Contributions
Olcomendy guided the church through the final days of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) after taking over the administration of the diocese from Bishop Adrian Devals, who had died in January 1945 at the Bahau settlement in Negri Sembilan, Malaya.11

After the war, Olcomendy rebuilt the diocese and led the church through a tumultuous period of political developments that included the rise of the People’s Action Party; the defeat of the procommunists; social unrest; the separation of Singapore from Malaysia; and a changing socioeconomic landscape.12

Olcomendy established the church as a responsible body that contributed to social improvement and nation-building. He did this by publishing letters in the Malayan Catholic News or reading out pastoral letters in all churches informing Catholics of their duties to the state.13 Olcomendy also invited a number of community-oriented religious orders to extend their missions to the diocese and archdiocese, including the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Marist Brothers, Franciscan Friars and Fathers of the Sacred Heart. He lent his personal support to religious orders already present in Singapore as these groups played an important part in meeting the educational, social welfare, healthcare and religious needs of the people.14

He also urged the growth of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, as well as the formation of the Legion of Mary, Catholic Young Men’s Association, Young Christian Students’ Movement and the Young Christian Workers’ Movement. In addition, Olcomendy instituted the guilds of Catholic teachers, nurses, and doctors. The aims of these organisations included helping the poor, developing young children and young adults, as well as promoting the spiritual, professional, moral and social welfare of Catholic professionals in the teaching, nursing and medical fields so that they could better serve society.15

When approached by the Medical Services to look for sisters to man the tuberculosis wards in Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Olcomendy invited the sisters from the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood to take on the task. These sisters were subsequently asked by the government to also take care of the leprosy settlement at Trafalgar Home and to set up a centre to train young women in tuberculosis care and general nursing. They later set up Mount Alvernia Hospital, which became the first Catholic hospital in Singapore.16

Olcomendy also oversaw the establishment of a number of churches to expand the reach of the Catholic Church to suburban localities in Singapore. These included the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Sembawang, Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Tanjong Katong, Church of St Francis Xavier on Zion Road and Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Queenstown.17

Retirement and later life
In 1976, upon reaching the age of 75, Olcomendy tendered his resignation as required by Church law and was given the honorary title of Archbishop Emeritus. He took up residence at Bethany House, a place he founded for aged and sick priests.18 The following year, he collapsed while praying at the chapel of the Little Sisters of the Poor and passed away.19

Widely respected for his tireless work and his humble manner, many mourned his death. Among those who attended his funeral were dignitaries such as members of Parliament and members of the interreligious community. In his condolence message, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew praised Olcomendy for his staunch support of interreligious peace and harmony in Singapore, and expressed the government’s appreciation for Olcomendy’s three years of service as a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.20

Olcomendy was buried at the St Joseph Church Cemetery in Bukit Timah. His remains were subsequently reinterred in the walls of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on 10 October 2008.21 Olcomendy was succeeded by the first local Catholic archbishop, Gregory Yong.22



Author

Gillian Lim



References
1. Fernandez, S. (Ed.). (1976). Archbishop’s sacerdotal golden jubilee, 1926–1976: Souvenir magazine. Singapore: Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, p. 14. (Call no.: RCLOS 282.5957 ARC); Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, p. 171. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ); Singapore archbishop’s remains interred in cathedral. (2008, October 26). Catholic News, 58(22). Retrieved 2016, July 5 from Catholic News website: http://catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=291:singapore-archbishops-remains-interred-in-cathedral&catid=66&Itemid=473
2. Singapore archbishop’s remains interred in cathedral. (2008, October 26). Catholic News, 58(22). Retrieved 2016, July 5 from Catholic News website: http://catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=291:singapore-archbishops-remains-interred-in-cathedral&catid=66&Itemid=473; Fernandez, S. (Ed.). (1976). Archbishop’s sacerdotal golden jubilee, 1926–1976: Souvenir magazine. Singapore: Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, p. 14. (Call no.: RCLOS 282.5957 ARC); Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, p. 171. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
3. Fernandez, S. (Ed.). (1976). Archbishop’s sacerdotal golden jubilee, 1926–1976: Souvenir magazine. Singapore: Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, p. 14. (Call no.: RCLOS 282.5957 ARC); Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, p. 171. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
4. Jayakody, D. E. T. (1947, May 31). Colourful Catholic ceremony. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Jayakody, D. E. T. (1947, May 31). Colourful Catholic ceremony. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Fernandez, S. (Ed.). (1976). Archbishop’s sacerdotal golden jubilee, 1926–1976: Souvenir magazine. Singapore: Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, p. 14. (Call no.: RCLOS 282.5957 ARC)
6. Fernandez, S. (Ed.). (1976). Archbishop’s sacerdotal golden jubilee, 1926–1976: Souvenir magazine. Singapore: Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, p. 14. (Call no.: RCLOS 282.5957 ARC)
7. Jayakody, D. E. T. (1947, May 31). Colourful Catholic ceremony. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Fernandez, S. (Ed.). (1976). Archbishop’s sacerdotal golden jubilee, 1926–1976: Souvenir magazine. Singapore: Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, p. 14. (Call no.: RCLOS 282.5957 ARC)
8. Fernandez, S. (Ed.). (1976). Archbishop’s sacerdotal golden jubilee, 1926–1976: Souvenir magazine. Singapore: Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, pp. 14–15. (Call no.: RCLOS 282.5957 ARC)
9. Rev. Fernandez, S. (Ed.). (1976). Archbishop’s sacerdotal golden jubilee, 1926–1976: Souvenir magazine. Singapore: Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, pp. 15–17. (Call no.: RCLOS 282.5957 ARC); Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, pp. 150–151. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
10. Remains of Archbishops Olcomendy and Yong to be interred in cathedral. (2008, October 12). Catholic News, 58(21). Retrieved 2016, July 5 from Catholic News website: http://catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=291:singapore-archbishops-remains-interred-in-cathedral&catid=66&Itemid=473; Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, p. 170. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
11. Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, pp. 140–141. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
12. Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, pp. 142–143. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
13. Catholics told: Give all help you can. (1957, September 2). The Straits Times, p. 8; Catholics told of duties to state. (1959, June 12). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, pp. 145, 152–153, 170. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
14. Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, p. 170. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
15. Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, pp. 147, 156, 170. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
16. Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, pp. 252–254. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
17. Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, pp. 158, 160–169. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
18. Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, pp. 170–171. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
19. Lee, T. S. (1977, July 7). Hundreds brave rain to pay last respects. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Lee, T. S. (1977, July 7). Hundreds brave rain to pay last respects. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, p. 171. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
21. Lee, T. S. (1977, July 7). Hundreds brave rain to pay last respects. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore archbishop’s remains interred in cathedral. (2008, October 26). Catholic News, 58(22). Retrieved 2016, July 5 from Catholic News website: http://catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=291:singapore-archbishops-remains-interred-in-cathedral&catid=66&Itemid=473
22. Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic church in Singapore, 1819–2004. Singapore: Nicholas Chia, p. 174. (Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ) 



Further resources
Charbonnier, J. (1964). New city: A Christian family apostolate in the new housing estate of Singapore. Singapore: Christian Family and Social Action Publications, Catholic Centre.
(Call no.: RSEA 301.42 CHA) 

Catholics in Singapore. (1910). Singapore: C.G.S Chan.
(Call no.: RCLOS 282.5957 GOH)

Catholic Teachers’ Movement [Microfilm no.: NL 0068/136 (v.1, n.1)]. Singapore: Catholic Teachers’ Movement.



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Catholic Church--Bishops--Biography
Bishops--Singapore--Biography
Philosophy, psychology and religion>>Religion>>Christianity
Personalities>>Biographies>>Religious Leaders
Religious leaders
Olcomendy, Michael, 1901-1977
Bishops--Malaysia--Malaya--Biography