Singapore—Eighty-one-year-old Sister Gerard Fernandez, who for four decades has counseled prisoners in the country’s death row, has been included in the yearly list of BBC’s most influential women from all over the globe, joining a varied group that includes US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa.
Sister Gerard is the first woman from Singapore to be granted the honor of being included on the BBC’s list, which began in 2013.
The Roman Catholic nun is the subject of a 2018 short film called “Sister,” which showed how Sister Gerard worked with death row inmates, Catherine Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong, for several years until they were executed in 1988. Ms Tan and Ms Hoe were the accomplices to Adrian Lim in the ritual killing of two children in 1981, in a crime that shocked the country.
The BBC write-up about says that “she has ‘walked with’ 18 inmates before their deaths, describing her calling as helping ‘people who are broken’.”
The nun expressed her surprise at having been included on the list to The Straits Times (ST), saying “I don’t work for prizes and awards. I didn’t think I’d get one at 81. There are many women who live their lives for other people every day, and I admire those who work for others. I’m happy to be able to spread care and compassion to others.”
Sister Gerard said that she sensed “a particular call to the ministry of compassion towards women and men facing the death penalty” at Changi Prison, which caused her to found the Roman Catholic Prison Ministry for the purpose of visiting them and counseling them over 40 years ago, in 1977, along with Redemptorist priests Father Brian Doro and Father Patrick John O’Neill.
She said, “the condemned need hope.
We may condemn them, but God condemns no one who comes to him.”
Sister Gerard was nominated by BBC News journalist Heather Chen, who had gone to a Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) school growing up, and was aware of the ritual murder case as well as the Roman Catholic nun’s work with the two female accomplices of Mr Lim over the years.
ST quotes Ms Chen as saying,”Her story was exceptionally strong because of how she would exhaust herself mentally for people on death row to help them accept their fates.”
Catherine Tan Mui Choo had been a former student of Sister Gerard, which is one of the reasons that the nun reached out to her. In 2016, Sister Gerard was interviewed by Alan John on the occasion of the reprint of his book about the 1981 ritual murders, Unholy Trinity.
She told Mr John that after the announcement of the sentencing in May 1983, she felt the need for quick action since she “thought they were all going to hang the very next day!”
Sister Gerard had obtained permission from Quek Shi Lei, the director of prisons, to meet with Ms Tan. “He gave me permission, but only if she was willing to meet me. So I wrote her a letter right away and I included a beautiful picture of Jesus. I think it touched her,” the nun told Mr John.
Sister Gerard ended up visiting Ms Tan, as well as Hoe Kah Hong, every week for half an hour for several years, until the day of their execution. -/TISG