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Michael Olcomendy (b. 29 August 1901, St. Etienne de Baigorry, France – d. 4 July 1977, Singapore) was the first Catholic archbishop of Singapore. He rose from being a parish priest to become Metropolitan Archbishop of the Malacca-Singapore Archdiocese, then Archbishop of Singapore from 1972 to 1976. He served the church in Malaya and Singapore for over 50 years before retiring to become Archbishop Emeritus.
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 showed signs of his inclination to religion and the priesthood, spending hours in prayer and meditation.
Upon completing his studies, he entered the Petit Seminaire of the College of Notre Dame de Belloc. 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 Society, 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, he set sail on 12 September 1926 to begin his missionary work in Malaya.
Upon arriving in Malaya about a month later, he 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 Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Singapore.
As a priest, he administered 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. On each visit, he would cycle through the night in order to reach the estate in time to conduct mass the following morning.
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.
Olcomendy’s dedication and abilities were recognised and he rose in rank to become Vicar General of the Diocese of Malacca in 1937, and then Vicar Capitular of the Diocese of Malacca in 1945. This was followed by promotion to the position of Bishop of the Diocese of Malacca in 1947 and Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Malacca in 1953. Two years later, he became Metropolitan Archbishop of the Malacca-Singapore Archdiocese. From 1964 to 1969, Olcomendy was President of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. In 1972, he became Archbishop of the Singapore Archdiocese, a position he held until his retirement.
As his responsibilities expanded, Olcomendy cared not only for the Catholic population but also the bishops and priests under his charge. This included the initiation for the re-opening of the Minor Seminary and the first Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei as well as the building of Bethany House, located next to the convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor, to accommodate aged and sick priests.
Olcomendy guided the church through the Japanese Occupation after taking over the administration of the diocese from Bishop Adrian Devals, who had died at the Bahau settlement in Negri Sembilan, Malaya.
After the war, Olcomendy rebuilt the diocese and led the church through a tumultuous period of political developments that included the separation of Singapore from Malaysia; the coming to power of the People’s Action Party and the defeat of the communists; social unrest; and a changing economic and social scene.
Olcomendy established the church as a responsible body that contributed to social improvement and nation-building by publishing letters in the Malayan Catholic News or via pastoral letters read out in all churches telling Catholics of their duties to the state. He 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.
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, the Young Christian Students’ Movement, and the Young Christian Workers’ Movement, and 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.
When approached by Dr W. J. Vickers, the director of 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 woman in tuberculosis and general nursing. They later set up Mt Alvernia Hospital.
Under Olcomendy’s guidance, the Diocese of Malacca expanded into an archdiocese that later gave rise to the archdioceses of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The number of churches, schools, religious congregations and lay organisations increased significantly. This period also saw the start of the first Catholic hospital and junior college, namely, Mt Alvernia Hospital and Catholic Junior College.
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. The following year, he collapsed while praying at the chapel of the Little Sisters of the Poor and passed away.
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 inter-religious community. In his condolence message, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew praised Olcomendy for his staunch support of inter-religious 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.
Olcomendy was buried in the cemetery of St Joseph Church in Bukit Panjang. His remains were subsequently interred in the walls of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on 10 October 2008. Olcomendy was succeeded by the first local Catholic Archbishop, Gregory Yong.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 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.
Olcomendy, Michael, 1901-1977
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