Giving Hope and Love to Those in Death Row
As a death row counsellor of Catherine Tan, who was involved in the Toa Payoh ritual murders, Sister Gerard was the face of Jesus to her, helping Catherine to repent and come back to God.
During the seven years Sister Gerard Fernandez spent counselling and journeying with Catherine Tan in death row, “God was always right by our side… Listening, loving and forgiving.”
“Christ so present in that prison,” recalled the Good Shepherd Sister (RGS), who turns 81 in February.
The nun met Catherine and Hoe Kah Hong, the two “holy wives” of self-styled medium Adrian Lim, every week right until they were hanged on Nov 25, 1988. They were convicted for the murder of two children in a ritual killing in Toa Payoh in 1981.
Sr Gerard’s journey with Catherine is featured in the short film, Sister, which was part of the film project 15 Shorts, showcasing lesser-told stories of everyday Singaporean heroes between the 1970s and 1990s and aimed at inspiring acts of giving.
In their meetings, Sr Gerard would pray and sing hymns with Catherine, who was Catholic and her former student at Marymount Vocational Centre. “When I left, she [Catherine] would then tell Kah Hong about Jesus,” said Sr Gerard. Kah Hong was not Catholic at that time.
Even in the midst of all that she was going through, Catherine was still able to evangelise and bring Christ to someone else. “It was God working. God changes the plan of these inmates [in death row],” said Sr Gerard.
“Every week when I went, there was joy, there was peace. They prayed a lot. Hours of prayer,” she said.
In the days leading to their execution, Sr Gerard said that Catherine, Kah Hong and Adrian himself received the Eucharist. “That is God’s mystery of mercy and forgiveness.”
When the time finally came, “they were able to go peacefully,” said Sr Gerard.
She shared that she had “thought very much about the victims and their families” and had in fact met one of the family members.
“The families have been in my prayer all these years, the healing and pain that they are going through is something I don’t think anyone can understand,” she said.
Sr Gerard had started the Roman Catholic Prison Ministry (RCPM) in 1977 with Redemptorists Father Brian Doro and Father Patrick John O’Neill because of her experience of hope and forgiveness behind bars.
In all, she has counselled 18 death row inmates including drug trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen and Flor Contemplacion who murdered a fellow Filipino domestic worker and a four-year-old.
“The inmates need someone who won’t condemn them, because the world has done that enough … they need prayer and commitment from us. I can’t be going one week and the next week I don’t go because these inmates are looking forward [to the visits].” She added that the inmates also looked forward “especially to receiving the Eucharist.”
Acknowledging that she did have “dark days” during her time as a death row counsellor, Sr Gerard said her “prayer life and her relationship with God” kept her going.
There were days where she felt so tired and drained but she recalled the Lord speaking to her, “When you are in darkness, let go. Let me take over.”
She also paid tribute to her community of Good Shepherd Sisters. “Even during those days when I would be walking with death row inmates, my community would be praying for me at early hours in the morning. They were there supporting me all the way. I think that is why I was strong in the ministry.”
Now after almost 40 years serving as a counsellor at RCPM, Sr Gerard said she gives thanks to God for the wonders He has worked in her life.
“I get up early morning and I am so happy that I can have another day to praise God.”
This sharing was first published on the Catholic News.
Whether Seal of Confession was broken in film
While some artistic licence may have been taken by the producers of the short film, these are facts to be considered:
- This the dramatisation of a high-profile Singapore case that was carefully and extensively documented and reported in media.
- All of the information “divulged by the penitent” in the confession scene is public knowledge that has been put into a sequenced dialogue for dramatic effect.
- For this film, its is unlikely that additional knowledge of the confession was made available at the time of filming as the Redemptorist Priest Fr. Brian Doro, who heard the confession of Catherine Tan, passed away in February 2015.