Good Shepherd nun Sister Gerard Fernandez likes to tell people that I stalked her for nearly 30 years. In a way, I did, because I was writing a book about notorious child-killer Adrian Lim and I wanted to ask her about her experience as a Changi Prison death row counsellor. But every time I sent a message through a friend who knew her, the answer was a firm No. I tried numerous times, before Unholy Trinity was published, and after. I never liked the book, because of the horrifying details and writing it in the dead of night gave me the creeps. The only good that came of it, I felt for a very long time, was that it sold so well – 35,000 copies, a bestseller by Singapore standards – and all the royalties went to the Samaritans of Singapore.
In 2015, publisher Marshall Cavendish was ready to do a reprint of the book, and I tried one more time to get to Sister Gerard. I asked a Catholic priest I knew, my good friend Father Clifford Augustine, a Franciscan Friar, if he would ask Sister Gerard again if she would see me. I expected another No. But this time, she said Yes! I couldn’t believe my luck. She explained when we met that she had said No all those years because she was still going to Changi Prison regularly. Now 78 and retired, she was ready to describe her experience in the Catholic Prison Ministry which she helped to set up. The 2016 edition of Unholy Trinity had one new chapter, and it was what Sister Gerard told me about the years she spent counselling Adrian Lim’s wife Catherine Tan Mui Choo and mistress Hoe Kah Hong.
Neither of us knew that this account about the nun on death row would move film producer Daniel Yun when he read it, and that he would pass it on to film-maker Chai Yee Wei. One day in 2018 Daniel introduced Chai to me, and I accompanied Chai to meet Sister Gerard at the Good Shepherd convent in Toa Payoh. And that was the start of another adventure which has resulted in Chai’s brilliant short film, Sister, made as part of the 15 Shorts series. After avoiding me for 30 years, Sister Gerard and I are friends now and every time we meet and one more person turns up to interview her, she says in mock despair: “What have you got me into!” I really love how this story unfolded, and where it has brought us to. I finally have a reason to like that book from 1989. It led to Sister Gerard Fernandez sharing her story of unconditional love for condemned prisoners, and each time she tells it, people are amazed and moved. The following excerpt from Unholy Trinity (Marshall Cavendish, 2016) was published in The Sunday Times.
‘Sister, how could you love me after what I have done?’
When two children were murdered within a fortnight in Toa Payoh in early 1981, all of Singapore was shocked. But the tragedy hit home especially among the Good Shepherd sisters, a community of Roman Catholic nuns who run schools, a vocational centre for girls and a shelter for women.
They knew the first victim, nine-year-old Agnes Ng Siew Heok, whose family were devout Catholics. And when the police arrested three people for killing Agnes and Ghazali Marzuki, 10, the sisters were distressed to learn that one of the suspects was Tan Mui Choo, who had attended their Marymount Vocational Centre and whom they knew as Catherine.
No one was more disturbed than Sister Gerard Fernandez. “I knew Catherine, she was one of our girls. She came from a Catholic family, her parents were very religious, and we knew them too,” she recalled. Sister Gerard was aware that the 26-year-old had fallen into bad company after leaving the vocational centre.
As the sensational case unfolded before the courts, she also knew of all the terrible details that emerged, including how Catherine’s younger sister and brother had also been tricked by by her husband, the self-styled spirit medium Adrian Lim, 39.
When Adrian, Catherine and Adrian’s 25-year-old mistress Hoe Kah Hong were sentenced to hang on May 23 1983, Sister Gerard felt she had to act quickly. “I thought they were all going to hang the very next day!” she said.
Some years earlier, in 1977, she had joined Redemptorist priests Father Brian Doro and Father Patrick John O’Neill in starting the Roman Catholic Prison Ministry to visit detained drug offenders and prisoners. She had never counselled anyone sentenced to hang, but now asked the director of prisons, Mr Quek Shi Lei, for permission to meet Catherine on death row.
“He gave me permission, but only if she was willing to meet me,” Sister Gerard recalled. “He said, ‘She must want to see you, and right now she doesn’t want to see anybody.’ So I wrote her a letter right away and I included a beautiful picture of Jesus. I think it touched her.”
Her letter went unanswered for six months. Then, out of the blue, a reply arrived one day from Catherine. Sister Gerard said: “Her first words to me were, ‘Sister, how could you love me after what I have done?’ And she signed her letter, ‘Your black sheep, Catherine.’ I immediately went and got permission to see her. It was the beginning of a period of healing for her.”
That was how the nun began her weekly visits to Catherine, who was among a number of condemned women criminals in Changi Prison.
She had been mistaken in thinking the trio’s hangings were imminent. In fact, all three remained on death row for almost seven years until the women exhausted all avenues of appeal. The three were executed on the same morning, on Nov 25, 1988.
After she began her death row visits, Sister Gerard would go to Catherine’s cell each week and stay half an hour. She was not allowed to enter the cell, so the two women would hold hands and chat, or pray and sing hymns together.
One day, Catherine asked to make her confession, which is when Catholics tell a priest their sins, express sorrow and ask for forgiveness. “After that, her life changed. Catherine spent hours in prayer, and looked forward to the times when Father Doro would come and say the Mass in front of her cell with me, and she received the Eucharist,” said Sister Gerard, referring to the blessed wafer distributed to the faithful at Catholic services.
Catherine’s family had been devastated by her arrest, the courtroom revelations and her being sentenced to death. She had been estranged from her parents, and closer to her late grandmother.
Sister Gerard recalled that it took some time to persuade Catherine’s father to visit her in prison. “I spoke to him and said look, she’s done wrong, but she is still your daughter.”
He eventually came round “He went to see her, and there was a moment of forgiveness,” Sister Gerard said. That meeting took place just in time, because not long after, Catherine’s father had a stroke and he died before she was hanged. Her mother visited her in prison and attended Father Doro’s masses too.
Sister Gerard said she saw a real change in Catherine over the years. Initially sad, upset and full of guilt, she gradually returned to her Catholic faith. “Once she was able to see that she had done wrong and admit it, and know that God forgave her, she was able to let go,” she said. “She drew strength from God coming back into her life. Catherine was a lovely person, always happy and nice to all the prison wardens.”
Like all death row prisoners, Catherine was in solitary confinement, and Kah Hong occupied the cell next to hers. At first Sister Gerard visited Catherine only, though they were aware that from her cell, Kah Hong would listen intently to everything they said.
“Later, Kah Hong asked to see me too, and I started visiting her as well.” Kah Hong eventually asked to be baptised a Catholic and she took the name Geraldine, after the nun who visited her on Death Row.
The women’s block was separate from the men’s block where Adrian was held. Sister Gerard said the two women spoke to her about the time they were with Adrian.
“They made a mistake,” she says simply. “They were frightened of him. He used the electric shocks on them and they could not get away and they did not know what they were doing. But they were aware that they had done wrong. He was also a medium and he used that to fool them into doing a lot of things.”
Sister Gerard believes Satan exists in the world and is able to get a hold on individuals who are not careful. Adrian, who had been raised Catholic, had a choice. “We have a power within us and we can use it for evil or for good. He just chose to do evil,” she said.
Asked if the two women forgave Adrian for all he had done and how he had led them to death row, Sister Gerard said: “It took some time, but they did.”
In fact, she had raised the subject herself, asking them how they would feel when all three were led to the gallows, and Adrian would be there alongside them. “I asked them, would you be able to forgive him? They said yes. And then they began to pray for his conversion. About a week before the executions, Catherine, Kah Hong, Father Doro and I were singing Amazing Grace and praying at their cells, and they were saying to God, ‘This is the last week of his life, do not let Adrian go without him asking for forgiveness.’”
Sister Gerard said the men and women’s blocks were close enough for the male prisoners to have heard them singing that day, and Adrian must have known he was listening to Catherine and Kah Hong’s voices.
During all the years that he was behind bars, Adrian had refused to see a counsellor. Father Doro was a familiar presence among the male prisoners, including those on death row, and had accompanied many a condemned man and woman to the gallows, staying by their side to the very end. “The prisoners loved him,” Sister Gerard said of the Australian priest. “He had a beautiful sense of humour, and could make the prisoners laugh.”
Although Adrian had seen Father Doro over the years, it was not until that final week before the executions that he asked to see the priest.
Sister Gerard recalled: “Father went right away and when they met, he smacked Adrian on the shoulder with his Bible and said, ‘What took you so long?’” Adrian asked for confession and communion.
Like Sister Gerard, Father Doro never spoke publicly about his experiences counselling the condemned. After he received a Public Service Medal in 1989 for his exemplary work in prisons, a reporter asked what it was like to accompany prisoners to their executions and remain within touching distance to the very end. All he would say was: “It is like sending a friend off on a trip.”
Father Doro, who died in Australia in 2015, sent off Adrian, Catherine and Kah Hong when their time came. Sister Gerard said of Adrian’s eleventh-hour decision to see the priest: “God works marvels. Adrian chose to repent, and God is forgiving.”
But why pray for a killer like Adrian, why hope that he would seek forgiveness for all the evil that he did and the pain he caused so many, especially the families of the innocent child victims?
“If you ask me that,” Sister Gerard said, “then you should ask me why I visit prisoners at all. We may condemn them, but God condemns no one.”
To those who question how she could spend her time helping criminals who have committed the most awful crimes, Sister Gerard said: “We believe in a God who loves us. There is no other reason.”
She believes it was God who led her and Father Doro to work on death row. “Our whole lives are about reaching out to people, especially the broken, giving them back their wholeness and their identity as children of God.”
After 35 years of walking with prisoners, Sister Gerard said Catherine remains vivid in her memories for a number of reasons. “She was my first death row prisoner,” she said.
What was also unusual was that although prison counselors almost never meet the families of victims, in this case she knew Agnes’ family, as well as Catherine’s family.
Sister Gerard and Father Doro were with Adrian, Catherine and Kah Hong on the day they were hanged. Father Doro officiated and Sister Gerard assisted at the funeral mass, which was attended by Catherine and Kah Hong’s mothers, some family members and Good Shepherd sisters. The priest and the nun also accompanied the caskets to the crematorium that day.
Sister Gerard joined the Good Shepherd sisters 60 years ago, at the age of 18. She taught and helped to run the Marymount vocational centre, but her work with prisoners and especially those on death row was to become a defining part of her calling to be a nun.
People cringe when she tells them how a prisoner sometimes says to her: “Sister, I love you very much!” But that has helped her understand and appreciate her gift as a nun and counsellor. “I have a capacity to give love and receive love,” she said.
She has described this elsewhere, saying: “While I abhor the death penalty, the taking of a life, I realise God’s call to me to walk with these vulnerable people is for me to remember that ‘He loved us first’ and allow them to experience healing and forgiveness through my love for them. They are precious moments when a man who has committed murder says to me the day before he is hanged, ‘Don’t worry Sister. I know God loves me! Tomorrow morning I will see Him face-to-face.’”
For Sister Gerard, accompanying prisoners in their final days means living up to the words of the foundress of her order, St Mary Euphrasia, who said: “One person is more precious than the whole world.”
This edited excerpt is from the 2016 edition of Unholy Trinity by Alan John. Published by Marshall Cavendish, the book is on sale at major bookstores for $21 before GST. The author’s royalties will go to PAVE, Singapore’s pioneer specialist agency dealing with domestic violence.
And here’s the short film Chai made for the 15 Shorts series.