SINGAPORE – “God has given me a musical talent which I have used throughout my life to spread His word and teach others about Him through music,” says Fr Francis Leong.
The 76-year-old Malaysian-born priest, currently residing in Singapore, was a La Salle Brother for 34 years before becoming a Maryknoll priest.
The accomplished musician has earned doctorates in sacred music, creative arts and theological studies, and held senior teaching appointments in music in various parts of the world.
He was scheduled to celebrate his 25th year as a Maryknoll missioner at the Church of Divine Mercy on June 6.
Fr Leong, who grew up in Penang, joined the La Salle Brothers at the age of 17. He came to Singapore in 1957 where he taught at St Patrick’s School, and later at St Michael’s Institution in Ipoh. He returned to Singapore in 1970 and taught music in St Patrick’s.
He also founded the Singapore Music Centre in 1971, which he said became the genesis of the Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, now known as LASALLE College of the Arts.
However, changes were already taking place in his life. When he was in London from 1964-1969 for studies, he often visited various monasteries, and one day decided to attend a vocation exhibition.
During the bus ride there, the thought came to him that “as a priest I could bring people back to God through ministering the sacraments”. This was when he started feeling a call to the priesthood.
In 1979, he came across old magazines of the US-based Maryknoll congregation while he was in a church in Santa Barbara, California. As he read them, he found himself drawn to the missionary work that the Maryknolls do, and told himself, “This is it! I want to be a Maryknoll priest.”
He later joined the congreation and was ordained in 1987.
Fr Leong told CatholicNews that he finds his work as a priest very fulfilling. “As a priest I can reach out to more people beyond the classroom environment unlike what I used to do as a Brother,” such as bringing people back to God through the Eucharist and confession.
Fr Leong also noted that “this is the age where the laity can contribute to the community in schools just as well as a La Salle Brother can”, referring to the many Catholic schools in Singapore headed by laypeople.
Although now retired, Fr Leong conducts retreats, gives faith formation talks and visits prisoners. “It’s very fulfilling ministering to prisoners, both men and women. I would give them Bible classes, celebrate Mass and hear confessions,” he said.
At different points in his life, Fr Leong was also music director of Maryknoll School of Theology in New York, Star of the Sea parish in Hong Kong and Sacred Heart parish in Hawaii, as well as music consultant in the Guangzhou Institute of Fine Arts in China.
“The diversity of the work I’ve done in various places means that I had a wider outreach to people. And it’s all God’s will that I am able to do so. Without Him I am nothing,” he said.
By Martin See