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Cecilia Shin (in black polka-dot top) convincing a customer to buy the pre-loved hot pot at the Feast of St Padre Pio bazaar in Ulu Tiram, Johor in Sept 2019. This is a typical scene at pre-lockdown feast days. Catholic entrepreneurship is a lot more than this.

Cecilia on “Sales Mission” at Feast of St Padre Pio

Each year, Cecilia Shin brings her team from Singapore to the feast day bazaar. There is much more to it than just sales.

SEPTEMBER 25, 2019: She has a commanding voice. One of the voices that stand out at the annual Feast of St Padre Pio’s bazaar in Johor. She is very persuasive and passionate about what she and her team sell. Handmade rosaries made by her, other rosaries sourced from overseas, religious items, and pre-loved (second-hand) items with proceeds going towards God’s work at the St Pio’s Friary and Spirituality Centre.

And her resolve is strong. One prospective buyer asked if the price of a rosary could be reduced. And her response was a thunderous: “The money is all going to God. It’s for God. How can you bargain!” That got those within earshot laughing.

This is Cecilia Shin, the 67-year-old Singaporean with a personality that is as big as her heart.

One of the prized items that was on sale was a specialty rosary she made – it had sparkling beads with a cross made out of Swarovski stones. It costs RM450. “It actually costs a lot more than that but I decided to keep the price on the low side.”

Many were drawn to it, held it admiringly but said they did not have enough money on them. “One lady came from the back and quietly said she wanted to buy it. And she didn’t even bargain for it.” Only Shin would have been able to pull that off.

Shin is no stranger to sales. She was a high performing sales promoter for a leading electrical appliance company for 16 years. She then went on to do her own business, which was selling lingerie and running a café. But she left it all for a higher purpose.

For the last eight years, she has been leading a team of volunteers from churches in the island republic to man the booth at the annual Feast of Padre Pio celebration.  

The triduum celebration starts on a Thursday with evening masses at the Church of Holy Family in Ulu Tiram, a 30-minute drive eastward from Johor Bahru, culminating in a late morning mass at the St Pio’s Friary and Spirituality Centre which is close to the church. This year’s celebration was from Sept 19 to 22.

With each year, the number of pilgrims attending the feast day has been increasing. They come by the buses. Travelling from the Klang Valley and Singapore. For some it is a day-trip as demanding as it may be, for others it is a nice long weekend. But for all who come, it is a time to get closer to God, to hear of the work our Lord Jesus is doing in the lives of people and a chance to know and be awed by St Padre Pio and the work he has done.

Shin posing for a photo in 2007 at that year’s bazaar during the Feast of St Padre Pio in Ulu Tiram, Johor. Photo courtesy of Cecilia Shin.

For Shin, who has two children aged 45 and 40 and grandchildren aged nine and five, it is a chance to fulfil a deep desire to serve. It all started in 1993 when she went with her friends on a pilgrimage to a small church midway up Mount Singai in Bau, Sarawak. Near Kuching.

“I was touched by the way the people there prayed. I saw the love of God in them,” she said. She was with a team of nine people on a mission exposure trip organised by the Archdiocese Catholic Mission Activities, a programme under the Archdioces of Singapore.

At that time, there was hardly many structures or walking paths at Mount Singai. “It was raw mountain. It was so high up and you can slip and fall so easily.” But she went up and at the 12th station was when she experienced a spiritual encounter with God.

“I suddenly started crying and I went on crying. I could hear the people behind me saying not to disturb me and to just let me cry. I felt I was healed spiritually. I was 40 then and still working as a sales promoter. But I became more prayerful after that.”

She started visiting Mount Singai each year since then and took up as her personal mission to help the church in whichever way she could. One of the ways was mission exposure trips like the one she was on. She saw how powerful these trips were and got many of her friends to go on these trips. She connected them to the priests and leaders there who made all the arrangements in Sarawak.

“Once they go on these trips, God transforms them. They become kinder and more generous.”

“After 19 years, there is now a good church building and many facilities there like electricity and water.” She said this with pride, not in what she and her friends have done but in what God has done through them.

Today, there is the Catholic Memorial Pilgrimage Centre standing proud on the mountain and it houses the Church of Christ the King, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, a retreat house, a 10-door longhouse, a chalet, a mess hall, a hostel and an amphitheatre.

Shin then started to do the same for churches in Sabah at the request of the priests in that state. She is now working at getting support for the St Peter Claver Church in Ranau, Sabah.

There is another part to that Mount Singai trip in 1993. She met nuns from the Sisters of St Francis Of Sarawak (under the Archdiocese of Kuching) who were serving there. They told her about the Secular Franciscan Order which was open to lay people who want to pattern their lives after Jesus in the spirit of Francis of Assisi. In Latin, it is known as the Ordo Franciscanus Saecularis or the OFS and is also referred to as the Third Order Secular.

Shin’s godson Fendy Phan showing a customer the different rosaries that are for sale. He is one of the volunteers from Singapore.

They asked her to join this order and the thought of serving God in a bigger way appealed to Shin. It was through one of the Franciscan events that she met Fr Valentine Gompok, OFM Cap, the priest in charge of the St Pio’s Friary and Spirituality Centre, who invited her to the centre and to St Padre Pio feast day celebrations. When she first set up the booth at the feast day celebrations, she brought three to four friends as volunteers. The number grew over the years and now at least 10 people are there.

Support from other friends from the different churches in Singapore also grew and more and more items were being sold.

Shin also gets first-timers to attend the celebration, people who have never been to the centre. This year, she managed to get about 80 people to come.  

“You know the story of the leper that Jesus cleansed? The one who came back. There were ten that Jesus healed but only one came back to thank Him,” she said. “That’s me.” All that she is doing is her way of thanking Jesus.