Lessons from a poor sacristan

A tribute to Bernadette Lau

By now most parishioners of NBVM will know that their former sacristan, Mdm.Bernadette Lau’s case in the Labour Court regarding alleged unjust termination of her services by the church has been settled amicably. The out of court settlement spared our church of the embarrassment and the negative publicity would have created if the case did go on as scheduled.

Many old parishioners of NBVM will know Bernadette much better than me as she was serving the church as a sacristan under numerous priests for over 20 years. I only got to know her lately when she came to see me for advice after being unceremoniously forced to retire from her job on 21 October 2012 at the age of 67.A large number of parishioners felt she was unjustly sacked from her job which she carried out efficiently with great passion and dedication.

For those not familiar, a sacristan is an officer who is charged with the care of the sacristy, the church, and their contents. A sacristy is a room for keeping vestments (such as the alb and chasuble) and other church furnishings, sacred vessels, and parish records. The sacristy is also where the priest and attendants vest and prepare before the service.

Within the short time I knew Bernadette, I realised I have so much to learn from this simple old woman who many considered as just a church sweeper. She may be just a lowly paid and simple church worker with no formal education or position to boast about but she lived a life that is worthy of praise and appreciation. Some of her attributes that struck me were as follows.

1. Simplicity – She was very simple and down to earth person, simply dressed with no glamour of any sort. She appeared to be just another lowly paid worker with no airs about herself.

2. Courageous – This attribute which I and many parishioners admired most in her. She felt she has been treated unjustly and she wanted to prove her innocence but did not know how to go about it. With the advice of a few close friends who were old and pensioned, she managed to do what her employer did not anticipate. She was nobody without any high level contacts or family members whatsoever to help her but she did it all alone. She managed to find her way to meet the Labour Officer to file her complaint against her former employer who had great influence, power and money to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately the employer was none other than the church which she served loyally for over 20 years.

3. Diligent worker – All who know her say she used to be a very hard worker who did her job with great passion. She used to come to church on her motorbike as early as 5am to prepare for mass and only goes back home after all the meetings are over which can be as late as 10 or 11pm.Of course she used to grumble and times lose her temper when people refuse to leave quickly after mass or after meetings. Who wouldn’t if in her situation?

A friend close of her relates how she at times used her own money from her meagre salary to buy detergents to wash the items like chalice and vests used during mass. She did all that because she believed she was serving God and not just the priests who came and left.

4. Insists in working for her money – On being terminated many concerned parishioners went to her aid by giving her money which she flatly refused. Even the farewell dinner and a farewell gift that they wanted to give to show their empathy and appreciation was flatly turned down saying, “ I did not retire or resign voluntarily but was sacked. I am so sad and angry, why should I accept the dinner?”

Today when greed seemed to have taken control of our life, it was strange that a poor sacristan did not want anything free which she did not work for. She was willing to accept payment only for work she did will pay those who had helped her in some form. Just before Chinese New Year, she even left a small “angpow” for me as a token of appreciation for the little advice and moral support I offered and refused to come and take it back despite much coaxing.

5. Gratitude – She came many times just to thank me for the very small help I offered her. She also rang her friends many times to thank them for their assistance. Again this is a virtue that is badly lacking in many of us today. We take for granted those who came into our lives and played a role in making us what we are today.

Anyone with some interest in human relationship will be able to appreciate these virtuous qualities in Bernadette. Unfortunately her employer for whom she had worked for over twenty years failed to see and appreciate these good things in her. She was not only terminated without reason but refused any compensation for her subsequent maintenance. It is extremely sad that the employer was no ordinary person or institution but the Church.

Bernadette Lau may be just a sacristan or church sweeper but she has left a lasting impression in my heart by her integrity and righteousness which many in high positions lack. To me she is more Christ-like than many who claim to be so

Bernadette may not be our sacristan anymore but we will always be grateful for her services. Let us keep her in our prayers and hearts and be there in her times of need. We wish her every success in her new life. May God bless her with good health, peace and happiness for her umpteen years of dedicated service to Him.

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