His Eminence Rev Anthony Soter Fernandez was a regular at almost all the Pillai family functions, be they birthdays, anniversaries, weddings or funerals.
He was always so happy and eager to attend all our functions and it was a treat to see his face all lit up to see the members of the Pillai family.
We, in turn, were honoured to have him attend our functions and bless us with his presence.
My father-in-law N.G. Pillai and the Cardinal’s father were the best of friends and neighbours back in Kedah in the 1940s.
In fact my sisters-in-law (now in their 80s) still reminisce about the good old times when they played as children with young Soter and his siblings. They knew no religious differences.
My sisters-in-law who are Hindus used to tag along to church with the Fernandez family and they enjoyed arranging flowers at the chapel nearby.
My eldest brother-in-law Dr Deva Dass reveres memories of the Cardinal as an elder brother whom he looked up to. To him “brother “ Soter was a gentle and kind soul and they maintained this brotherly relationship for decades.
I first met His Eminence at my engagement in Penang in 1976 where he served as a priest – a charming gentlemen with striking raven hair. My husband-to-be, who was the youngest in the Pillai family, proudly informed me that he had attended Rev Soter’s ordination in 1966.
In the years that followed, my husband and I and his siblings had the privilege of being invited to attend all the ordinations from 1978 when his Eminence became the Bishop of the Penang diocese and years later the archbishop in 1983 and finally 2016 when he rose to become the first Cardinal of Malaysia. What a proud moment that was not just for the Fernandez family but also for the Pillais.
A grand ceremony was held at St John’s Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur. The Pillai siblings were all given special passes with parking lots at the Cathedral and seats just next to the family members! And we were treated to a sumptuous dinner after the spectacular ceremony with His Eminence playing host. In fact His Eminence told a number of people present there that he would not have been able to enter priesthood if not for my in-laws!
What built this strong friendship between a staunch Hindu family and an equally staunch Catholic family, one may ask. After Mr Fernandez passed away, my father-in-law who was a first-grade dresser (or medical assistant, as they are termed now) of the Baling Road group Hospital in Kuala Ketil, took upon himself to train young Soter Fernandez as a junior dresser.
The young Soter soon rose to become a first-grade dresser and was posted to the TB hospital, in Penang. Mrs Fernandez, who was staying with her son at the hospital quarters, often invited the Pillais over for her delicious roast turkey. The ladies of both families loved to stay over at each other’s homes during weekends.
Years later, when His Eminence experienced a calling to enter the priesthood, he was in two minds wondering how to leave his mother all alone as his younger brother was away, undergoing training in the police force. It was then that my in-laws lent a helping hand and offered to house Mrs Fernandez for about two years at their home in Kuala Ketil.
Aunty Fernandez, as she’s fondly called, and my mother-in-law were thick buddies and shared common interests like cooking and sewing. Aunty was an excellent cook and a very skilful seamstress.
Years passed and Aunty Fernandez left to stay with her younger son who had now become an inspector. But the strong ties between the Pillais and the Fernandez family continued to prevail.
His Eminence made it a point to visit my ailing father-in-law in Butterworth each time he was in the vicinity. For my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1985, His Eminence gifted them with a scroll signed with blessings from Pope John Paul II.
We were all invited for the 80th birthday of His Eminence at his younger brother’s home in Bangsar and we could not help noticing his naturally thick jet black hair and we women wondered what his secret could be.
When my father-in-law passed away, His Eminence was in Rome. We were privileged to have the then Bishop of Penang being summoned instead to say prayers at the funeral. Our Hindu friends were surprised to see a Christian priest offering prayers while our Christian friends wondered how we got someone as important as the Bishop to attend the funeral!
Three years ago, I had a call from His Eminence saying that he wanted to visit us in Seremban. It was then that I told him that I would like to write about the ties between the two families and he was so delighted. He invited us over to Cheras where he stayed so that he could reminisce about the good old days he had with the Pillais. But he had a hectic schedule and some months later he was diagnosed with cancer and no visitors were allowed thereafter. That was the last we saw of him.
However, my eldest brother-in-law managed to reach him through a letter and His eminence was so gracious to reply with a phone call despite his illness, promising that they would meet again in Bangsar. But his condition deteriorated thereafter and that was the last my brother-in-law heard from his dear friend.
The Pillais will always remember His Eminence as a wonderful and gentle soul. He displayed great humility and was one who would never forget his old friends. He maintained a beautiful relationship with the whole Pillai family, both young and old, all of whom will miss him dearly.
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