Vincent de Paul was born in France in 1576. As a young priest he was captured by Turkish pirates who sold him into slavery.
For two years he worked hard for the ‘masters’ who bought him. But eventually he converted his last master to Christianity and was then set free.
Vincent was sent to work in a parish near Paris. He became a very great friend of the poor and downtrodden and started groups to take care of them – looking after the sick, cooking meals and providing clothes for the needy.
Vincent Started the Order of the Daughters of Charity who devoted their lives to Christ through service to the poor and sick. He built homes for the poor, the sick, the aged and abandoned children. He also started a Congregation of the Missions, a society of priests and missionaries called the Vincentians.
Vincent died in Paris at the age of 84 but his work continues to this day in all corners of the globe.
The beginning of St Vincent's Church can be traced back to 1951 when a Belgian missionary, Father A. Palmers, SAMist (Society of the Auxiliaries of the Missions), started visiting the small fishing village called Hang Hau from the Rennie’s Mill Refugee Camp across the Junk Bay or Tseung Kwan O Bay, where he was in charge of the parish. In 1955 he built a small chapel and later on established a small primary school.
When the first CICM Missionary (Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary), Father Ernest Stassen, coming from the North of China, joined the team at Rennie's Mill Camp in October 1954, he also visited the small fishing village from 1955 onward. CICM Father Octaaf De Vreeze, coming from Inner Mongolia, joined the pastoral team responsible for Rennie’s Mill and Hang Hau in October 1956. The CICM Missionaries were founded in Belgium especially to serve in China, where they first arrived in 1862. They came to Hong Kong in 1951.
At that time, before Rennie’s Mill was cleared and demolished in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the crescent-shaped Bay was reclaimed to make way for Tseung Kwan O New Town, Rennie's Mill Camp was a rambling squat settlement with winding, narrow alleys that ran along the waterfront and up along the hillside. Besides a chapel, there was also a Catholic school with a secondary and primary section and kindergarten.
Rennie’s Mill and Junk Bay were situated in the cradle of the hills, at the far western tip of the Tseung Kwan O reclamation area beyond the Haven of Hope complex that dominates the hillside today (on the left driving up towards the Tseung Kwan O tunnel). It is hard to picture but today’s Hang Hau Village was on the waterfront and the only way to get there quickly in those days was by sampan.
In June 1958, the Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong officially entrusted the area around Rennie's Mill and Hang Hau to the CICM Missionaries. Fr Octaaf De Vreeze was put in charge of the area. Fr Palmers left Hong Kong for ministry in Taiwan and CICM Father Willy Wammes, who had previously worked in Ningxia in northwestern China, was appointed to take care of the Hang Hau area. In that year there were 101 Catholics in the parish, compared to 57 in 1957. By 1959 there were 114 Catholics, rising to 132 in 1960 and 186 by 1961.
In September 1960, the Hong Kong Diocese divided the Junk Bay area into the two districts: Rennie's Mill and Hang Hau. Fr Willy Wammes was officially appointed the parish priest to Hang Hau. The Hang Hau parish then included Hang Hau and all the small villages around Clear Water Bay stretching from Fei Ngo Shan to Tai O Mun.
By March 1963, there were 52 boys and 42 girls studying at St Vincent’s Primary School. Fr Wammes greatly increased the number of classrooms at the school. Since 1958 the school had fulfilled all government requirements and in 1966 it became a government-subsidized school. The first principal was Ms Le Kung-ho, who had been teaching there since 1962. Some Chinese Sisters of the Announcers of the Lord came for a while to give catechism lessons.
At that time Hang Hau village had about 4,500 residents, of whom 200 had been baptized. Fr Willy Wammes also established a small chapel and a small primary school (St Michael's) at Tai Chik Sha; it opened in February 1965. He also built small houses for people in Pak Shek Wo, Tai Po Tsai and Ming Oi San Tsuen, just near the Clear Water Bay Park ‘n Shop.
In 1967, Fr Willy Wammes built the Fabiola Clinic, situated across the road from the church, with donations from Queen Fabiola of Belgium. The clinic was handed over to Caritas-Hong Kong, and was originally run as a maternity centre and nursery by the Sisters of the Precious Blood. Later it also served as an old people's home and as a refuge for unwed mothers. It is now used as a drug rehabilitation centre.
In December of 1969 the first Eucharistic celebration took place in the present St Vincent's Church and English Mass services were held in the church for the first time. Until then the English-speaking community had attended Sunday Mass services in nearby PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) House on Clear Water Bay Road, at the top of the hill just before the Park 'n Shop.
In March 1973 Fr Willy Wammes died after a trip to Tai Chek Sha. He had served 12 years at St Vincent's. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery at Happy Valley. He had been popular and well-known. A plaque in his memory is affixed to the front wall of the church.
In April 1973 Fr Octaaf De Vreeze, coming from Lei Yue Mun chapel, took over the duties of the parish priest until the end of March 1976 when he returned to Belgium. For six months, from April to October 1976, there was no resident priest. CICM Father Joseph Nijssen, travelling from Yau Tong Wan, and ICM Sister Caroline Boermans from Lei Yue Mun, took care of the parish.
In October 1, 1976, CICM Father Piet Devos became the new parish priest. He arranged that from the beginning of 1977 an English-speaking preschool (Peter Pan Kindergarten) used the car park basement under the church. The arrangement lasted until the end of 1992. He also opened up the same basement car park for retreats and camps for Catholic youth groups on weekends. In August 1977, Father Devos left Hang Hau to take charge of the Lam Tin parish at St. Edward’s Primary School.
In October of that same year, St Vincent's Hang Hau became the new home for the CICM Catechetical Secretariat and three ICM sisters: Sister Caroline Boermans, Sister Victoire Braekers and Sister Letty Bartolome. Sr Victoire took care of pastoral work. Sr Caroline was in charge of the Catechetical Centre and took care of the preparatory classes for First Holy Communion and Confirmation; Sr Letty's special talents lay in helping the handicapped in a centre in Kowloon.
From October 1977 CICM Father Willy Hertecant served the parish from Ming Yuen Middle School at Rennie's Mill Village. Until mid-1989 he usually arrived at the parish by boat.
In October 1978 CICM Father Leo Blanchard became the new parish priest. He also would travel to Pak Shek Wo to say Mass for the villagers. At that time a young lay pastoral worker, Lee Kwok-Ying, joined the parish and worked closely with Fr Leo and the three Sisters to develop the parish community. The youth group met regularly and more expatriates moved into the parish as Clear Water Bay opened up to development.
Sr Letty Bartolome eventually moved to Kowloon in order to be closer to her work. In October 1979 Sister Therese Sohier joined the Hang Hau ICM community. She worked with Maryknoll Hospital as a community nurse doing home visits. Sr Therese also served as a member of the parish team and helped out in the parish activities, especially for visiting sick and old people and bringing Holy Communion to them.
Father Leo Blanchard served as parish priest until October 1980, when he became the parish priest at St Mary’s in Hung Hom. Fr Willy Hertecant again took over the duties at Hang Hau.
In the beginning of 1981, Sr Caroline Boermans took over the pastoral work and administration of the parish from Sr Victoire, who remained in the Hang Hau community until 1986 when she moved to Taiwan for two years and then retired to Belgium.
Two parish councils were formed: one for the Chinese-speaking community, one for the English-speaking community. Also in 1981, the Service of the Word for children during the English and Chinese Masses was started. Regular children’s Eucharistic Celebrations were started; as well as a Bible Week for children and a camp for the altar servers.
In July 1985 the Saint Michael Primary School had to close down due to the levelling of the area for the huge dumping site for rubbish at Tai Chek Sha.
In 1987, ICM Sister Edith Van Nevel joined the parish team and remained at Hang Hau until 1989. She went back to Belgium for service and then to Mongolia.
In 1989, the demolition of part of Hang Hau village along the waterfront heralded the start of the Tseung Kwan O New Town project, which involved massive reclamation of Junk Bay. This forced the closure of St Vincent’s Primary School in July 1989. In September 1990 Fr Willy Hertecant established the Saint Vincent's Children's Centre on the premises of the former St. Vincent's Primary School. The centre provided a place to study and play for children who had both parents working. It also provided lunch for the students and kept them off the streets after school hours. It closed down on 30 July 2004.
The parish community grew together with the development of Tseung Kwan O New Town. Faithful from Hong Shing, Tsui Lam and Po Lam Estates were brought by coach to St Vincent’s. In 1989 the area across from Po Lam Road became a new parish, St Andrew’s parish, while Fu Ning Court and Hang Hau New Village came under St Vincent's parish.
In March 2000 air conditioners were installed in the church. In 2001 the maintenance of several slopes in the grounds of the church took place at a huge cost. Hang Hau parish at the time was home to almost 1,000 Catholics from about 290 local and expatriate families.