“Being inspired while finding God, that’s what fulfils me,” said Brother William Ng, a Franciscan friar living in Hong Kong. “I love when I see people learning how to enjoy their spirituality through creativity and art.” As member of the Franciscan order, Brother William’s journey in finding his spiritual identity has been one of constant learning. Not bound by the same restrictions as a Franciscan monk, Brother William has ventured out into the world to share his own experiences and the good news of the Lord; he has experience teaching in high schools and has led numerous religious workshops. He has also intertwined his own love of creative art into his vocation, proving that a balance of personal interests can still thrive in a life devoted to the Church.  

In 1984, William arrived at the University of Waterloo raised as a Protestant and filled with religious curiosity. Initially living at the Village 2 residence during his first year, William wanted to move into a more religious environment with a stronger emphasis on community and applied to Conrad Grebel University College. Grebel’s community, established through an open-door tradition and weekly Community Suppers, allowed William to comfortably talk with upper-year residents and faculty, breaking the oftentimes rigid boundaries between student and older peers. He became an active participant in religious initiatives at UWaterloo, attending Chapel at Grebel on Wednesdays and Mass at St. Jerome’s on Sunday mornings. As a young man, William’s religious views were not yet solidified. “I couldn’t make up my mind on my beliefs at the time. I was enamoured by the Catholic liturgies and teachings.” 

Having no prior exposure to Mennonite beliefs and traditions, William was eager explore Christianity through a new lens. “I was always religiously minded,” he explained, “so I was very interested in the Mennonite tradition. I discussed at length the different kinds of Christian sacraments and how to resist temptations of resorting to violence.” After attending a peace fellowship event held between Grebel and other Mennonite colleges, prioritizing peacebuilding became a pillar of interest in William’s life. “That event was a very powerful experience that helped me identify myself in the peace movement.”  

As an Environment Student in Urban Planning, William read an article for his Environmental Ethics class which discussed the environmentally unfriendly ideologies of Christianity. “I was shocked and began searching for avenues where I could combine my passion for peacemaking along with my love for the environment. A friend of mine mentioned St. Francis, the Patron Saint of Ecology. That was my first introduction to the Franciscan Movement.” Carrying the ecological values of Saint Franics with him, William graduated from the University of Waterloo and decided to pursue his master's in Landscape Architecture at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.  

After attaining his master’s degree, Willaim received news that his father had fallen ill, which led him to return to Hong Kong. While there, William connected with members of a Franciscan friary and upon heavy consideration and internal reflection, decided to join the order, leaving behind a promising career as a landscape architect and planner in search of spiritual fulfilment. After formation in theology, William was sent to teach English and Religious Studies as a teacher. However, the demands of having two sets of responsibilities began to weigh on him, especially since the rates of new Franciscan friars were steadily declining. “After teaching at the high school for five years, it got to a point where I had a vocational crisis,” William said. “I asked myself, ‘What are you doing here? You’re called to be a friar, not a teacher.’” Wanting to strengthen his connection to his ministry, William returned to his studies and enrolled in the Religion and Arts program offered at Yale University.  

Brother William in the streets

“At Yale, we did a one semester course on Bach’s Mass in B Minor, covering each of the 12 movements, every week,” said William. “Through that class, I learned that many historic artists have drawn heavy inspiration through religion. I thought, ‘why couldn’t I do that too?’” While William admitted that he didn’t have the talent to become the next great musical composer, he realized that he could still use his architectural experience and love for creating art to augment God’s message and engage a larger audience. “Making art, using creativity, everybody can do that. You don’t need formal training. Christianity is oftentimes too intellectual and overly concerned with specific dogmas. There’s no reason why we can’t make our spiritual journeys and prayer life more artistic.” As a friar for more than 30 years, William finds joy in integrating musical hymns into his homilies and urges his congregations to analyze the integrate artworks of Christianity to amplify their spiritual experiences.  

William’s journey has been a series of learning curves and interpersonal experiences that have allowed him to combine his religious curiosities, vocational duty, and love for creative expression. To the Grebel community that instilled the virtue of peacemaking within him, William suggests that students be as open-minded as they can be. “If nobody is sitting next to you, go find someone to sit with. During my university years, dialogue and conversation were so important. Take advantage of the open community Grebel provides and get to know its people.”  

William also stresses the importance of earthly stewardship and the dangerous environmental trajectory of our current society. He referenced Laudato si’, Pope Francis’ second encyclical published in 2015 which discusses Christian’s duties to protect the environment. “Pope Francis carries many Franciscan values in his thoughts. He asked the world to look at our environmental issues from a religious and human point of view. It is our religious duty to care for our planet.” Recently, William has been asked to design a labyrinth that reflects a culmination of his own experiences throughout the years. “Everything has come together now. Spirituality, religion, design, art making, prayer, they’re all being united in a way I never could have expected."

By Jiho Mercer

Brother William is a Franciscan friar with more than 30 years of service to the order. He loves combining aspects of creativity into his work and uses music to uplift his spiritual talks while engaging participants to use artmaking as praying. He studied Urban Planning at the University of Waterloo before going on to study Landscape Architecture at Edinburgh University and Religion and the Arts at Yale Divinity School 

William's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.