RUDYARD Kipling, in some of his fine literary works wrote of the many travels and exploits by the early Europeans who braved the seas and hostile frontiers in the east in search of wealth and fame, describing them as a great romantic adventure which rode the crest of an expanding British Empire in post-Victorian era.
They came and returned home with their booty and left behind no indelible footprints save a last farewell. But the period also witnessed the arrival of a different wave of men on the shores of Borneo.
They were not in pursuit of wealth or material gain, instead responding to a deep spiritual calling to venture to a bigger mission field to spread the message of peace and salvation and help bring about transformation to the lives of the pagan natives.
They were the early Christian missionaries from the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist denominations.
They left their homes in Europe and the US to an unknown territory, placing their complete trust in God to lead them on.
Their missionary zeal finds perfect description in the words of John Keith Falconer, a Scottish evangelist of the same period, who wrote, “I have but one candle of life to burn, and I would rather burn it out in a land filled with darkness than in a land flooded with light.”
Thus begun the early Christian mission in what was then Brooke-ruled Sarawak in the pre-colonial era, where tolerance and respect for each other’s faith and culture was already evolving into a proud tradition and before long the Christian mission had become an integral component of the bigger social matrix unpolluted by what is today’s divisive politics.
Anglicanism and Catholicism in Sarawak The Anglican clergies from England were among the first Christian missionaries to set foot on Sarawak in 1848. Leading the pack was the Rev Francis Thomas McDougall, a priest and trained doctor and in whose memory a road next to St Thomas’ school was named McDougall Road.
A piece of land, which McDougall called ‘Chapel Hill’, was given to the mission by the White Rajah on which to build their church. In the years that followed, additional land in the vicinity was acquired to set up a simple thatched school which later grew into St Thomas’ and St Mary’s, two of Sarawak’s premier schools.
About two decades later, the Roman Catholic Mill Hill missionaries arrived and they, too, wanted to set up their mission base from where they could effectively reach out to the urban and rural folk who were not followers of any faith.
Fearing that a conflict of territorial jurisdiction might arise, Brooke decided to draw up a demarcation which distinguished the Roman Catholic mission field from that of Anglican, and this resulted in the Roman Catholic being allocated a size able domain in Kuching and Serian to develop their mission field while the Anglican Church the vast expanse of the Iban heartland in the Saribas basin.
While the Catholic planted their fi rst church at Singai in Bau and moved on to establish a large parish covering the area between Bau and Lundu where the number of catholic faithful is now about 60,000, the Anglicans set up the St Augustine’s Church in Betong and they, too, were quick to spread their influence and evangelise to the hundreds of longhouses that dotted the Saribas, Batang Lupar and Skrang river basins.
Methodist expansion At the turn of the century, the Methodists arrived and they were extended similar support and encouragement by Brooke as he had done so to the Anglicans and Catholics who came earlier.
Although the Methodist mission in then Malaya and Singapore had been established much earlier in 1885 with the Rev William Oldham as its first Bishop, the pioneer Methodist missionaries to Sarawak, namely, the Rev JM Hoover and Rev GV Summers, came only in 1903.
The Methodist mission expanded rapidly in Sibu and across the entire Rajang basin.
The presence of a large number of Foochow Methodists, who had arrived in Sibu from mainland China in 1900 under the leadership of Wong Nai Siong, had facilitated the expansionary work of the missionaries and efforts to transform Sibu into what is today a strong Methodist bastion.
Worthy of note also was the role played by three Iban leaders, namely, Tun Jugah Barieng, Dato Sri Jinggut Atan and Penghulu Sibat,who were baptised before the war.
The trio travelled to Singapore and successfully negotiated with the Governor-General of Malaya, Malcom MacDonald, for the Methodist Church to be set up among the Iban in the upper Rajang basin.
Today, the vast majority of Iban in the Upper Rajang basin are Methodists. Obviously, the Methodist church’s move to build on its vast Rajang basin parish, including providing education and social development to the local population, received an approving nod from Brooke.
It fitted in well with the White Rajah’s division of geographical areas among the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches which have since remained as the mainline churches in Sarawak acknowledged in the constitution.
Spreading education and enlightenment Education ranked high in the mission work of the three mainline churches in the past 100 years and many of the renowned premier schools, which were set up well before Sarawak was ceded to the British Crown, had contributed significantly to the advancement of education and transformation of thousands of lives, especially of those from the rural areas.
To the mission, education was an integral part of transformation and spiritual enlightenment and the opportunity must be accessible to as many people as possible.
Among these schools are St Joseph’s, St Thomas’, St Teresa’s and St Mary’s in Kuching, St Augustine’s School Betong, St Anthony’s in Sarikei, Methodist School, St Elizabeth’s and Sacred Heart School in Sibu, and St Columba’s and St Joseph’s in Miri.
The mission schools are renowned for their proud tradition, academic excellence and all-round commitment to producing fine products of outstanding character, discipline and citizenship.
The schools have always welcomed students from different racial, cultural, economic and religious backgrounds, treating them all equally throughout the years as they progressed in their studies.
Contrary to what many might perceive, the schools never imposed nor attempted to impose religious instruction on Christianity to non-Christians as they were very clear of their mission in educating the young and building them for a good future, while the job of evangelisation was undertaken by the respective churches and that, too, was carried out without compulsion.
Many of the products of the mission schools have gone on to do well in life, with a size able percentage holding important posts in the public and private sector as well as in politics.
Although the system of education has changed over the years and the management of most mission schools, too, has changed hands, marking a distinct departure from their glory years, most alumni of the old mission schools will still proudly hold their heads up high when they are acknowledged as products of their once premier Alma maters.
Indeed, the mission schools have left behind indelible footprints in the pages of history and contributed in no small way to making Sarawak a success story.