The Bell rings for Betong once more
by Phang Chung Shin. Posted on August 5, 2012, Sunday
“As it rang out from the little wooden church, it called on worshippers on Sunday, but it rang out on weekdays at 0600 to call the people to the padi fields and rubber gardens. At 12.00, it rang out again to call the people from work to the little huts in the fields, where cold, lumpy rice and salted fish awaited them for lunch, and then again the bell rang out to call them home at dusk to rest from work.” — Canon Michael Woods
THE bell at St Augustine’s Church in Betong was an integral part of the life of local villagers since the beginning of the 20th century.
This bell, from Loughborough in Leicester, England, was a gift to the little wooden church in Betong. Not only did it call on the faithful to come to church on Sundays or ring for the Angelus prayer and toll when sending the dearly-departed to their eternal rest, its tolls also served the folks in Betong as a common clock as Canon Michael Woods had observed.
The daily life of the people in Betong revolved around the tolls of this bell which had served them faithfully for nearly a century until it cracked 16 years ago.
A local forge repaired it but it never sounded the same. Canon Michael Woods said it “rang out a discordant sound but continued for several years to do its job.”
Joseph Nuing, or just Jo among friends, whose family home is right below the hill where St Augustine’s Church is situated, said it was very heartening to hear the bell on Sundays but when it rang with a cracked sound, it was very heart-breaking.
In 2003, the bell broke into halves and the people in Betong missed its peal for the next nine years. Residents felt something had gone out from their lives.
A few years ago, a group of friends decided they had missed the sound of the bell for too long, so they started searching a new bell for St. Augustine’s.
Jo, Encharang Agas, Chang Foh Soon and Dennis Wee, all retired senior education officers, started by putting the word out among friends in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and even Canada, that a church in a village in Borneo was earnestly looking for a bell.
They also personally travelled all over Malaysia in their quest but all they could come up with were bells the size of school bells. What they needed was a much bigger one.
Then about five years ago, Canon Michael Woods, who had retired and gone back to England, returned for a visit. He was told about the search. He met up with Jo who asked the Reverend to help find a foundry in England to cast a bell for their church in Betong.
St. James’ Church bell
Back in England, Woods got in touch with some friends at St. James’ Church in Yarmouth, Norfolk County, and told them about the quest for a bell in a small village church in Borneo.
He was told he could have the bell at St. James’ Church which had not been in use for 60-70 years as the church had been destroyed in World War II.
That was a perfect ending to the search but it also posed a new challenge – how to bring the bell down from the church tower? The bell weighed about 300kg and was suspended high in the bell tower.
A crane company estimated it would cost 1,600 pounds to take the bell down and have it transported to the port. Jo and his friends were stuck. They didn’t have that money.
Then Woods met Thompson whom he had known through the Yarmouth Haven Rotary Club and the latter offered his company’s unconditional assistance to bring the bell down and have it sent to the port.
But Thompson found the task not as simple as he thought because of the weight of the bell and the height of the tower. He had to enlist the help of crane hire specialists.
David Saunders of the Crane Hire company agreed to help. Saunders and his men constructed two special platforms bolted to a personnel basket for the operation.
It proved quite a delicate job, having to free the bell from the tower, place it on a raised platform and lower it to the ground.
But it went smoothly. Once on the ground, the bell was crated and sent to the port. The beautiful thing is that it was done free of charge.
Shipping it from Port Felixtowe to Kuching would cost a princely RM15,000 but as they say “God works in mysterious ways. “A good Samaritan was on hand to pay for all shipping charges for the bell’s 6,000-mile journey to Kuching.
In Kuching, Jo paid RM210 port handling charges but he was pleasantly surprised when the custom officer helped him find a lorry and crane and have the bell sent to his house in Kuching.
Asked for the trasportation cost, the lorry driver answered: Boss cakap tidak paya bayar (boss said no need to pay).
The final part of the journey was the 250km ride to Betong. That would cost quite a bit too but a friend came along with a lorry and four assistants and delivered it to Jo’s family house in Betong without charging a single cent.
On Saturday (June 16, 2012) at Jo’s family home, a small group of friends, villagers and well-wishers gathered to witness the handing over of this 105-year-old bell from Yarmouth, England to St. Augustine’s Church, Betong.
Jo gave a detailed account of how the bell, cast in 1907, and hanging in St. James Church for 60-70 years, came all the way to Betong, and how at each step, their challenges were miraculously overcome.
He felt “God really wanted to do something for Betong.”
On hand to receive the bell was Asst Priest of St. Augustine’s Church, Betong, Father Alex Baker.
Following ancient traditions, at 12 noon sharp, Jo, the main driving force behind this worthy and heart-warming project, performed the Angelus, the ringing of the bell in successive chimes of 3, 3, 3 and 9, signifying the request of the faithful to Mary, the Mother of God, to intercede on their behalf.
This was followed by a prayer and singing of hymns. Thereafter, the gathering celebrated the joyful occasion with a wonderful lunch.
In his closing remarks, Jo said he hoped this 105-year-old bell, which had served the Yarmouth community in Norfolk, England, for many years, will henceforth serve the people in Betong.
He said it was a fulfilling experience for him and his friends that the labour of love on their part had created a bond between Betong and Yarmouth.
On the one hand, people in Betong have not heard of or visited Yarmouth. Likewise people in Yarmouth probably have not heard of or been to Betong. But the bell has connected them.
“This bell has created a bit of history for St. Augustine’s and for the Betong people,” Jo said.
“Let us hope it will ring here in Betong for another 100 years or more. Let this bell continue its role as an integral part of all the communities here, calling them at 0600 to wake up and work, heralding the lunch break at noon and telling them to stop work and rest in the evening.
“And let us hope that 100 years from now, people from Betong will travel to Yarmouth to serve as missionaries, and, maybe, bring the bell back there.”
Canon Michael Woods had suggested this historic bell be named after a faithful servant of St. Augustine’s Church who had “served as boatman, translator, and visitor of the sick and dying.”
For all the good work he had done, Paul Nuing was paid only 10 pounds a month by the Church and he had to grow his own food and raise a family.
Paul is Jo’s late father and Woods thought it appropriate to name the bell “Paul” so that “when it rings, fulfilling the role of the old bell, so will the memory of a good and faithful servant be declared to the world.”
Jo firmly declined, saying his late father would be terribly embarrassed.
He believed the bell, more than anything else, should serve as a memorial to the pioneering work done by the early Christian missionaries in the fields of education and evangelism in the then Saribas District.
“As its tolls resonate through hills and rivers, amidst padi fields and farm houses, people will remember there is a bit of England in Betong,” he said.
And that, he added, is very nice.