The old St James – the epiphany of Quop Hill

Mellowed in its quaint and sublime hallowedness, the original St James Church has become a sedate piece of arcane history.

ANDREW STEPHEN PAHAH: The Anglican mission in Quop is ‘iconic’ and means a lot to the present and future generations of the Bidayuh community.

The quaint interior of the church made of belian wood is just waiting to be refurbished.

THE old rugged Church of St James which sits on a hill in Kampung Quop, no longer sings a liturgical song.

The muted sound of its now choirless sanctuary is deafening. Its once thunderous pulpit from which sprung fire and brim-stone is desolately silent.

But there is something mesmeric about a derelict old church building as St James. There seems to be a certain kind of compelling charm about it.

In its woodwork, its tabernacle in the numerous crafted decorative embellishments and its lone stained glass, the old St James still retains a palpable aura of its erstwhile epiphany.

On the same hill, next to the old St James of 1865 is the new St James built in 1986 and consecrated in 1987.

A new wellspring from the fountain of old, the new Church of St James, blessed with an exceptionally talented choir, continues to shine with the Anglican brand of missionary zeal – while the old rugged church, now mellowed in its quaint and sublime hallowedness, has become a sedate piece of arcane history.

A prefabricated building made of belian wood, it was among the few such churches built in Sarawak during the early years of Anglican fervour to nurture the gospel in the state, and is the only one still standing.

According to a page from the past, the assembling of the prefabricated parts for the church started in 1863. The components were assembled in Kuching, 20km away, and transported upriver to Kampung Quop via the Sarawak and Quop Rivers.

The construction of the church was initiated by Fr William Abe, a pioneer missionary who, among others, pastored the rising new Anglican community of Kampung Quop in the 1800s. Renowned carpenter TA Stahl supervised the carpentry work.

A souvenir magazine of the parish published in 2010 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Quop parish community reported that the heavy pre-fabricated woodwork was borne by villagers on their shoulders.

It was carried from the jetty at the Quop River through dense jungle to its location on the hill. It was an arduous task as belian wood (ironwood) is heavy and burdensome.

According to the magazine, St James Church Kampung Quop was consecrated on Dec 7, 1865 by Bishop Francis McDougall. As the component parts of the church were put together, McDougall wrote thus to a friend in England: “I am hard at work overseeing the construction of the church for Quop Hill. It will be taken piece by piece to its exact location. It is very pretty and all ironwood. I want three church bells of 100 cwt each (two other churches were also being constructed elsewhere at that time). I hope you could persuade some good people to bring them. Bells, we must have.”

Measuring 46ft by 16ft, the church finally emerged meteorically as Quop’s mission outpost with a huge clam shell serving as its fount. And bells, yes, as McDougall had pleaded. They were donated by Baroness Burdett-Coutts and are still in use today, having been transferred to the turret of the new church.

In later years, a font, cast out from imported stone, was installed and metal altar rails were also put in place.

In 1890, the church was extended by a north aisle and belian frames holding glass panes were added to stream in the daylight. In the same year, the church’s entire porch was refurbished with belian wood.

In the same souvenir magazine, the present Anglican prelate of Sarawak and Brunei, Bishop Datuk Bolly Lapok, wrote a preface stating: “Not many of our institutions have the ‘vintage’ of St James Quop, and fewer still have such impact on the life of the community as to have given it a reputation which is synonymous with education and progress and a ‘musical tradition’ that is the envy of all our parishes.”

The Bishop added: “The history of the St James Church on Quop Hill, since those pioneering days till its present ministry into the various kampungs, is a testimony of remarkable dedication and labour of countless faithful in the service of God.

“Bishop McDougall could not have known the little hesitant ‘gospel seed’ planted 150 years ago has now grown into a big tree laden with fruits. The story deserves to be known and remembered by succeeding generations.”

Weathered, windswept and maligned by termites, the old St James church building is now an empty shell in a state of disrepair.

Several years ago, former parish priest Fr Peter Augustine lamented: “If there’s a big storm, it’s better to stay away from the church. I am worried the roof may just cave in and hurt someone.”

“How ironic and pitiful, a church built of robust ironwood which should ideally be the perfect ‘storm shelter’ is now perceived as a possible risk to public safety,” lamented Marilyn anak Madrod.

Marilyn, born and bred in Kampung Quop and who still resides in the village, is an active member of the church. She helps out with the Sunday school and echoes the views of the other parishioners that the original St James Church building must be preserved at all costs.

Attempts to raise money for restoration work of the church several years ago were stopped when there was news the church would be gazetted as a heritage building.  According to lay leader Joseph Baba Sangau, RM11,000 was already collected when the fund raising was stopped.

Sangau who was treasurer of the building restoration committee at that time is hopeful the old church will be elevated to the status of a “heritage building” and will be fully restored to its former self.

“We need funds and hope the authorities will initiate efforts to help us restore the church,” he told thesundaypost.

According to information provided by the Sarawak Muzium Department to the Sarawak Heritage Society, the 154-year-old church building of St James Quop has received approval to be gazetted as a heritage building.

The approval for its listing as a gazetted heritage building under the Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance 1993 was issued in 2007.

Speaking to thesundaypost last week, the present parish priest Archdeacon Andrew Stephen Pahah said he had written to the relevant authorities for funds to restore the church to its former glory but there has been no response yet.

“We need at least RM2.5 million to repair and renovate the building,” he said, adding that he will be writing to them again to find out the outcome of his request.

“Belian wood is expensive and difficult to get. If we cannot find the original material, we may have to seek the closest alternative but the cost of building material too has gone up in price over the years,” Pahah noted.

“Last year out of concern for the safety of parishioners, we closed the church for three months to repair and strengthen the roof, using money we got from the earlier fund raising.

“As a temporary measure, we installed ordinary spandex roofing material. We reopened the church in August for youth activities and to host our Sunday school and other ministries. For now, the building serves as our multi-purpose hall.”

According to Pahah, the Anglican mission in Quop is “iconic” and means a lot to the present and future generations of the Bidayuh community.

He said the Quop mission was the first successful launch pad to reach out to the Bidayuhs after the first in Singai did not bear fruit.

He said it was from Quop that other missions endured and expanded to Bunuk and Taee and later to Padawan and the Jagoi areas.

“Hence, this first church of the Bidayuhs must be restored and conserved for more than just aesthetic and sentimental reasons. It is an important centrepiece for both history and social geography, and therefore, for very scholastic reasons too, there is every good reason to conserve this founding church,” Pahah said.

According to him, the parish community has grown to 3,000 members and serves 10 outstation bastions. Being the parish centre, the St James Church plays a pivotal role in overseeing the general affairs of the other churches, chapels and worship centres that come under its outreach ministry.

Next year, the St James parish community will celebrate 155 years of the Anglican mission to Kampung Quop. Plans are underway to celebrate this historic milestone.

Pahah is now putting together an organising committee to co-ordinate the programme for the celebrations.

“We will be celebrating an auspicious 155 years in the annals of our history on December 7 next year. It would be ideal to celebrate the 155 years of our Quop Anglican mission with the old church fully restored,” he said.

But right now, it is a race against time for the vicar of St James and he faces an uphill task all the way.

Pahah has to “inspire” the authorities to provide the RM2.5 million needed to refurbish the church. Will the funds come in time? Will someone be able find the rare belian lumber that is needed? Will a miracle come to pass?

Together with his flock, Pahah can only look up to Heaven for water to change into wine. It has happened before. It can happen again.

Pillars of belian wood still hold the church together.

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