Kenyah twins take vows to become Carmelite nuns

The twins are seen on the day they professed their vows of commitment.

PERHAPS unknown to many locals, a momentous event took place in Miri on Feb 14.

Kenyah twins, Mary Sheila and Shirley Therese, just 25, took their Solemn Profession to be Carmelite nuns after five years of training as Novices in the Carmelite Monastery at Brighton Road, also called Jalan Temenggong Oyung Lawai Jau after the late paramount chief of the Kenyahs.

They would be the world’s first Kenyah twins to become Carmelite Sisters — which is itself a Malaysian record set by the small indigenous community of Sarawak.

Sister Mary Sheila of the Infant Jesus and Sister Shirley Therese of the Child Jesus will henceforth be their names.

The twins were the first-born of Juliana Dau, a housewife and a volunteer Sunday School teacher, and Stephen Lucas Emang, a retired timber camp worker.

Sheila is the older twin by 15 minutes. The extended family from the Baram is well-known for having twins.

According to Juliana, her family has four sets of twins. One pair suffered from early foetal termination.

When Juliana found out she was going to give birth to twins, and was having some early pregnancy problems, she prayed to God if He wanted to take them earlier, if it pleased Him, to take only one.

The twins are now religious sisters of the Carmelite Order.

But God’s grace allowed her to give birth normally to a beautiful pair of twin girls on Dec 1, 1990. She remembers her fervent prayers when Shirley, at age 10, was struck with leukaemia in 2000.

The family were hoping for a miracle — that Shirley would recover following eight months of treatment. They were at the Sarawak General Hospital when Juliana again prayed with her family — that if Shirley could get well, Juliana would offer Shirley to serve God in the most holy of ways. These are the two prayers which stayed with Juliana for 25 years.

Juliana is a true woman of God, being instrumental in bringing Sunday School to Lapok with the help of Father Mering in the 1990s. She was devoted to her teaching at the Sunday School and she also bought books about saints for her own children.

Juliana and Stephen have five other children. The twins have always been different because they ‘love reading about the Roman Catholic Saints’.

Juliana noted: “Even when I gave them pocket money to spend on other things, they would just buy books about the Saints. From a very young age, they’ve loved reading and have been very strong in their worshipping practice.”

After their Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) at SMK Riam, Miri, the two girls were already showing signs they were willing to join the Holy Order.

Shirley took up some computer studies while Sheila entered the Carmelite Monastery. Two weeks later, Shirley followed in her twin sister’s footsteps.

Sheila had a trial of two months while Shirley had one month and two weeks. After the first trial period, they spent one month at home and finally on Aug 21, 2009, they officially joined the monastery as Postulant.

Sheila, Shirley and their parents underwent some counselling before the two girls made their commitment. They also told their parents they would not regret their choices in life.

Both Juliana and Stephen were naturally worried but after praying hard, they felt their double losses were, in fact, double bonuses.

“It’s not a sacrifice by the family. It’s a gain for the whole Roman Catholic community and we are all right with that,” Stephen said.

The family moved from Lapok to Taman Tunku many years ago after Stephen suffered an injury at work. Juliana started the Catholic Sunday School at Taman Tunku Miri with friends and a priest. Today, there are more than 100 students and about 10 teachers at the school.

A friend noted: “Juliana is a very hard-working Catholic and we can all see she has brought up her seven children very well. The twins are the eldest, followed by five other children who are all very obedient and God-fearing. She has set a very high standard for other Catholic women to follow.”

The Discalced Carmelites or Barefoot Carmelites is an Order belonging to the Catholic Church with its roots in Northern Palestine. It follows the holy Prophet Elijah who withdrew from the world in order to pray and intercede for God’s people on Mount Carmel.

The special Carmelite Monastery in Miri was founded by Sister Margarita in 1985. Over the years, a few nuns had passed on and were buried in the monastery grounds.

The Carmelite Garden is always well kept. The nuns sometimes raise funds by selling their potted plants which are usually popular received in Miri. — Photos courtesy of Carmelite Monastery of Miri

Some of the nuns there are already very elderly. Today, there are 10 Carmelite nuns in the monastery, two of whom are the new nuns — Sister Sheila and Sister Shirley.

The Bishop of Miri, Bishop Richard Ng, in his message, said the Kenyah community had contributed abundantly to the Carmelites.

The nuns live in a cloistered (enclosed) environment and follow a completely contemplative life. After their Rite of Profession (to consecrate themselves to the Holy Order), Sister Sheila and Sister Shirley like all the other Carmelite nuns before them will spend their whole life in the monastery and be buried within its walls upon their death.

The nuns are allowed contact with their earthly families only once a month. Although not allowed to come out of the monastery, they can be attended to medically when extremely necessary or when equipment cannot be brought into the monastery.

This way of life is the spiritual heritage handed down to the Carmelite nuns by St Teresa of Avila (1515 to 1582), a Spaniard and founder of the Carmelite Order.

The Carmelite Monastery has been serving the Miri congregation and anyone who desires to have prayers said for him or her. Many non-Catholics also visit the monastery for special prayers and help.

Lucy Siew, a retired nurse, has been helping the nuns medically since joining Dr Judson’s Clinic in Miri in the 1980s. One of her patients is an elderly nun of the Carmelite Monastery, who is being treated for a varicose vein ulcer. Lucy goes to the monastery three times a week to do the dressing.

“I’m doing this as part of my retired life. The small task I perform is nothing compared with what the nuns have sacrificed by giving their lives to Christ. It’s a very small contribution from me — not even a sacrifice, come to think of it.

“The nun’s garden is a marvellous place for meditation and they have kept the monastery absolutely clean and tidy. When I come to visit them, I feel inspired and refreshed,” she said.

The nuns lead a very prayerful life (guided by St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross). This hermitic lifestyle, exemplified by the Prophet Elijah from the time of Mount Carmel, continues to be practised even today.

Each day is marked by silence for prayers.

In addition to the daily celebration of the full Liturgy of the Hours, two hours are set aside for uninterrupted silent prayers. Communities are kept fairly small.

The leaflet from the monastery states: “The Carmelite Monastery is an open witness to the reality of the presence and the existence of God, which in today’s broken world, is often denied. It is a reminder to the world of the validity of Gospel values.

“In the hidden garden, the needs, joys, wounds and sorrows of the world are carried before the throne of God hourly every day, especially in the Sacred Liturgy.”

Juliana and members the Kenyah community present at the Mass all knew the twins would be part of a very small community of nuns.

A new video about the life of the nuns in the Monastery, made by one of the very computer savvy Sisters, confirms that “the new Kenyah Sisters are praying hard for all of us, and between prayers, they will be doing normal household chores of cooking, cleaning, gardening and sewing”.

These activities, sanctified by the love of God, have also become a prayer of intercession for the Church and the whole world.

It is, indeed, an awe-inspiring act of faith that a pair of twins would give up their earthly life of fun, games and thrills and enter a quiet life of prayers, almost completely cut off from the rest of the world.

The family celebrate with a cake. Ng is at right.

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