Early years of Church and education in Miri

Bishop Galvin in Miri with his congregation.

A Mill Hill priest, Father Jansen, built the first Catholic Church in Miri in 1932 after many years of evangelising in the Baram.

From a very humble beginning, the St Joseph’s church of Miri has been impacting the social and religious development of Miri, especially in education and character development.

Indeed, the development of the Church was synonymous with that of the schools until the latter became separated from the church by regulation on education.

In Sarawak, the history of schools and churches can provide a great deal of insight into the history of towns. Miri is, therefore, no exception.

It was said if Sarawak were in Europe and the British Isles, the fact that Miri has a cathedral would have made it a cathedral town in 1976 when it became a Vicariate with Bishop Galvin as the first Bishop on May 31.

However Bishop Galvin died suddenly in September 1976 while in the UK and Fr Anthony Lee succeeded him on May 30, 1977.

Bishop Anthony Galvin

Foundation years

Bishop Galvin was born in 1919 in Ormesby, Great Britain and ordained as a priest of the St Joseph’s Missionary Society of Mill Hill when he was 25 years old.

For many years he served as a chaplain to the Teachers Training College at Batu Lintang, Kuching, until he was appointed to head the newly-erected Vicariate Apostolic of Miri by Pope John XXIII in Rome.

A faithful of the Church, from the Baram, Anna Wong remembers Bishop Galvin fondly. Her father Joseph Wong did carpentry and carving works for the Bishop’s House in Miri.

According to Anna, the Bishop visited the people of the Baram and Tinjar regularly and spoke their languages.

He had a niece running the Long Loyang Clinic for many years. She, in turn, trained many native girls to be nurses and midwives at a time when infant mortality rate was high.

“The Bishop had a special chapel in the Bishop’s House at Tanjong Lobang and my father made the benches there, erected native carvings of sea dragons as base relief on the base of the altar, at the Bishop’s request, and a long dining table for the dining room.

“My father also made the special cowhide- carved chair that the Bishop used on special occasions. He was always smiling. He also kept a very good garden,” Anna recalled.

A church member mentioned that Bishop Galvin and Father John Dekker were very far- sighted and instrumental in expanding the schools by buying more land for educational purposes.

Kindergartens were built for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They started St Jude Private School so that the Church could help Form Three dropouts and also many young people until education was made compulsory up to Form Five.

Bishop Galvin was passionate about anthropology. He contributed to the Sarawak Museum Journal from 1947 to 1956.

According to an article, Tom Harrison respected the Bishop’s “breadth of knowledge” and often invited him to have meals with him in the house at Park Lane, Kuching, or at the Open Air Market.

He also wrote a book titled “By the Banks of the Baram” about Kenyah legends.

According to Dato Sri Arni Lampan, then Resident of Miri, Bishop Galvin was a cheerful man, well read and friendly.

Bishop Galvin spoke Kenyah well. He invited many Kenyah artists to paint the Bishop’s House and did some carvings. Today, the Bishop’s House in Miri is still a very unique house. Even the car porch is painted with Orang Ulu art. Bishop Galvin was an extremely brave man. In 1970, he was in the world news and put Miri on the world map.

An account in The Philippine Daily Enquirer goes like this:

On Nov 27, 1970, as Paul VI strode along the red carpet greeting each of the bishops that stood in line, Bishop Anthony Dennis Galvin of Miri, Sarawak, who was standing beside the Pope, espied a man in a black sutana just as the Pontiff was about to reach out to Cardinal Stephen Kim of Korea.

“From among a bunch of press photographers, the man appeared, slightly crouching and pushing his way in towards the Pope.

“Galvin remembered him initially only seemingly eager to greet the famed visitor, but the next thing the bishop saw was the black handle of a knife, about 10 inches long, in the man’s right hand, about to lunge at the Holy Father.

Very quickly, solemnity had turned into chaos, pageantry into panic. A security man of the Pope, one of two present, warded off the attacker’s arm, in the process, pushing him towards Galvin who, as soon as he became aware of exactly what was taking place, wrapped his arms around the attacker, pulling him away from the Pontiff.

On Dec 1, 1970, Bishop Galvin issued a statement saying it was one of the two papal security guards who played the vital role of saving the Pope, for he stuck out his hand to parry the attacker’s lunge and pushed him away – right into Bishop Galvin’s arms.

“I stretched out my arms, folded them around the man and pulled him further backwards, while presidential security men grabbed the man’s hand and tugged him away,” the Bishop said.

Bishop Galvin was a priest for 32 years and one month, and a Bishop for 16 years three months.

Bishop Lee and the Catholic congregation in Miri.

The developmental years

Father Anthony Lee Kok Hin was the first local priest ordained in Miri.

Born on March 20, 1937, in Miri, he was ordained as a priest on January 2, 1966 and appointed Bishop of Miri on May 30, 1977. He retired on Oct 30, 2013.

Bishop Emeritus Lee, a product of St Joseph’s School, Miri, has a lot to share about the history of Miri in general and the development of the School in particular.

He told thesundaypost: “I remember fondly how we learned the alphabets. On the first day, since there were only four of us in the lowest class, Mrs Wood, our teacher, asked us to sit together on a stool. She wrote on the floor, A, B, C, D. That was the first English lesson in my life.

“In those immediate post-war years, most people and especially myself, did not know the day, the date, the year as there was no modern calendar at all. That was how simple and basic our learning was.

“On the second day, we were moved to the club house and our small class was on the well-built stage. Only on the third day did I notice the balcony upstairs. The senior students like Datuk Arni, Sebastian Tan and others were in the higher class.

“The club house was partitioned by kajang and I remember my class was on the stage, one part was delegated as the priest’s room and the other part was the storeroom.

“There was a long passage leading from the main building to a rectangular house which must have been used as a kitchen. Behind it as a small room which was occupied by Mr Ho Kang Kay, our Maths teacher.

“Whenever we failed to recite the timetable, he would punish us with a ruler, hitting not on the palm but on the knuckles with the edge of the ruler.

“Once beaten twice shy, it is said. I made sure I never failed him again. The priests who were our principals had different ways of punishing us when we were naughty.”

Bishop Emeritus Lee’s best memories were related to Christmas time.

Bishop Emeritus Anthony Lee

He remembers after the school results were read out, while the girls stayed in the school and made paper flowers, the bigger boys, irrespective of race or religion, were sent to the hills to collect ferns and string them together to make garlands to decorate the hall for the Christmas celebration.

Among the Bishop Emeritus’ schoolmates were Dr George Chan (now Datuk Patinggi) who was soon sent to Kuching to continue his study, the present Head of State who followed suit after Standard Six and Datuk Wan Morshidi who remained with him in Miri to complete Standard Seven.

“We completed our education at Standard Seven in those days as there was no school providing higher education in Miri. So after Standard Seven, I decided to join the priesthood,” he recalled.

Bishop Emeritus Lee was baptized by Fr Jansen.

He remembers the baptismal font very well – that it was marble and was not damaged when the Church was bombed by the Allies.

“My mother also told us about Father Jansen.  She made a patchwork blanket for him when he was sent to the Batu Lintang Camp in Kuching as a Prisoner of War.

“After the war when he was released and came back to Miri, he returned the valuable blanket to my mother! That was a very touching story,” he said.

As the Bishop of Miri for 36 years, Bishop Emeritus Lee was instrumental in building up the spiritual life of the people.

Having been exposed to the charismatic renewal at the beginning of his episcopacy and having himself experienced the benefits of the renewal first hand, he made it his mission to have the whole diocese experience the Holy Spirit through Life in the Spirit Seminars, travelling far and wide in the Diocese relentlessly and tirelessly. Thus under him, prayer meetings and praise and worship sessions were a norm all throughout the diocese.

Fr Andy Lee, another product of St Joseph’s, Miri, testified: “Non recuso laborem (I will not refuse to work) was the Episcopal motto of the Emeritus. In a way, it summed up the modus operandi of His Emeritus – never grow tired working for the Lord in his vineyard.

“He would go out of his way to travel to the interior parts of the Diocese and conduct seminars for the kampung people there. He would spend days in one particular kampung to lead the people to personal relationship with Jesus as Lord of their lives.

“I have never met a man who is as dedicated and determined to win souls for Jesus as Amai (his preferred address)”

Bishop Richard Ng

Now and the future

Bishop Richard Ng was appointed the third bishop of Miri on Oct 30, 2013, by Pope Francis and ordained and installed as Bishop of Miri on Jan 25, 2014.

He was born on June 20, 1966 in Kuching, attended elementary and high schools and completed his philosophical and theological studies at the major Seminary in Kuching. He was ordained a priest on 18 Feb 18, 1995, and furthered his studies in Rome.

Passionate about education after having spent 10 years teaching in the seminary in Kuching, he is continuing the commitment of the Church to serve the people through the mission schools and kindergartens.

The Diocese of Miri is looking forward to a more vibrant future with a grand project to bring a new Cathedral to the city in the pipeline.


Eighty-five years have gone by and in October this year, the 85th anniversary and reunion of St Joseph’s Schools, Miri, will attest to the good work of the Roman Catholic priests, both local and foreign, teaching priests, local and foreign teachers and parents who have helped in the development of the schools.

The years, the growth of Miri, the development of both church and schools have witnessed the motto of St Joseph – to love and to serve – being translated into action for the community and the country as a whole.The schools have produced the present governor, a former Chief Minister, many ministers of state, many professionals and community and other prominent social leaders.

Dato Arni Lampan, a former student of St Joseph’s School, Miri, and friend of Bishop Galvin and Bishop Richard Ng.

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