Thinking while driving


ON a hot Thursday afternoon last week, Auntie Di and I took off to Lundu, a town some 80km away from the city; at my driving speed, an hour plus to reach.


MISSION SCHOOL: Margaret Hugh, daughter of a catechist, is seen with pupils of the Stunggang School in 1934.

It was great to meet many friends and relatives there, all eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Rt Rev Datuk Bolly Lapok, Anglican Bishop of Sarawak and Brunei, and his deputy Assistant Bishop Aeries Sumping Jingan, to consecrate their new church dedicated to St Francis of Assisi.

100 over years ago

While waiting for the ceremony to start, many things crossed my mind, among which were the conditions of life in those days among the early Christian missionaries.

There were other Christian missionaries of various denominations working here for over 100 years, but I was thinking specifically about those who came from the Anglican Communion.

In school our teachers told us that in order to succeed in life, one had to have the zeal of a missionary, the patience of a fisherman, the constitution of a cow and the memory of an elephant.

While at the wheel, I thought of  Fr Gomes, the priest who started a mission centre and school at Stunggang in 1852; he laid down a ground rule: “People who come as missionaries must have patience and faith (and be prepared) to undergo personal privation, to abandon the comforts of social and civilised life and to be content with the native fare.”

First question I asked of myself was who first thought of sending missionaries from England to Sarawak, a distance of thousands of miles in between, in slow boats over dangerous oceans.

Apparently, after one Englishman became a ruler of a territory in the Far East, much interest was shown  by the church people in London. His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury (William Howley) and the Bishop of London (CJ Bloomfield) were attracted to the idea of a foreign mission.

Consequently, the Borneo Church Mission Institution was formed in 1846 and funds were raised. Rajah James Brooke gave his blessing though allegedly he was not really interested in organised evangelistic work. He was more interested in introducing educational and medical services to his new state and what the missionaries had planned to do would fit in squarely with his scheme of things.

Soon three priests were picked to go over to Sarawak, to be led by Fr Francis Thomas McDougall, doubling as a surgeon. Fr SF Montgomery and clergyman WB Wright were to assist him. Only the first two together with their families and friends went; Montgomery having died before the team departed for Borneo.

It took them almost five months to reach Singapore and another 10 days to Sarawak (Kuching) on June 29, 1848. After them came many others too numerous to name while driving.

When you see the legacy of early Christian missionaries in Sarawak, missionaries of all denominations, except for Hupe, a German missionary from the Rhinish Mission, one can’t help admiring how the seeds they planted have taken root and borne fruits to this day. No doubt some had fallen by the wayside but generally the robust ones have seen good harvest over here, permanently, we pray.

The early missionaries had had their fair share of trials and tribulations in their work as well as in their personal lives. Dr McDougall was heavily criticised for his role in taking part in warding off the so-called pirates. The deaths of his children, here and in England, would have affected his work, but he carried on in his vocation nevertheless.

During the Chinese Insurrection of February 1857, he tended to the sick, buried the dead and looked after the orphans and gave them education.

When the sponsors in England ran out of funds, McDougall was about to throw in the towel but somehow or rather the mission survived.

That’s an example of persistence and determination.

These pioneering missionaries were tough guys, trudging on foot uphill and down dale for miles, negotiating the slippery logs in the steamy jungles of Borneo, being harassed by mosquitoes and leeches, in constant danger of snake bites – to reach out to the people whom they tried to convert to their faith.

Imagine how they sailed in small rickety boats along the coast of Sarawak braving the risks of pirate attacks and stormy seas.

Only after a while did the mission acquire the boat Sarawak Cross and the Santosa.

That was an improvement in terms of travelling.

Remember how they suffered from all sorts of illnesses, cholera often breaking out, and it was not at all surprising that many of them stayed for a while only and went home on medical grounds.

But the hardest ones stayed on and on.

Wherever they went, they started not only a mission station but also a school for the locals.

At Banting, a small hospital was established by Fr Allen and his wife Dr Mabel. Don’t forget McDougall had earlier set up his dispensary soon after his arrival in town.

And they made special effort to learn the local languages and customs. William Howell in Sabu became an authority on Sea Dayak language and traditions.

During colonial times, where the need for economic development in the areas they were serving was obvious, the priests started land development schemes – Peter Howes in Padawan and Eric Jensen in Ridan, Lemanak.

And now in this jet age, easier and faster means of communication available, the Bishop and his entourage that blessed Thursday could have reached Lundu from the Bishop’s House.

With the thoughts about their predecessors as the background, I noticed the cheerfulness displayed on the faces of Bishop Bolly and Assistant Bishop Aeries, on that afternoon. I wondered how they could manage to smile given the heavy responsibilities on their shoulders over their flock all over the state and in Brunei and the fate of the 58 missions schools here and in Brunei.

That must require strength of mind.

I can’t guess what their secrets or pengaruh would be other than to surmise that there is something other than faith.

Fortitude and patience, it must be added.

Coming near the Kayan bridge, I remembered how the first church, Christ’s Church, was consecrated at the village of Stunggang on Sept 2, 1863 when Francis McDougall was the Bishop of the Diocese of Labuan and Sarawak.

Twelve years earlier he had visited the village. He had a problem with his leg and one can imagine the pain he endured but as a physician he could have healed himself. Imagine the rigours of the journey by boat from Santubong on a stormy sea and the scramble on a sore leg up a rather steep hillock at the site of the mission centre.

It had taken Gomes, the first resident priest, five days to reach the same place by sea, the only way there.

But on that Thursday, it was no big deal. From the Bishop’s House, Bishop Bolly might have reached the town of Lundu in slightly over 60 minutes if he had not stopped for lunch at the Red Dragon at the junction of Bau-Lundu road.

That’s progress, material progress.

Nearer the Kayan bridge, there stands the new Christ Church, the old church consecrated in 1863 having been pulled down.

I thought of Fr William Gomes who had started the mission and built a school there in 1853.

I thought of Fr JL Zehnder who, after serving for 32 years without any home leave, and hoping to retire with a small pension from the Rajah, passed away while waiting for a boat to take him to Kuching.

That’s cruel.

On the way back in howling rain, more thoughts ? missionaries, of course.

I was chuckling to myself when remembering the objection by Rajah Charles Brooke to Fr AF Sharp’s project: a three-night Processions of Witness through busy streets in 1905 as part of the evangelistic exercise in Kuching.

Could this disapproval by the Rajah be the reason why Sharp was not recommended to take over from Hose as Bishop?

I thought of Perham of the Banting fame; he loved his work here so much he kept coming back to serve despite his age and poor health.

During the war

I thought of Fr Paisely who was entrusted by the government to lead a group of men and women to escape to Kalimantan by crossing the Klingkang Range on to the Kapuas and down that river to Pontianak en route to Australia.

Thank God, all were safe and sound when they reached Fremantle.

I thought of how Bishop Hollis and Deacon Howes suffered during their internment by the Japanese at the Batu Lintang POW camp.

I thought also of the sadness of Basil Temenggong, having finished his studies in India and ordained as Deacon was prevented from returning home on account of the war.

He must have prayed hard for the safety of his people in Sarawak.

After Malaysia

I thought of other Malaysian bishops including Bishops Basil Temenggong, John Leong and Made Katib, and of the other old priests – Fr Angking, Hope Hugh, Eric Scott, who had served in Lundu before the formation of Malaysia.

I don’t think we can ever thank them enough for the spiritual guidance they gave to the Christian community there.

We can only pray for the repose of the souls of those who have joined the Lord and for the health of the living; at the same time, we the living must make it a point to help the present leaders of the Church the best we can.

My thoughts were with the clergy as a whole, of all denominations and groups – the ordinary priests, deacons and catechists and other pastoral workers labouring under the constraints of all sorts.

All we can do is to pray for them regularly and for the welfare of their families.

These were my passing thoughts while driving. Can be dangerous, police say, but not as bad as drinking while driving or driving while drinking.

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