HIS poignant last words to former student and close Orang Ulu friend from Baram were, “Send my regards to the people in Long San and also to Bishop Lee (Bishop Emeritus Anthony Lee Kok Hin).”
Days later, Mill Hill Missionary Brother Albert Rottensteiner passed away at age 87 on April 29 2020, in Brixen, Tyrol, Italy, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy in Sarawak.
“So, so, very sad to hear of the demise of Brother Albert who served in the Roman Catholic Church, Miri Diocese, for 38 years, mostly in Long San,” said Peter Kallang, who had known the missionary for 55 years and used to carry planks for him while he was in Primary 5 at Good Shepherd Primary School, Marudi.
Peter said Brother Albert was well-known for his selfless service to the Church and especially the people of Long San and Marudi, whom he had ministered to since setting foot in Sarawak before the formation of Malaysia.
By the time he left, he was a Malaysian PR holder and spoke impeccable Kayan and Kenyah.
In an obituary, St Joseph’s Missionary Society of Mill Hill said Brother Albert was a good and faithful servant by anyone’s definition.
Albert Rottensteiner was born on Sept 16, 1933, in the town of Unterinn, Italy.
He was educated locally until he felt his calling to be a Brother with the Mill Hill Missionaries. He was part of a large family comprising seven brothers and one sister. Anton, his father, was a farmer in their local area.
While preparing to be a foreign missionary, Brother Albert was further educated and prepared to assist in practical ways the works of Mission at St Joseph’s College, London, and the Mill Hill Missionary House in Oosterbeek in the Netherlands. It was here that Brother Alberto took the Perpetual Oath to God in the Society on March 19, 1959.
Earlier, he was appointed to work and study in Saint Joseph’s College, Mill Hill, London. He was of great assistance to that huge complex, which seemed to always need repair and refurbishment.
Brother Albert went on to obtain his diplomas in electrical wiring and installation and advanced building and construction — qualifications that would serve him well in his future work at the Mission.
In 1962, he was appointed to work at the Brother’s Training Centre of the Society in Courtfield, near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, England.
Although he loved the setting, the students and staff there, his heart longed to be abroad in the “Lord’s wider Vineyard”.
In 1963, his deepest desire was fulfilled when he was appointed to work in the Diocese of Miri.
Apart from a couple of home leaves, he was to work in Miri for the next 38 years.
Miri and Malaysia became his home and the peoples he served became his people, especially in Long San among the Kenyah.
He witnessed great changes in the society he was working in and the tremendous growth of the Church in that vibrant corner of the Lord’s Vineyard.
Long San is the principal home of traditional Kenyah arts, crafts, music, and dance, and in the surrounding region back then was a complex ethnic mix — the Kayan longhouse of Long Mekaba, famous for its traditional musicians who are expert in playing the lute-like sape, an abandoned Brooke-era fort at Long Akah and the nomadic Penan groups in the forests.
Brother Albert used his gifts and talents to provide the people with a general store, which sold commodities at just prices. He taught the many young people of the area carpentry and rice farming, introducing a more efficient and eco-friendly form of rice cultivation.
In 1979, the first hydro-electric dam in Sarawak was built and inaugurated by Brother Albert.
Long after his departure, he is fondly remembered by the people with great affection and respect.
Peter remembers him as prayerful, hard-working, friendly, soft-spoken, disciplined, and an innovator who did so many things that changed lives in Long San, the Parish, and beyond.
They last met in person four years ago in Brixen and Peter was glad he brought along Sarawak coffee, which Brother Alberto requested and loved so much.
“I’ve known him since I was a boy studying in Good Shepherd’s Primary School in Marudi in the early 1960s. In those days, I often helped him carry planks or materials for his building construction projects while he was serving in Marudi,” he recalled.
Brother Albert’s ingenuity and contribution to building the Miri Diocese is like no other — very innovative, for example, using old engines, and fabricating them into ploughing machines and for other farm inputs.
He also trained and coached locals on co-operative society, agriculture, carpentry and construction, including building St Pius Primary School and St Paul’s Church in Long San.
He built the first micro hydro-power project in Long San, Baram — probably also the first in Sarawak — supplying free green electricity to the school and church.
His lasting legacy includes making the Parish self-sustaining by investing in shophouses in Long Lama.
In retirement at Brixen, Brother Albert continued his farming, which provided the retirement house with fresh flowers and vegetables aplenty.
On his 60th jubilee of commitment, the General Council noted, “You are a man of industry and innovation. You have given yourself generously to the service of God, the Society, and the mission of the Church.”
Brother Albert died after suddenly collapsing post-lunch around 1.05pm in the Missionshaus retirement home in Brixen.
He will be missed by all those whose lives he had touched.
His memory will remain with a saddened Peter, who had their last conversation via Skype just days earlier.
Brother Albert was still doing what he loved best — working in the garden and praying — before he passed.