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Sarawak, Malaysia: Imaging the Story of the Mill Hill Missionaries in Borneo


“Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” so goes an African proverb. The story of Mill Hill Missionaries in Borneo (Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei) from 1881 till today is unique and rich. It certainly needs to be told, documented and well-preserved. But who will do it? As the Ibans of Borneo usually say, “If not now, when? If not by us, by who then? It is this conviction that has given birth to the establishment of ‘St. Joseph’s Historical Gallery” in Kanowit Mission, during this Year of St. Joseph, our Patron.

St. Joseph’s Historical Gallery tells and preserves the story of St. Joseph’s Missionary Society in Borneo as well as the story of St. Francis Xavier’s Kanowit Mission which is among the first Missions to be founded in Borneo. Having the Historical Gallery in this Mission is significant. This is because in 1881, before the first batch of missionaries set off to Borneo, Pope Leo XIII put Borneo Mission under the patronage of St. Francis Xavier and blessed them. Therefore, the first principal Mission station among the local Dayaks –  Kanowit Mission (started in 1883) – was put under the patronage of St. Francis Xavier. Interestingly, in front of the Gallery is one of the tunnels where the invading Japanese army hid from the Allied forces during Second World War – a war that directly affected the Missions in Borneo.

Borneo Mission’s story is unique. Though it was the fourth Mill Hill Mission area after U.S.A, India and Afghanistan, it was nevertheless the first Mission in the history of Mill Hill where there were no other missionaries or local priests when Mill Hill Missionaries arrived. Besides, it was also the first Mission where the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph, who have all along been working side-by-side with Mill Hillers, were sent. These early missionaries were the trailblazers; the first Catholics with whom the people of Borneo came into contact, and for the more than half a century that followed they were the only missionaries in the country.  It is also one of the few Missions where most of the missionaries were interned during the Second World War. For around three years they suffered in concentration camps with some losing their lives. Though headhunting (cutting off enemy’s heads and displaying them as trophies) was rampart in the early years, luckily none of the missionaries lost his head.

Mill Hill Missionaries are “Jack of all Trades”. It is usually held that whenever there is work to be done with nobody to do it, a Mill Hiller will certainly do it. This spirit, inspired by the Society’s motto of love and service, contributed much to the development of Sarawak and North Borneo (as has happened in other countries as well). Though untrained, they started schools and hospitals, which have now become some of the excellent institutions of education and health services in Malaysia. Besides the direct missionary outreach which has been done with zealous joy from the beginning till today, people’s lives have been touched in other ways too. In Kanowit, for example, Fr. Edmund Dunn taught new ways of planting rice and introduced coffee farming so as to economically empower the locals. The coffee pulping machine which he bought in 1893 still exists and will soon be displayed in the Gallery. Fr. Westerwoudt also taught coffee planting to people in Singgi. Rubber farming in Kanowit and its environs was introduced by Fr. Adrian Klerk. As a result, as Malaysia became one of the biggest producers of rubber in the world, many people here were able to and still continue to pay fees for their children from the proceeds of rubber. In Kuching Fr. Heiddeger, by his invention of mixing sand, lime and sugar (as there was no cement then), built a solid church wall which no nail could penetrate. Fr. Staal helped the country by drawing maps, which were eventually used officially by the government. Fr. Jan Hoekstra and Br. Ben Snoeren introduced vegetable farming in Ranau, thus making it a major vegetable highland producer in Malaysia today. Br. Albert Rottensteiner built Sarawak’s first micro-hydroelectric dam thus transforming the lives of native communities in Miri while Fr. Vincent Oates helped contribute substantially towards Sibu Cathedral by allowing his beards to be trimmed. And Frs Vergeer and Tom O’Connors’ contribution in Catechesis and translations cannot be overlooked.

St. Joseph’s Historical Gallery seeks to largely document and preserve the history of Kanowit Mission, which, try as we may, cannot be told without focusing on the work of the many Mill Hill Missionaries who have served here. There will also be a section dedicated to all the MHMs who have served in other parts of Borneo. It would be more enriching to get some of the artifacts of those who have served in Borneo and preserve them.

Mathews Olili MHM

One Comment

  1. Sarawak, Malaysia like many other nations has it great stories of how things today came to be. Our past in so many ways is also our future. Gratitude, is our response to goodness done, truth lived, and beauty created. Let our journey continue with energy, inspiration and and that same truth which flow from the past. Well done Mathews together with your colleagues and generous supporters. GS

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