Asia: Singapore, Malaya, Sarawak
Asia was indeed quite an experience, and just as China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were closely related, so the same can be said of Singapore, Malaysia, and Sarawak, which is really in East Malaysia. When I landed in Singapore on June 25, I had exactly two weeks to cover the major parts of Asia. In the first visit I intended to get acquainted with the lives of our Brothers, and to try to understand what their needs were during my term as Assistant General. That meant that I would start in Singapore, then go up and down Malaysia, then back to Singapore, and then East to Sarawak and back. Thus, I would cover a good part of Asia including Hong Kong and the northeastern part of Malaya where I could visit Sarawak, a mission that had been going strong for some time already. Most of these countries were strongly influenced by England, as far north as Hong Kong and as far east as Sarawak they used the same time, money, and newspapers, and English was a commonly spoken language.
Singapore is a city with a large school-age population. And that is one of its main problems, for about fifty percent of the population is less than nineteen years of age. In Singapore is located the Marist Provincial House of the Chinese Province. It was formerly a private house but it has been enlarged with a beautiful chapel, and next to it we have constructed a beautiful and functional Juniorate that will accommodate thirty Juniors. In the city itself the Marist Brothers have two schools: Catholic H.S. with over 2,000 students and Marist Stella B.S. with some 600. Our community at Catholic H.S. once had twelve Brothers, but now has only seven. At the time of my visit we had recently lost one of Catholic High School’s outstanding teachers. Bro. Felix Prosper died in an automobile accident; he was a quiet and humble man of exceptional literary talent and the author of several books. He made a lasting impression on the students, and his passing was a severe loss for the Province. Shortly before his death, because he was an excellent artist with a brush, I had asked him to draw for us an enlarged and exact copy of the Marist emblem. You can see this emblem reproduced now on the cover of the Bulletin of the Institute. It is also widely used in several Provinces. When you see it next, please pray an Ave for Brother Felix.
Marist Stella H.S. still was using the school of the Christian Brothers for the afternoon sessions. We were to purchase a piece of land and go ahead with a drive to build new schools. We adopted a wait-and-see policy with the new government. If we can be assured of a future, we will not hesitate to move along with our plans.
The Juniorate had twenty-one boys, mostly from Malaya, and as the educational difficulties were not easily surmounted, a decision had been reached to transfer the Juniorate to Malaya proper. Eventually, the present Juniorate served as the Novitiate of the Province.
We opened our Sacred Heart School for Chinese students in Sibu, Sarawak, on January 5, 1960. Two Marian College graduates were pioneers: Bro. Paul Raphael and Bro. Jules Andre. Of course, Brother Provincial had been along previously to prepare the way and make all the arrangements. Sibu is the second-largest city in Sarawak, which is situated north of the island of Borneo and southeast of Singapore. Sibu had a population of some 15,000, of which 3,500 are Catholics. At first, we had to live in the parish house, but presently the Brothers enjoy their own house on the outskirts of the city. There are three Brothers teaching in this school.
When the government was asked about permanent visas for our men, it was happy to grant them. It asked us to provide a teacher for its Teacher Training College, and we provided a Brother for the public T.T.C. Incredible as it may seem, the Brother teaches chemistry, physics, psychology, school management, and speech. Any pinch-hitters? The Chinese of the area are very well-organized and under the influence of Mr. Lau Nai Yong have been successful and effective in their drive for the new school and a residence for the Brothers. The first unit of this multi-unit program is well under way. The school will have two classrooms, a chapel, a residence, an auditorium, and a boarding unit. I took part in the dinner to spark the drive. His Excellency Bishop Vos and the other Marianhill Fathers of the area appreciate the help that the Brothers brought them.
After the visit, I went by speedboat with a group to visit the territory and the longhouses of the Land Dayaks and the Sea Dayaks who form one third of the population of Sarawak. They are former headhunters, tribes that have been quite legendary in Borneo. This was quite an experience–Brothers in white cassocks with a group of laymen zipping along in two speedboats up the winding rivers for an official visit to the tribe, which worked for one of the laymen. When we reached our destination, the first challenge was to climb the steep slippery log that led to the log house. When I was trying to do this while wearing Western-style shoes and a white cassock, it became easy for me to see why bare feet and minimal clothes (G-string) provide the most practical wardrobe to wear. Two little Dayaks eagerly held my hand, one in front and one behind to keep me from falling off the log as we climbed to the reception committee. Straw mats had been spread on the floor and even two improvised chairs arranged for the Distinguished Fathers!
The natives greeted us grinning broadly and then squatted on the floor. Men, women, and children everywhere were chattering and all were excited. This was an event! They were going to entertain us.
From out of nowhere came the homemade instruments, and the eerie sounds and incantations began with the gyrations that were to accompany them. Naked children stood awed by us and managed grins. The adults would go in and out of their huts and sport earrings to match their bright gold teeth, having not much else on them to sport. After the show, we presented them with our gift (five Malayan dollars), gave some sweets to the children, and left for home, happy that these headhunters had changed hobbies along the way and were now collecting gold teeth.
One U.S. Brother from the Province of PKC is helping out the Province of China starting this September. Should he write a book, will he call it A Yank at Sarawak or a Yank in Sibu?
Malaya is much quieter politically, at least for the time being. We have five schools there and a little Juniorate as of a few months ago. Malacca and Ipoh are the two schools that furnish us with most vocations, as there are more Catholics in these places. Our own school is Catholic H.S. in Petaling Jaya. At that time we were presently building a new science block, and a faculty residence was next. This school is a tribute to the foresight of Brother Provincial who, a few years back, started the building after working very hard to get the land. It was a desolate area that the government was willing to grant us. Today, it is all built up everywhere and one of the most thriving towns on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Some few miles from this school is the property we bought for the Juniorate. At present there is only an old shack on the grounds; but, Nazareth-like, it is the lodging of Brother Director and eight Juniors. “We lack everything,” he recently wrote. “The only things that are plentiful are the ants, mosquitoes, and rats, but fortunately the boys are all young and willing and able to accept the challenge: A true testing ground this is!”
Port Dickson is where we have a summerhouse by the sea. It is used during vacation periods by both the Brothers and the trainees. It is secluded, beautiful, and comfortable. It was grand to get a dip in the Indian Ocean on a hot day in July! North of the Federation we have two schools: Bukit Mertajem and Balik Pulau, both with small communities. The first is overcrowded with pupils and the Brothers have a pitifully uncomfortable residence. The other is isolated in the mountains with not too much future as far as school population goes.
Everywhere in the Province, as in every other Province of the Institute, by the way, the problems are the same: lack of men and money! It is normal; it is wholesome. It keeps us relying on God and is a challenge to our confidence in Mary. The Chinese, as displaced persons, have done wonders to rebuild a Province that ten years ago was three times its present size. Much sacrifice has gone into the build-up. On August 15 in the early 1950s, two Postulants in the U.S. became Novices: one was a Chinese Novice in Ceylon, who took his first vows and is now at Marist College in Poughkeepsie; and the second was the Brother who made Perpetual Profession in Hong Kong on that day as well. Small numbers, but a good start! The saddest note of all in the Province at the time was that in almost three years there had been no word from the fifty-four Chinese Brothers still behind the bamboo curtain. All they could do was to pray for them.
I left Hong Kong and the white clergy suit on May 31 in the early 1960s. I was heading for the land of the white Soutana. I know that you have heard much about the Philippines from the various returning missionaries, but I can assure you that seeing is believing. And when you go yourself, the bug hits you. The previous year I spent only one week visiting all five schools. The next year I explained that I was not interested in houses or in pupils, but that I wanted to devote all of my time to the Brothers.
Brother James and his big smile met me at the Manila airport. He had already arranged a meeting for me with His Eminence the Cardinal for the next day. Meeting with Cardinals was getting to be a habit ... well, almost. I had met Cardinals in Boston, New York, Tokyo, and Manila. I had met the Cardinal of the Philippines before and knew that he was efficient, a diplomat and businessperson, so we were not strangers. He could also be very gracious and we had already corresponded. He liked to have things right on line and had an offer for us for a school in Manila at Pandarcan. I had visited the land already so we talked over the terms of the contract. We discussed the plans in detail. His offer was attractive, and it would give us a footing in Manila, this nerve center of the Philippines, a central hub from which to radiate. We had been waiting for something like this. I sent a report back and prayed that it would not be long before our Marist Manila became a fact.
The following evening there was a dinner with the alumni of our Chinese Brothers living in Manila, and they appreciated firsthand news about their former teachers and news about our Chinese Marists. At a dinner we had a Chinese Jesuit, also an alumnus of our Brothers, speak the praises of the Marist Brothers to the point of embarrassment. The good Father almost put us ahead of the Society in his enthusiasm.
My visit to the schools of the Province was pleasant and it allowed me time to chat with the men I knew and to see some Marist College alumni once again. Home news had top priority, of course. What amazed me about our schools is that the remarkable mass of cement blocks that make up the buildings of our holdings in the Philippines were made by the Brothers, who taught their students how to make these blocks. And bingo–yes, Marist bingo!– provided the funds, and each school was able to put up an entirely new plant with convents built with the cement blocks made possible by Marist bingo. All of our constructions were done by the Brothers with the help of their students. Our schools, our convents, the close union with the clergy, and the closeness with the people were in evidence everywhere I went. And as for education, our Brother Visitor is the Supervisor of well over thirty Notre Dame schools in the Diocese. It was a well-planned, dedicated organization.
The gem of all buildings is our little Novitiate, where I enjoyed my stay most. Tamontaka is far enough from civilization to be guaranteed quiet. It is a beautiful, isolated hilltop, completely surrounded by fertile land that, with time and hard work, yielded the fruit and vegetables we needed in any training center. The Novitiate was inaugurated on May 1, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. At the time there were four Novices, the first in the Philippines, and also five Postulants. They followed the strict routine of the Novitiate as if there were 100 Novices in a large city. Maybe the outstanding joy of the Brothers on May 1 was to have the three Filipino Brothers make their Perpetual Profession. The ceremony took place at the cathedral.
Later as I went around and saw the six schools and convents, made from cement blocks, and looked at the school desks and equipment of all kinds, I thought to myself how many bingo games they represented. They are a credit to the zealous workers in the States, both Brothers and laymen, who worked hard for our mission. It is almost incredible that in eighteen months three complete new buildings were realized simultaneously at Kidapawan, Dadiangas, and Tamontaka. It is a real feat of administrative acumen for Brother James, the Visitor, to keep all three going to a happy completion. Three of these schools now have colleges offering degrees in many subjects. It is a big operation!
With this good start, the question became, why couldn’t the mission become an autonomous District like others in the congregation? The question was studied in the States, in the mission, and at the General Council in Rome; we hoped to have a very favorable reply to this problem. If the Philippines remains a mission, its need for men and money will continue, but autonomy will facilitate administration. Mission life is a rough life in a hot climate, but the good being done is consoling and urges one on. The crops are everything for our schools, which depend on them. If the crops are good, our schools will be filled; if not, students cannot come because they are too poor.
This was my first visit to Jolo, and it was the only school where I did get to meet some of the pupils, as they were all out at the airport to greet me that Friday noon just before dismissal. The Notre Dame Band was there as were the boys and girls standing at attention, the lay teachers, priests, nuns and Brothers. The hostess on the plane said, “Father, I think there is someone here to meet you!” We had been in Jolo one year only, and there had been ten converts and one Postulant for our Novitiate.
Jolo is in Moroland. The Moros make periodic raids into town and there is usually bloodshed. Our house is on the edge of their territory, but we have no trouble. In fact the Brothers, “Padres,” the men in white, are about the only ones brave enough to go into their territory unarmed. We went for a ride to the Moros’ sandy beach and watched them use their bob knives to cut up sharks. They were quite cooperative when we asked questions and they respected the religious. It baffled them that we should come to their territory unarmed except for the crucifix on our breast, which also baffled them.
Before ending the visit, we held a three-day meeting for all the Directors. It was a kind of summit meeting, educational with conferences and recollection all wrapped in one. It gave the Directors a chance to discuss mutual problems such as autonomy, expenses, Chapter adaptations, and studies of the growth of the District. It gave them the chance to enjoy the peace and serenity of the artistic Novitiate chapel and place all their cares at the feet of our Ordinary Resource.
I will not forget the meeting with his Eminence and his good cigars. I can still remember the muddy climb from church to the comfortable convent at Kidapawan and uncrating the U.S. boxes at the Novitiate; the fiesta bells and the parish singing during the get-together at Marbel; the striking beauty of the chapel at Dadiangas; the turkeys at Lagao; the send-off at the airport that early morning; the all-night mourning of a family for a Mobamedan deceased at Tamontaka; the giggling girls at Jolo putting leis around my neck; Bro. James Butch; and, oh yes, the best shoeshine I ever had in all my years from the expert houseboy at Cotobato. If there were Nobel Prizes for shoeshines, he’d get it!
Twelve years of mission work in the Philippines and what is the tally? Six schools and convents, a new Novitiate, and three colleges. We had 205 First Communions and thirty-six converts. Besides those twelve years, there have been two vocations to the priesthood and twenty-one to the Marist Brotherhood. Surely, we can say with our blessed Founder that our Lady has done everything here!
Now that it is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a Marist activity, we must thank the Lord that there are thirty-nine Marists active in the Philippines, all but two native-born. Now there are six colleges, one of them a university, and we are ministering to 26,087 students. The seed sown fifty years ago has produced abundantly. The beautiful little cemetery at Tanontaka is proud of its dozen Marists who have that sacred spot.
There was a fine Quantas air service from Singapore to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. I was to spend two weeks there, the pearl of the Orient, in our little autonomous District of Ceylon. I was very happy to get here and have never tried to hide the fact that I am very partial to Ceylon, our men, and our work there. This time, I was more so happy, because I felt that there had been some generous help for our Novitiate. Now, I cannot help thinking that often a happy beginning maketh for a sorrowful ending.
The small District is well-organized in that it already had a little Novitiate, a Juniorate, a small house of studies, and four big schools. I started my visit at the training center at Tudella, Ja-Ela, because it is the heart of the District Our Lady’s Hermitage. The center is off the main route, north of Colombo, in a very secluded area among the coconut groves and cinnamon plantations. My stay gave me the opportunity to talk to the little group of Novices, to attend a celebration and reception held by the twenty-five juniors, and to show the assembled group the series of color slides on our Blessed Founder. Besides, I made a complete tour of the chicken farm, which had won the first prize the previous year as the best-run poultry farm of the whole island state. It is operated on a highly technical and profitable basis. Two brothers, a German and a Brazilian, who were not allowed to be salaried as teachers because they were foreigners, made more for the District with the chicks and hens than they would have made as fully paid teachers.
Everywhere in Ceylon, as in all other countries I visited, we at once started the new program of prayers, which was welcomed by all. When the new Latin-English text was made available, the changeover was shortly completed.
Marist Stella College in Negombo is our oldest school. We have been here since 1917. There are over 2,000 students in the primary and secondary sections. I was happy to see the completed wing of the secondary school, which had been under construction the previous year. It was my privilege to attend and to preside at an all-day sports meet, held in true Olympic style, where we had a perfectly adapted campus for these games. The sudden rain at the end of the day came late enough in the program not to spoil the meet, and the trophies were handed out in the auditorium.
Wennapuwa is only a short distance from Negombo. The school here, Joseph Vaz College, may be smaller as far as enrollment, hut it has an equally imposing building. Here I was on the spot in a way, as I had to preside at the prize-giving day and address the gathering before handing out the prizes. It is something akin to a commencement in the U.S.A., only it ends with an entertainment by the students. The entertainment was particularly interesting as there were one-act plays in Singhalese style and a series of folk dances with very colorful costumes. The Indian and Sodian dances were most attractive, which was a credit to the devoted teacher who made the scenery and prepared both the dances and the music. Music and dancing are a Singhalese tradition.
I did not spend much time at Christ King College, as Brother Director was in the hospital when I went to visit him. When I did get to the school I found it in the hands of two very young Singhalese Brothers who had been holding the fort. I now understand the Director’s confidence in his men, for these two young Brothers ran this school of 1,000 students with the efficiency of veterans. They were tired at the end of the day, but they nevertheless did an efficient job. It was pleasant to chat and lunch with a community of two.
Bandarawela is our only school off the west coast of the island. It is up in the mountain resort area at some 6,000 feet of altitude. It regularly serves as a rest house during the vacation periods or when a Brother needs the rest. The school is a series of split-level buildings connected together and accommodates 1,000 students. It is different from our other schools in that only some 10 percent of the students are Catholics.
The government in power worried us. Since we were not sure of the political reaction to my visit, I went into hiding. It was good to be able to get away to the Redemptorist Retreat House for a bit of quiet and prayer. Their house is way up in the mountains, away from all civilization. Except for the occasional perpetual help novena pilgrims, we were alone. Before leaving Kandy I also saw the Jesuit Retreat House where our Brothers also go for their retreats. While here I watched the elephants take their daily baths. What I had first thought to be a number of rocks jutting out of the water proved to be elephants letting the swift current refresh their thick carcasses.
Back at Tudella, we organized the blessing and the laying of the cornerstone for the extension to the little Novitiate. Thanks to the help received from many quarters we were able to triple the Novitiate facilities. Here, too, it was a novelty to see the elephants clear the land and carry away large trees, and to see native workers breaking huge stones by hand and then walking barefoot on the piles of crushed stones as if it were a concrete pavement. You try it!
My leaving Ceylon was somewhat sad because of the uneasiness of the political situation. The future was unpredictable. Brothers had suffered much in the past from poverty and hardship, along with the lack of teaching certificates and salary qualifications. The District had worked hard and these two points were being remedied. Lately, the District had been making enough to live, and the studies both religious and secular had been proceeding well for the young Brothers. Now it seemed that more hardship was ahead. The elections of July 20, 1960, brought a new government into power. After less than two months it announced a takeover of the press, the insurance companies, and all the schools. It had even mentioned training centers. We were not sure if they meant religious as well. There seemed to be a definite move against the Catholics. It was also announced that the government would not renew the residence permits of any foreigners. The new regulations definitely would affect us if put into effect. Three of our schools were along the western coast, where most of the people are Catholic fisher folk. We had ten foreign Brothers and twenty-eight Singhalese Brothers in the District, and two young Singhalese Brothers made their first vows on August 15, 1960.
We called a halt to the new Novitiate and waited for the next few months to see if the regulations would go into effect. The people were poor and used to persecution, but they had had more than their share already. Fortunately for us the District was left in the hands of our Singhalese Brothers, and quite capable hands at that. We would continue to get them the help they needed. There is 100 percent perseverance among our native Brothers, and I was sure that the forthcoming trials would find them equal to the sacrifice. The next year, March 2, 1961, marked the 50th anniversary of our coming to Ceylon. The takeover of the schools reminded me of the text, “To him who has, more will be added thereunto; and to him who does not have, even the little which he thinks he has, will be taken away.” And there is yet another text, very dear to all Marists, for it is that of our Blessed Founder: “There are difficulties in leading the life of a good religious, but grace makes all things easy. Jesus and Mary will aid you. Besides, remember that life is very short and Eternity will never end.” One proof that our Marists in Ceylon would eventually wind up on top is that they have full confidence in Jesus and Mary, and know how to smile. They will ever keep smiling!
last updated on June 10, 2004