On the 10th and 11th August, 2013, a group of 60 pilgrims from St Simon Catholic Church Likas went on pilgrimage to Sandakan, the earliest established Catholic Mission in Sabah. The pilgrimage was intended to put the pilgrims in tangible touch, through talks, reflection and prayer, with the very root of Catholicism in our Land where the Good News has been proclaimed to the community of believers in Sandakan since May 1883. In this concrete way, the pilgrims aspired to renew their faith in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Thus, sometime around this year, after singing Credo Domini the official YOF hymn for several months, the parishioners realised that it would be a wonderful idea to go on a pilgrimage. After all, why sing and call themselves “pilgrims” at the beginning of each verse of the hymn if they were not going to go on a pilgrimage at least once during this Year of Faith? With that thought and the words “know thyself” as Catholic believers in Borneo, it was decided that they would make a prayerful journey to the place where it all began in North Borneo: ELOPURA, which is better known today as SANDAKAN.
After six months of planning and coordination, the Sandakan pilgrimage began on the Tuesday night of August 6 with prayers and a homily, followed by a talk by Reverend Fr Cosmas Lee, on the historical origins of Sandakan’s Roman Catholic faith which he had personally and painstakingly researched. With rare photographs, sketches and excerpts from letters and journals, the pilgrims received a vivid picture of the Sandakan’s 130+ years of faith from the eyes of the early missionaries.
The journey itself was made on Saturday morning of Aug 10 with the pilgrims in high spirits gathering under the early morning downpour to board two buses prepared for the journey after a short prayer and blessing led by Fr Cosmas. The pilgrims on the larger bus were blessed by God with the opportunity to experience, in a small way, some of the hardships which the early missionaries endured.
With pouring rain, the bus leaked badly and throughout the journey it swung fiercely from left to right just like the ships that sailed through stormy seas from Europe to Borneo and along the North Borneo coast. Amidst the stormy conditions and a broken PA system, Fr Cosmas led the pilgrims in the traditional prayer of pilgrims, the Rosary and lifted their spirits with the words from the letters of the early missionaries by using a hailer. However, as many did not have their sea legs with them, much vomiting was done at the first stop in Nabalu.
Thereafter, the pilgrims arrived at Restoran Hebat near Telupid and had lunch before arriving in Sandakan in the early afternoon.
They were warmly received by St Mary’s parish priest Fr Thomas Makajil and members of the Parish Pastoral Council who had prepared delicious homemade cakes and refreshment and an informative video on the parish’s history starting from the first missionary in the 1880s. This was followed by a tour around the grounds with comments from Fr Cosmas and Mr Alban Obon, the latter a veteran and prominent citizen of St Mary’s, being born, bred, taught and served in the parish for well over 70 years.
It is sad to learn that all the Mission buildings were destroyed during the Second World War. St Mary (of the Assumption) founded on “St Mary’s Mount” used to have one of the most beautiful schools and best appointed churches in North Borneo and Sarawak. One of the few surviving relics was the recently discovered Japanese tunnel which had been dug to serve as an escape passage during the Second World War by the Japanese.
The first stop was the cathedral itself which was consecrated in 1961 on the site of a hill which had been levelled by Fr Mulders himself using a bulldozer in the 1950s. While it is not the original church built by the early missionaries, it is still one of the very few churches that was substantially constructed and was actually consecrated, the 12 consecrated marble stones clearly visible on the walls. Hymns and prayers were offered to God there in praise of the works of the early missionaries.
The next stop was the graves of Fr de Vette, Mother M. Teresa, S. Mary Leo and Sr Mary Rose, some of the early missionaries who died in Sandakan at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century. A passage from St Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians was read describing the hardships in the apostolate and a hymn of praise was sung to Mary.
There was then a short visit to the beautiful colonial wooden building previously the Boys School now serving as the Catechetical Centre, and finally, prayers in front of the Grotto followed by sunset Mass at the Cathedral.
At the beginning of the homily, a letter dated 15 March 1894 from Bishop Torrenggiani at Armidale NWS Australia was read. The Bishop wrote to the Superior General of Mill Hill Missionaries in deep appreciation of the extraordinary poverty, missionary zeal and spirit of Fr Byron the Rector of Sandakan who was suffering from tuberculosis and was there in Australia for a period of convalescence. Wondrously the theme of the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C celebrated God’s election of His people!
After Mass, the pilgrimage was ended in fellowship with Fr Thomas, members of the PPC and their spouses, at a dinner in the parish hall.
The following day, the pilgrims who had been in the dilapidated bus were rewarded for their penance with a brand new one of international touristy standard with excellent roof and a perfectly functioning PA system. On their way home to Likas, the pilgrims also visited and prayed at the churches of St Mark at Mile 8 Jln Labuk, St Martin at Telupid, and St Peter Claver at Ranau.
What was striking about the early Sandakan Mission was the ordinariness of everything done there. There were no dazzling miracles or success stories. The missionaries were normal men and women who faced unmitigated hardship and failure; tilling the fields and calling for conversion without much success (they had fewer than 30 converts for decades). And yet, by the grace of God, the Sandakan mission succeeded and is today a bustling and growing Cathedral Parish in the Diocese of Sandakan. It was a great lesson to all the pilgrims to remember not to despair and to persevere when their ministries and good works do not seem to bear any fruit.