It was on a bright Saturday morning on 24th August 2013, that a group of 70 pilgrims from St Simon Catholic Church Likas waited eagerly to embark on their daylong pilgrimage to some of the earliest Catholic Missions established since the 1880s in the districts of Papar and Penampang. At 7 a.m., after a prayer for protection and the renewal of our faith , the Rector of St Simon Church, Rev. Fr Cosmas Lee blessed us all and everyone boarded in one of the three coaches for the hour’s journey to Papar.
As the buses pulled out of Kota Kinabalu along the old Papar road, the pilgrims in my bus began reciting the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary, followed by the reading of a letter written by one of the early missionaries, Fr Kurz, who founded the mission in Limbahau in 1888. His letter transported us back to the era in North Borneo when food was scarce, living conditions difficult, transport meant walking miles on foot or rowing a little boat along the river, language problems, difficulty in communication and … the people were “heathens, murderous and men cut off heads to boil soup … and the women were not much better..”
Fr Cosmas had prepared us for this pilgrimage with a talk and presentation on the 20th August. We learnt that in 1880, for all practical purposes, Mill Hill was officially given charge of the Prefecture of Labuan and Northern Borneo. We were also now familiar with the names of the first four Mill Hill missionaries: Mgr Thomas Jackson (the Second Prefect Apostolic), Frs Edmund Dunn, Aloysius Gossens (originally “Goossens” but he himself used “Gossens” in Borneo) and Daniel Kilty. Frs Gossens and Dunn went to Sarawak in July 1881. Fr Kilty arrived in Labuan in July and Mgr Jackson in October 1881, just about two years after the departure of our first Prefect Apostolic Mgr. Don Carlos Cuarteron.
In the middle of October 1881, Fr Kilty proceeded to Gaya and from there to the Papar River where he arrived near the present town on the 18th October 1881, a Tuesday. It is believed that he set up a station on the right bank downstream of the river, near the present railway bridge where a mosque used to stand.
At St Joseph’s Church, our first stop in Papar, we were given a warm welcome by the local parish members and leaders. We first entered the church where we sang hymns, professed our faith, and prayed for the souls of the missionaries, before we moved to the hall for a presentation of the history of their church followed by refreshment with delicious cakes and kueh.
As we were eating, the original site of Fr Kilty’s first station was pointed out to us. It was not within easy walking distance from the present church and short of time we missed seeing it. Another missionary Fr Bernard Pundleider joined Fr Kilty in 1882 at Papar and later opened a station upriver at Simpudu. Soon Fr Prenger also joined Fr Pundleider. Due to ill health, the indifference of the locals hence the shortage of work, they were transferred to Sandakan in 1883. Fr Kilty also left Papar soon, so both Papar and Simpudu stations were closed by early July 1883.
Our next stop was Holy Rosary Church Limbahau. The Catholic Mission in the Papar district was reopened in August 1888 with the arrival of Fr Bernard Kurz in Kg Kopimpinan where he built a house. Just months after, he bought the present Limbahau hill for $21 and moved there. The story goes that being a strong man he himself began felling the trees on the hill as the locals were afraid to help him believing that the hill belonged to the devil. He built a chapel there in 1891 at the cost of $372.50. In 1893 Fr A. Gossens was sent to assist him in Limbahau but the newcomer stayed in Kinuta, then an outstation. Very soon, Fr Kurz died in 1895 and Fr Gossens took over as rector of Limbahau, Kinuta, and the whole Papar district. He remained there until his death in 1935 after celebrating both the silver and golden jubilee of his priestly ordination.
The present Holy Rosary Church is similar in design to the KK Sacred Heart Cathedral and sits on almost the same site as the original. The Parish has done a wonderful job in beautifying the church and its environs, though it is really a pity that none of the old buildings has survived. There is a grotto surrounded by beautiful plants; the graves of the early missionaries have been relocated to a permanent memorial site befitting as founders of the Mission. Another warm welcome and refreshments awaited us.
Fr. Cosmas read out various passages of scripture at each site, and one which particularly struck me as we contemplated the hardships of the missionaries was:
“Go now to those whom I send you and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to protect you….” Jeremiah 1: 4-19
What faith in God those missionaries must have had to go out into the deep and evangelise!
From there our buses wound their way to another hill, in Kinuta to St Patrick’s Church. Our buses could not manoeuvre up the narrow road up the hill, so we all climbed the steps, shaking hands with the parishioners who literally lined up to greet us all the way up. The churches in Limbahau and Kinuta (together with Sandakan, Bundu Kuala Penyu, Penampang and Inobong) are two of the earliest missions established in mainland North Borneo. In Kinuta, the first church was built on the same hill now. Fr Gossens later purchased 1.39 acres of the adjacent padi land where the Kinuta Catholic Mission is.
An exhibition of photographs and historical information was on display in the parish office. A senior parishioner proudly pointed out to me the original site of the church built by Fr. Kurz just a stone’s throw away from their present parish hall overlooking the top of the hill. Among the exhibits, a famed sketch of the original church and house (drawn c 1890) evokes memories of such bygone days, and yet a mere 130 years ago in our history.
After another round of delicious kueh and drinks, we headed back on the old Papar Road to the Holy Family Senior Residence to pray at the chapel where Fr Dapoz used to say daily Mass until his passing. Fr Cosmas warned us “not to disturb the senior residents by chatting with them and exciting them especially as we had not brought them any special delicacies to eat,” as visitors are usually prone to do! We later walked through the back of their compound where a scenic fish pond (pay what you catch) was situated and entered the grounds of Pace Bene, the Retreat Centre run by the FSIC Sisters. There we had our lunch and what a wonderful lunch it was! Two other church groups were there eating, and it seemed no bother to Sr Frances Mani who informed us they could cater up to 200 persons for meals. Delicious mango pudding was available for dessert and it was on this rather full stomach that we proceeded to Penampang district.
Taking about 45 minutes to St Aloysius Church Limbanak, our next stop, there was ample time in the bus to read another missionary letter to ‘put us into the spirit of the pilgrimage’. This time we read a letter by Fr Prenger, the founder of Penampang and Inobong Missions. In 1885 Fr Prenger was sent from Sandakan to the Putatan River where he settled in Penampang for four months, but was suddenly told to go help Fr Pundleider in Bundu, Kuala Penyu. In Bundu, the Labuan Chinese (who were traders) influence made it difficult to convert the locals and leaving Bundu, Fr Prenger went back to Putatan in 1887, since there was not enough work for two priests. He eventually settled in Inobong after buying “ a pretty hill, a good 100 feet high, cleared of its jungle and began building a small house which I occupied in Christmas 1889 when I could baptize the first lot”.
Fr Prenger had to divide his time between the Penampang and Inobong stations until his good friend and seminary mate Fr John Rientjes arrived in May 1890 from Sandakan. In the midst of some conflicts with the British administration about the missionary’s involvement in politics, Fr Prenger was sent back to teach in Mill Hill in 1890 but after the tragic drowning of Fr Rientjes near the Inobong church, he was allowed to return to Inobong where from 1892, he started instructing whole families in the Christian doctrines.
In April 1892 he wrote, “ … could baptise 36 people… then a halt in 1893. Now in April 1894 new ones offer themselves … and I have the greatest hope that this time the whole village will be Christian. Luckily I have whole Christian families, and thus girls for the young men who wish to marry …”.
He looked for money to build a church, and an American lady provided the much needed funds. The first Sacred Heart Church in Inobong was finished at the cost of $1,863 and a bit extra (for pews and other furnishing), and they had a solemn blessing on Ascension Day (11 May) in 1894. From one of Fr Prenger’s letters we learn that five priests were present on this great occasion – Rev Dunn from Kanowit (who had come to collect some kerbau to bring back to Kanowit), Rev. A. Gossens from Papar, Fr. Broek, Fr. Duxneuner and Fr Prenger.
On 8th May 1894 Fr Prenger wrote on the Blessing of church: “Next day the Blessing took place. After this a short sermon and then the High Mass, one of us acting as celebrant, one as deacon, and another as subdeacon, whilst the two others formed the choir, the one meanwhile being the organist at the same time. It was the first High Mass we had, and though of course we were rusty in ceremonies, it came off splendidly, and the natives pronounced it nice.”
Steeped in this historical perspective, we eagerly made our way towards Penampang. But first, we would make a stop at St Aloysius Limbanak Penampang. This has got to be one of the most beautiful Catholic churches in Sabah. The original church was first built on land bought by Mgr Wachter in 1925. Although built only in 1991, the 3-story white building set against the edge of a little hill conveys an old colonial feel to it, as if to preserve the memories of all those who had lived and served in this parish. Limbanak was one of the stations under Penampang Mission. During WW2 the Penampang Mission had been the centre of the Prefecture and Mgr August Wachter the Fourth Prefect Apostolic was stationed there until he and 9 others, including 5 other priests, were taken away by the Japanese on night of the 19 May 1945.
My own grandfather Lothar Wong Manjaji one of those who had been entrusted to look after the Penampang Mission after the priests were taken away, was himself rounded up by the Japanese shortly after that with a few others namely, Herman, Vitaliunus Lim and Claudius Yap, who never was to be seen again. It was to my gratitude that one of the first photos projected in the presentation inside St Aloysius’ Church showed that of my grandfather seated beside Mgr A. Wachter.
From St Aloysius Church, our next stop was Sacred Heart Church Inobong. We made a right turn from the main road at the junction to Kampong Tanaki and then another half hour drive. I can safely say that many of us from St Simon (including myself) had never ventured to this part of Inobong so the drive through the countryside and unexpected pockets of new apartment projects made us feel like tourists. As we reached our destination and eyed the famous hill of the Inobong church, we recollected ourselves and contemplated the difficulties and dangers the early missionaries must have faced to set up the mission there .
Fr Prenger described the original church as,“ ..building is 70 x 30feet, the naves are 16 and the tower up to the cross is 47. The floor is cemented and the roof of wooden tiles, standing on an elevation of about 120 feet shows itself to the full and looks very pretty.”
The three buses had no problem climbing up the hill, the roads now wide and paved. We were met by a big group of the Parish leaders including members of the Pastoral Committee who accorded us a warm welcome, similar to the other parishes. Fr Cosmas jokingly remarked that he would cut off his ten fingers if St Simon would be able to match the kind of reception and welcome we had received so far. Although a tongue-in-cheek remark, it struck us how warm and hospitable indeed our brothers and sisters from these parishes were.
The present church stands proudly on about the same location as the original. We were told it can seat 1600 parishioners. The Sacred Heart Inobong community, like all the others we visited, are very proud of their founding missionaries as can be seen by their knowledge and respect for each missionary and in the way they have beautified and kept their graves. After the presentation, we trooped out to the graveyard at the side of the church, prayed and took group pictures at the graves of Fr. J. Rientjes and Fr. A. Prenger. Fr Rientjes was the first Mill Hill missionary buried in Sabahan soil, by Mr Wiseman the Resident of Gaya, an Anglican layman, reading from the Anglican Service Book, for no Catholic clergy was available. Visiting and praying at the graves of early missionaries is always a touching experience. It puts us in physical touch with the missionaries and with God. We also learnt that the first White Sisters (FMSJ), Mother Stanislaus, Sr Innocentia and Sr. Alban, came to Inobong in 1913.
After another round of refreshments, we had to leave for our final destination, St Michael’s Church Penampang. Being over-eager to complete everything, our bus proceeded to drive ahead of the others, making a wrong left turn at the church exit. 20 minutes of driving took us up a gradually dwindling gravel road until we reached a sign ‘Jalan tamat’. End of road. Finito. After a long-drawn reversing of our 27–seater bus on that 10-foot wide road, we were on our way again. Meanwhile the other two buses had guessed our predicament and had reversed much earlier arriving at St Michael’s well ahead of ours – a painful reminder of the following Sunday’s gospel, ‘Yes, there are now those last who will be first, and those first who will be last.’ Luke 13:30
By the time we all got to St Michael’s, it was nearly 4.45pm and people were arriving for the novena before Sunset Mass. However we still had time to go inside the church to profess our faith and pray for the souls of the founding missionaries appreciating the struggles they went through.
St Michael’s is a beautiful stone church located on a steep hill and the oldest Catholic church still standing not just in Penampang but in the whole of Sabah. From 1927 Mgr Wachter made Penampang Mission his headquarters for all missionary activities in North Borneo and Labuan.. He initiated the building of the present church in 1936 but it remained unfinished till after the war in 1947 with subsequent renovations. Fr Prenger was the first Rector of this Mission (1886-1890), followed briefly by Fr Rientjes, Fr. Reyffert. They were followed by then by Fr Duxneuner, who was rector for many years (1893-1917), who built the first church, is also often considered a founder of Penampang Church.
Fr August Wachter took over Penampang from 1917 and was virtually its rector until his death in 1945. The pilgrims then visited and prayed at the grave of Fr Paulmichl outside by the southern wing of the church. One of the total of 13 taken in by the Japanese, he died of malaria and was buried in June at Tenom while still under Japanese custody. However, his body has since been brought to St Michael. We also saw St Michael’s School (now SMK St Michael Penampang) below the hill, one of the oldest schools in Sabah registered in 1888.
By now it was dusk, and we started on our journey back to St Simon where we gathered and prayed together before dispersing. It had been a beautiful day, a wonderful pilgrimage where we learnt to appreciate not only the history of the missions, but the determination and zeal that inspired these missionaries to venture into the wilds of Borneo, and to praise the Spirit that spurred them on so that they could obey Jesus’ Great Commissioning:
“Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And look, I am with you always, yes, to the end of time.” (Mt 28:20)
As pilgrims visiting the missions where our Catholic faith took roots , we felt closely bonded together in the one common faith we share, and urged on by the courage and zeal of all those who have gone before us.