Korean missionaries build up lives in Malaysia’s Borneo

Priests from South Korea started the mission after Western missionaries were restricted in the Muslim-majority country

Jan 24, 2022

Children wearing traditional Korean Hanbok outfits attend the fifth anniversary of Woori Jib orphanage in Potuki. (Photo: Catholic Sabah)


By Rock Ronald Rozario
An orphanage in Malaysia’s Kota Kinabalu Archdiocese bears a partly Korean name — St. Francis Xavier Woori Jib. The name indicates the home’s link with Korean missionaries as “Woori Jib” means “our home” in Korean.

When the home in Muslim-majority Malaysia celebrated its fifth anniversary on Dec. 5, most guests came dressed in colorful Korean Hanbok outfits as an expression of gratitude for the Korean priests who started and continue to run the orphanage.

The 51-year-old Father Lawrence Kim Jinsu and his 34-year-old confrere Father Andrew Kim Youngjung have been taking care of 14 local girls aged 7-17 who are orphans from poor Catholic families.  

The priests have adapted to the local language and culture, not to mention its distinct food and weather.

“I thank God for being able to help the local churches, the least we can do,” Father Lawrence told Catholic Sabah, the official publication of the archdiocese.

“I would also like to thank the community here in Potuki who have warmly welcomed us and have always supported us in terms of purchasing this land and settling down here.”

Korean missionary Father Leo Choi Sangki started the shelter out of “love for the children of Sabah” in 2016. The priests belong to a Korean missionary institute called Societas Clericalis Sanctissimae Trinitastis de Mirinae (Clerical Society of the Most Holy Trinity of Mirinae), founded in 1976 by Father Francis Xavier Tjeong.

The society is based in Mirinae (Milky Way in Korean), a Catholic holy site that holds the tombs of several Korean Catholics in Gyeonggi province. The name connects the place to an era of persecution under the Joseon dynasty when Catholics secretly visited this place. The lamplight coming from their homes in the village where they settled resembled the starlight of the Milky Way, giving it the name Mirinae.

The clerical society based in Suwon Diocese readies missionaries to work for evangelization across the world. Its members are engaged in education, hospital ministry and taking care of needy children.

The home in Potuki offers free accommodation, education and moral formation to disadvantaged orphan girls with assistance from benefactors in Korea.

The missionary society began work in Kota Kinabalu Archdiocese 12 years ago at the invitation of then Archbishop John Lee Hiong Fun-Yit Yaw to start a mission in the archdiocese.

Shortly afterward, Father Leo arrived in Penampang as the first Korean missionary in Sabah. He is the architect of the Woori Jib projects in Sabah. He named the orphanage after St. Francis Xavier, the patron of the missions, and Father Francis Xavier Tjeong, their founder.

Father Leo, who pioneered the missionary activities, had to return to his home country for medical treatment, leaving Fathers Lawrence and Andrew to carry forward the work.

The Korean missionaries have also been serving at St. Michael’s Church of Penampang. They help the parish priest in spiritual and pastoral activities across the 16 churches and a chapel within its jurisdiction.

They also set up a religious souvenir shop in Penampang in 2018 to support their missionary endeavors.

Besides, they also help poor communities who live deep inside the forested and rugged terrain of Borneo, the largest island archipelago in Southeast Asia covering the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesia’s Kalimantan and the tiny but rich nation of Brunei.

“I take groceries and school supplies deep into the village and share with the locals. At times, I try to help poor families with practical help. In addition, we gather the poorest children in local towns where it is difficult for them to be cared for by their parents,” says Father Lawrence in a report published by Catholic Sabah.

“We prepare the house [Woori Jib], nourish them and send them to school, teach them the Christian life and support their training to adapt to life in the society.”

In January 2020, Father Lawrence celebrated the 20th anniversary of his priestly ordination and Father Andrew his third in the local parish. They were surprised to see hundreds of parishioners, mostly from far-flung areas, at the church, most of them in Korean dress.

Both the Korean priests can now celebrate Mass in English and the local Bahasa language, which some parishioners say is quite an achievement.

A call to the mission
As a student, Father Lawrence never imagined becoming a missionary. He wanted to complete his studies and find a job to support his eight-member family. But now he has been a missionary for 20 years serving in missions in the US, Korea, and Malaysia.

He grew up in the 1980s at a time when there were few Catholics in their Wonju city locality. There was a small chapel but no priest.

Thanks to the efforts of a local young man, a Sunday school was established and a nun started to teach catechism to the local children. The peaceful and calm presence of the nun impressed young Lawrence.

“I became curious about religious life and my desire to become a priest grew stronger. This motivated me and led me to decide to become a priest and later enter the congregation,” Father Lawrence recalled.

He said that as a young man he was moved by issues like conflicts in human relations, suffering, poverty and sickness that affected people and society, encouraging him to “live responsibly.”

Father Lawrence says his nine years in Korea and four years in the US in various roles such as a parish priest, spiritual director, rector of a Catholic shrine and hospital chaplain laid the foundations for his ministries in Sabah.

“The most important thing is to do what the Lord wants in Sabah and to follow His will and to build the Kingdom of God here,” he said.  

The mission in North Borneo
Sabah and Sarawak states make up North Borneo and are home to most of the nation’s Christians who account for about 10 percent of Malaysia’s estimated 33 million citizens.

The latest census data shows that Christians account for one third of the total populations in Sabah and Sarawak.

But until the late 19th century, missionary activities in North Borneo were mostly exploratory in nature. Catholicism here is credited to the untiring endeavors of the Western missionaries who started arriving here in the seventh century.

Following several failed attempts to evangelize in North Borneo over the centuries, Don Carlos Cuarteron, a Spanish mariner who later became a priest, established the first Catholic mission in the territory in the 19th century, according to official church records.

Carlos Cuarteron, who came to Borneo from the Philippines, evangelized in the region in the 1840s and served as the first apostolic prefect of Labuan and Borneo (1855-79) until his death in Rome.

A British Catholic religious order, the Mill Hill missionaries, played a pioneering role in evangelization and pastoral ministries in Sabah and Sarawak states after they became the order’s first Southeast Asian mission territory in the 1870s.  

North Borneo became a British-administered territory in the 1880s and was run by the Chartered Company of British North Borneo until the Japanese occupation during World War II.

The island of Labuan was a British naval station and the British government lent support to missionaries with the hope that Catholic missions would provide spiritual and pastoral care to British mariners.

In 1945, North Borneo became a British Crown Colony. It gained independence in 1963, became known as Sabah and joined Malaysia as one of its 13 states.

The Mill Hill missionaries struggled hard to keep the church alive amid strong pressure from Muslim kings and chieftains who dominated the region, historic records show.

Many missionaries were expelled and forced to relocate to the Indonesian side of Borneo.

In addition to religious tensions, the missionaries also endured hardships in a territory with impassable roads amid rugged mountains and dense forests. They also faced abuses and persecution.

During the Second World War, the Japanese detained and executed eight Mill Hill missionaries including German monsignor A. Wachter in Malaysia, while other British and Dutch missionaries were also detained.

Mill Hill missionary Father Louis Purcell became one of the last missionaries to work in the region when he was forced to leave Kota Kinabalu after the government refused him a visa extension.

Despite the difficulties, the missionary efforts continued in North Borneo and yielded fruits in the course of time, especially in the past decades.

The changing face of the mission
It’s been a long and arduous missionary journey since the first Mill Hill Missionaries came to Penampang district and set up their base in Kampung Inobong in 1886. The Sacred Heart Inobong, formerly called St. Theresa’s Church, is located at this historic base.

The first local person was baptized in 1887.

It was a time when local people believed the hill was infested with spirits that roamed the area causing sickness and misfortune. They depended on priestesses or Bobohizan to perform traditional healing and black magic to appease the spirits.

The missionaries would say the rosary and call upon the Archangel Michael to defend and protect those who believed they were oppressed by the evil spirits. Thus the priests decided to name the church as St. Michael’s Church, records show.

Later, the missionaries decided to set up their base in Kg. Dabak, Penampang, which is nearer to the sea and is situated in a plain with paddy fields with a low hill which is ideally suited to build a church.

This location was considered strategic as it was close enough to locals who used the Moyog River as a mode of transport and would alight at Kasigui, which was then the only and first town in the district of Penampang from the coast en route to the interior.

Therefore, the present site of St. Michael’s Church was very convenient and strategic to the priests.

The missionaries also started schools and the first one was started as far back as 1886. A two-story wooden structure built in 1924 served as a church, school,  hostel for students as well as the priests’ residence.

When Kota Kinabalu Diocese was created in 1976, it covered the whole of Sabah state. Later, the dioceses of Keningau and Sandakan were carved out. In 2008, Kota Kinabalu became an archdiocese with Archbishop John Soo Kau Wong as the first metropolitan of the province.

The archdiocese has about 228,250 Catholics in 19 parishes. It is also an ethnic melting pot with Catholics hailing from various ethnic groups — Kadazan, Dusun, Murut, Bajau, Chinese, Indian, Filipino and Timorese.

Eight foreign religious orders of men and women are still active in the archdiocese.

However, except for two Koreans, all 40 priests in Kota Kinabalu are native clergy, a common trend across Asian churches where local vocations have replaced foreign missionaries.

Catholics in Sabah also began to produce missionary vocations. In 2017, Father Lawrence’s Clerical Society accepted three young Catholics from Sabah as postulants. They would be ordained priests or remain religious brothers following a seven-year formation course.

“The Korean priests are very communicative. They will always ask permission and always pray together with the archdiocese. They are moving together along the journey and mission of the archdiocese,” Archbishop Wong said in his speech during the orphanage’s fifth anniversary.

A lack of priests and the poverty of communities in Southeast Asia are reminders that cultivating a life of sharing is important than ever, according to Father Lawrence.

“Through religious life, the life of the poor is directed towards the life of sharing. So, it is important to live a life that shares with others not only in material things but also in the talents the Lord has given us,” he said. --ucanews.com

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