Words by Chrishandra Sebastiampillai
Photos by Hamza Delbar, Jasbir Singh, Chrishandra Sebastiampillai and Tan Meng Yoe
One of the first things you will notice about Sabah is the many signboards that announced the names of churches along the road. The further you go out from Kota Kinabalu, the more churches there are. For a lifelong Catholic used to seeing fewer churches in Semenanjung, the experience was all the more gratifying. Sabah is the site of a thriving Christian community that is unique. As a child, I was privileged to briefly be part of this community in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, KK. In this article, I will explore my memories of church experiences in Sabah over the years and some of my encounters with Catholic Sabahans in Petaling Jaya.
Students in search of a signal beneath a church signboard at Kampung Kipouvo
When I was a toddler, my father was posted to Kota Kinabalu for work. As I hadn’t started kindergarten yet, I came along and lived briefly in Luyang where our social life revolved around one family we were related to; a family across the road from Semenanjung we became friends with, and church. It was our experience that the Indian population of Sabah in the 90s was small, and as such we were easily recognisable and sometimes something of a novelty. As such I was treated like a princess and indulged by the parish. Often when we came to Mass, someone would pick me up and by the time Mass had ended, my father would have to track me down because by then I would have been passed from person to person.
Later I returned as a teenager, for the first time old enough to appreciate the subtle differences of Sabah and my home of Petaling Jaya. I was fascinated with the endless signboards that pointed out a vast array of churches, chapels and saints. During one visit to the Cathedral, a First Holy Communion was taking place. Seated high above the altar in the new section (to me, anyway) built to accommodate more of the faithful, I giggled when a small boy of nine years old intoned solemnly the reading of the day: “The perfect wife. Who could find her?”. His earnestness was marked by the rising of his tone on the word ‘who’, but his participation in the Mass pointed to a much more vital fact – the youth were fully incorporated into the community and encouraged to participate.
At home, one of my main points of contact with the Sabahan Catholic community was the Catholic Students’ Society of University Malaya who were part of the BEC (Basic Ecclesiastical Community) that my family belonged to. We chiefly met them during the Christmas season with the students; providing much of the heart, musicians and cheer behind the BEC’s carolling group. These students were the guitarists and singers of the group, and one of them taught me my first chords on a guitar, while another taught me to harmonise. My family also learned several songs in the Malay language through them and incorporated them into our regular worship.
Sometime later, my aunt became the godmother of a Sabahan lady from the Murut community, who regularly came to visit us at home and brought with her several family members whom we grew to know over the years. It was her family in Kuala Lumpur that I interviewed in 2009 for a Journalism assignment during the Home Ministry’s investigation of the Catholic weekly publication, the Herald, due to its use of the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God in the Malay language section dedicated primarily to East Malaysians. It seemed primarily to be a matter of contention in Semenanjung Malaysia as every East Malaysian I spoke to expressed astonishment that it was an issue at all. In Sabah, there are multiple religions practiced in harmony within a single family, and the name of God had never been called into question before.
On this trip, I realised something else – that there was a unity in Sabah that made me feel welcome and hopeful. It started out as something small. A 7-11 cashier wearing a tudung wishing me Selamat Hari Raya. Perhaps this was a fluke. But it was not so. On the radio, a stinger plays on repeat, the intro of Indahnya Sungguh di Hari Raya, a backdrop to listeners of all faiths calling up to wish their family and friends for the festivities. In fact, the further I went away from the city, the more people greeted me, making me feel for the first time that it was something that I could celebrate too, not a greeting I was expected to utter to the correct audience. I was Malaysian; therefore it was my festival too. This simultaneously made me happy and yet melancholic – it had taken me years to feel such an acceptance, and in a matter of days I would be flying away from it.
St Ireneus is a chapel situated in Kampung Kiau, where we stayed the night
One of the more interesting aspects of Sabah Catholicism is the names of the saints chosen for the churches, and the names they inspired in the offspring of the faithful. The church grounds we stayed at in Kampung Kiau, St. Ireneus, is named for a particularly unusual saint and has a suitably unusual story to go with its name. The church was set up in 1995 and named for its 4th Catechist, Irinius Yoku. As there are so many churches in Sabah, priests usually work across multiple parishes and no single priest is assigned to each church. Instead, the parochial house will be responsible for several churches within its territory. St. Ireneus is a chapel that falls under the administration of the Bundu Tuhan Parochial Diocese which is responsible for over 30 churches and chapels under its administration.
St. Ireneus is a small, unassuming building perched atop a hillock situated at a steep hairpin bend in the village of Kg. Kiau. Home to 900 villagers, Kg. Kiau is largely Catholic but also home to a congregation of Sidang Injil Borneo, an indigenous church. Hidden in the shadow of the majestic Mt. Kinabalu, the chapel is more often tended to by Catechists – lay people, or unordained community leaders of the congregation. In the absence of the priest, Catechists lead the sembah or worship, presiding over the gospel readings, delivering a sermon and distributing communion. I was pleasantly surprised to find that our guide, Sintiah was a Catechist in addition to being a mountain guide and advocate through his work in PACOS Trust in his community. He served in this capacity for a period of 8 years from 1992-1999. Aside from leading the sembah, he was also involved in the administration of the church as well as assisting at baptisms at the parish. When I asked Sintiah what happens in the event of a funeral, he replied that one of the two resident priests of the Bundu Tuhan Paroki would come even at short notice to perform the necessary rites. The church performs several functions in the community. Aside from being a house of worship, it is also something of a community centre. On major feast days, the church is overflowing with parishioners that fill its grounds.
Several iconic sights of Sabah in a single picture at St. Ireneus
Outside the church, a large crucifix stands overlooking the road. This is a clear landmark and another common feature of Sabahan churches that can be seen along the roads. St. Ireneus was affected by the 2015 earthquake in the area, and was deemed to be unsafe because its foundations were no longer stable. A gap of about 8 inches can be seen in some areas where the ground has shifted away from the foundation. Through divine providence, a Singaporean donated money to the community to build a new building behind the original property, and that is where worship is now held. The grounds of the church became our home for one memorable night, which included a gorgeous sunset featured in our pictures and footage, as well as an unusually starry night, which thrilled us city dwellers.
Away from the city and light pollution, the night sky provided plenty of material for quiet introspection
Our trip continued to have a connection with the Catholic community as the owner of Masada Backpackers is Mr. Peter Wong, who has been a warden in his parish of St. Simon’s in Likas for years. An Uber driver who picked me up caught me up on the happenings in the local diocese – which priest had the best sermons, which priest was ill and when the various feast days were. And it was at the farewell dinner of our trip that I learned of a story about the signboards that marked each Catholic church in a casual conversation with Puan Anne Lasimbang and the Augustins. As Puan Anne narrated to me, the signboards were the result of a pledge of thanksgiving from a man working in the signboard business. The man had been very ill, and asked God to heal him. When his prayers were answered, he vowed to make a signboard for every Catholic church in Sabah – no matter the size of the church or chapel, they would all have the same board made for free in thanks for a divine favour.
And that’s the story of how a little chapel nestled in the shadow of Mount Kinabalu and the Cathedral in its splendor in Kota Kinabalu have the exact same signboard and worth in the eyes of God and a grateful believer.
Chrish likes chilli pan mee, Coke, and long walks on a moonlit beach. In reality she can be found eating chilli pan mee with Coke, or toiling past midnight over another self-imposed 25,000 word deadline (stay out of school, kids. These days 2,000 words is barely enough for an introduction).