KOTA KINABALU – Father Brian Coogan is back this time round, to celebrate his 90th birthday at the encouragement of his old boys on Feb 6, 2014. Beloved of his students who have been tirelessly working to bring him back at any opportune moment, he has yet to disappoint them to their delight.
Sharp as ever his memory, though he begged to differ in his still workable Hakka “ Ngai how lau!” (I am really very old), he obliged Catholic Sabah regaling his days when he first arrived the shores of Borneo as a freshly ordained young priest of 23 years of age.
The Mill Hill Missionaries, thinking that they would make a better priest, sent him to the University of Cambridge for three years (M.A.) and another year in the London University to equip him to “teach” the English Language to the natives of Borneo.
Arriving in Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in 1951, he took up his teaching assignment besides his priestly duties, first at Sacred Heart Secondary School, then in Tawau and Sandakan, and back to Sacred Heart, all within a span of 7 years. However, when the La Salle Brothers came in 1958 to take over the running of the mission schools, he relinquished his teaching post in Kota Kinabalu and headed to Papar where he was to teach as well as made the principal of St Joseph’s School. After a two-year stint, he was due for some home-leave.
Finishing his home leave, he was caught by surprise when he was not given permission to return to Sabah. Nonetheless, out of obedience, he settled down to his new posting at St Peter’s College in Freshfield where his main task was to teach and train in the minor seminary young boys for the missionary priesthood, a post which he thankfully enjoyed. This he did for 12 years until the seminary closed down. Subsequently, his request to work as a parish priest was acceded to, something which he has been yearning for.
For the next 14 years he served the Portsmouth Diocese in the parish of Basingstoke as an assistant priest. His next posting lasted for 27 years, as a parish priest in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Refusing to consider full retirement at the age of 89, he is grateful to be given an assistant post in 2013, which he still holds today, helping a much younger priest at the South Wight Parish in Sandown, also in the Isle of Wight.
Looking back, he was grateful for the opportunity to have served Sabah. Through the simple and humble faith communities, whose living faith was born out of a suffering Church, his own faith grew in strength and in the knowledge of God.
Because the local Church suffered for lack of priests when over 50 Mill Hill priests were evicted from the State, the Church was left with no choice but to “do it themselves”. Thus faith grew, vocations and other devotions sprung up. In contrast, the Church in Europe remained “weak and flabby’ with no threat of persecution.
One of his most memorable faith experiences was his involvement in the Legion of Mary both in Kota Kinabalu and Papar. Through this Marian Devotion, he found a deeper spirituality for his priestly ministry, as well as a new way of “being church”. Other experiences which he holds dear in his memory were his priestly work, his celebration of the Eucharist for the Carmelites Sisters, his teaching experience and last but not least the children whose life he had touched.
As he turned his thoughts to the elderly parishioners, he has this to say, “Don’t be afraid to change the way you think about faith and about going to Mass just because you are too aged to change. Going to Mass is not about avoiding the bad news of hell. It’s all about the Good News that God loves you with unconditional love. Renew your thoughts and ways by being open to the new and fresh way of approaching the faith that the Church is showing, particularly by Pope Francis in recent days.”
He also encouraged the elderly to be at the forefront fulfilling the mission of a praying church, one that is most suitable because of the particular station of their life.
According to Gregory Chong, who is filled with admiration for his mentor, Fr Coogan at 90 is to be envied for having been able to travel to Sabah all the way from the UK and enjoying his trip the way he wanted it. He accorded it to Fr Coogan’s complete trust in God and his ability to allow nature to run its course.
With a touch of nostalgia, he has always remembered Fr Coogan to be a very friendly and approachable person, and one could spend much time with him without getting bored and in fact, could gain much in knowledge.