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Brother Ben marks 60 years as Mill Hill Missionary

BUNDU TUHAN – It has been sixty years since Brother Benedict Martin Snoeren mhm, fondly known as Bro Ben,  made his final profession as a lay brother of the Mill Hill Missionary Society.

In gratitude of his missionary work, the community of St Pius X Parish, Bundu Tuhan, where he has been serving for the last 57 years, celebrated his diamond jubilee with a Eucharistic celebration, followed by dinner at the Kinabalu National Park on the feast of the Solemnity of St Joseph Mar 19. It was a most significant day indeed as St Joseph is also the patron saint of the Mill Hill Missionaries.

Born in Tilburg, Holland, on 8 October 1929, Martien (Martin) Snoeren joined the Mill Hill Missionaries in 1951.  He took the name Benedict or Ben when he made his commitment as a lay brother in 1952 and his final commitment in 1954.

In his homily, Archbishop John Wong compared Bro Ben’s work in contributing to the building up of the Christian Community of Sabah with that of St Joseph, who was tasked to bring up the child Jesus. Just as St Joseph worked hard to look after the Holy Family of Nazareth, likewise Bro Ben worked hard to make sure the Christian community flourished. He thanked Bro Ben for the many years of hard work and service, especially in building up the community of Bundu Tuhan as well as looking after the boarders at the Don Bosco Children’s home.

In a touching ceremony after the homily, Bro Ben, who was joined by five Mill Hill priests, renewed their vows to continue to serve God’s people as Mill Hill Missionaries. This was done in the presence of Fr Terry Burke, who is Mill Hill Regional Representative, Malaysia. Bro Ben stood out, as he is the only Mill Hill brother left in East Malaysia.

At the dinner after Mass, Bro Ben shared his missionary experience in Bundu Tuhan and how he had helped in the development of the kampung people especially through agriculture work.

Arriving in North Borneo in 1956 with another Brother to join Fr William Roetenberg to open a new venture in Bundu Tuhan, he recalled the many experiences of the friendliness and love of the local and how he could not help but react to.

To the many who were curious about him being sent to remote Borneo, he saw it first as an adventure being young, energetic and enthusiastic about tackling everything.  In particular he relished the remembrance of the first day of his arrival on 4 April 1956 when he went to look for food with the late catechist Philip Jumin.  To do that you would need to reach the roadside hut at Mile 21 to buy food supplies.  It took days before they could get to enjoy savoring the bread, canned meat, coffee, tea, etc.  He also recalled that they even had a refrigerator that run on kerosene but which took weeks before they could have people to carry it up to where they were.  Everything was but a feat!

It all began in 1955 when Msgr James Buis wanted to open a new mission station in Bundu Tuhan.  After the initial refusal by the British Colonial Government for Europeans to settle in the interior of Borneo, Msgr Buis told them that he wanted to open an agricultural station in Bundu Tuhan.  The Mill Hill Missionaries were then asked to send two Brothers who had expertise in tobacco growing, as the first option was tobacco growing, the only cash crop that could provide the people with a better income.

It was soon abandoned in favour of the vegetable seeds they brought in from Holland, which grew well in the climate and soon were able to produce the many varieties of vegetables similar to those in Holland.

By 1960 they were joined by Bro John Hoekstra, who was a vegetable farmer by profession, which was an added advantage to the vegetable project.  The project took off in 1962 under the name of Kinabalu Project Development.

1962 also was the year the multipurpose hall was built.  It catered for many activities but the main purpose was as Church on Sundays.

Early 1964 Brother went on home leave for the first time.

Soon the Church community grew from the less than ten who attended Mass to a hall filled with more than 80 people every Sunday.  The good response towards the vegetable project brought about a surge in growers, who built proper homes in the community, thus contributing significantly to the growing Church.  By then the project was fully functioning and running two 4-ton lorries transporting vegetable to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan.

Brother relived the year 1972 when many Europeans priests were evicted from the country.  It was a difficult time for many.

Time went on and Bishop Simon Fung, in response to the need of the people, built a new house and a retreat centre in 1984, and a permanent Church which took 4 years (1986-1990) to complete.

Soon after this the growing number of children and the need for proper housing drew attention to the necessity of setting up a children’s home, which eventually led to the establishment of the Don Bosco Children’s Home.  Financial support came from as far as Holland, the Rotary Club of Kinabalu, ex-La Salle students and many other individuals, and who are still supporting to the present day.

Brother concluded by saying that the time has come for him to call it a day and to hand over to younger and more energetic people.  But Bundu Tuhan would always be home for him, where God has blessed him for 57 years, and where he has been happy, looked after, supported and loved.

Amongst the guests of honour to celebrate with Bro Ben were Bishops Cornelius Piong and Julius Gitom, the priests of the Archdiocese who had gathered at Bundu Tuhan for the priest meeting, as well as various religious congregations in and outside Sabah. – Sem Joshua Liew/CS

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