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The Story of the Mill Hill Missionaries and their coming to Borneo II

By 1870, the first Mill Hill men were ordained, but Father Herbert Vaughan had still not been given a mission territory by Rome, although he had asked again and again. Rome mentioned the mission of Labuan and North Borneo to him, because the then Prefect Apostolic, Msgr Cuarteron, was in bad health and had little or no support.

At first, Herbert Vaughan was enthusiastic, but as he began to hear stories of how Borneo was covered in thick fever-ridden jungle and inhabited by head-hunters, he became more cautious and, then, Rome let the matter drop. Father Vaughan then asked for a mission in Japan, for he had a burning desire for his men to work there, but after pushing this with Rome, he was told that the French Missionaries working there – “would not cede an inch of land to an English Missionary Society.”

While this was taking place, things were happening in the United States, which would profoundly affect those first missionaries. The American Civil War ended in 1856 and this brought about the end of slavery and millions of African-Americans were freed – but freed into an atmosphere of great bitterness and racial prejudice, which left them spiritually uncared for. Archbishop Spalding of Baltimore had tried again and again to encourage the American bishops to take up the challenge of caring for these wounded and traumatised people, but while they produced fine statements concerning the spiritual care of the newly freed slaves, these remained at the level of fine words and nothing was done.

Archbishop Spalding then turned to Rome and begged them to send priests from Europe to answer this need, and in answer to this plea, Rome turned to the young Missionary Society of St Joseph and entrusted them with the “Negro Mission” in the United States and Pope Pius IX asked those sent to make a solemn promise, that they would dedicate themselves to the service of the Black Americans and undertake no other work, which would divert them from this.

So it was that, in 1871, Father Vaughan set out from St Joseph’s College, Mill Hill to take up their first Mission to the African-Americans in the United States, where, they came to be known as “The Josephites.”

A few years later, Mill Hill was asked to send priests to Madras, the Telegu Mission, and then to provide chaplains for the British Army, who were fighting in Indian/Afghanistan and as this happened, it became obvious that the “Negro Mission” in the United States  would be best served by a separate Missionary Society and so they broke away from Mill Hill and became the Society still known as “The Josephites.”

The story of the coming of Mill Hill to Borneo came to life again, through a letter written by a mother concerned about her son – and shows how the Holy Spirit draws people together in the service of the Gospel. At the end of 1876, Mrs E Rodway, a Catholic, wrote a letter to an English Benedictine priest, complaining that her son, Captain WH Rodway, an officer in the Sarawak service, was unable to fulfil his religious duties as there were no Catholic priests in Sarawak.

The Benedictine forwarded the letter to Herbert Vaughan, who by that time was the Bishop of Salford, in England, but still the Superior General of Mill Hill. As a consequence of this letter, Bishop Vaughan then asked Rome to consider again the matter of the Prefecture of Labuan and North Borneo. In 1878, Rome decided to entrust the Borneo Mission to the Mill Hill Missionaries and sent a letter to Msgr Cuarteron to come to Rome and when he finally arrived at the end of 1879, he offered his resignation due to age and ill health and returned to his native Spain, where he died the following year. A new chapter in the history of the Church in what is now East Malaysia was about to begin.

On learning that Mill Hill had been entrusted with the Borneo Mission, Bishop Vaughan travelled to St Joseph’s College, Mill Hill and after evening prayer with the students, he stood up and asked, “Who wants to go to Borneo?”

dunnTwo close friends, Edmund Dunn and Aloysius Goossens, who were not yet ordained, immediately put up their hands and three years later, they were among the first four priests appointed to Borneo. Fifty years later, in 1931, while reminiscing about that daring act, Fr Aloysius Goossens wrote, “and we two are still here in Borneo!”

They were joined by newly ordained Fr Daniel Kilty and these three were accompanied by Bishop Vaughan first to Rome, where Pope Pius IX blessed them and dedicated the Borneo Mission to St Francis Xavier and Michael the Archangel. They then went to the boat, which would take them first to Singapore and then on to Borneo, where Bishop Vaughan blessed them and wished them “God speed.”

goossensIt is difficult, nowadays, for us to appreciate the bravery of these young men. The world in those days was a much larger place than it is today – and a much more mysterious place. They knew almost nothing of the land they were going to, nor did they seem to know much about the inhabitants.

There is a lovely story that someone whispered to them that the inhabitants of Borneo had tails and as they neared the coast of Borneo, Fr Goossens asked the captain of the ship whether this was true. “Sure,” replied the captain, “Take a look” and handed him a telescope. He took it and scanned the coast where he saw some of the natives – and they were wearing chawats made of bark cloth and so stuck out at the back like tails. Fr Goossens handed the telescope back to the captain aghast that what the captain had told him was true! – Fr Terry Burke mhm

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