09/04/2007, 00.00
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Mission in Northern Borneo celebrates 150 years

by Mauro Mezzadonna*
A century and a half ago the first apostolic prefect and two PIME missionaries landed in Labuan. A conference, pilgrimage and exhibit organised by the diocese of Kota Kinabalu recall the historic event which set in motion the process of evangelisation of eastern Malaysia.

Labuan (AsiaNews) – After a long and tiring journey that lasted a year and half, the first three missionaries sent by Rome landed on the island of Labuan exactly 150 years ago. From there Roman Catholicism spread across eastern Malaysia. Leading this small group was the first apostolic prefect of Labuan and Borneo, Mgr Carlos Cuarterón. He was accompanied by two priests from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Mission (PIME). On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the start of the mission, the diocese of Kota Kinabalu, which includes Labuan, organised a ‘pilgrimage’ to the most significant places where the first churchmen worked. The initiative took place last August 11 in Victoria (35.000 residents), capital of the Federal Territory of Labuan Island (90 km2, 76,000 residents, including 5,000 Catholics), Malaysia.

Mgr Carlos Cuarterón (1816-1880), a former captain in the Royal Spanish Navy, took his vows in Rome when he was 38 in 1854, and was appointed apostolic prefect to Labuan, northern Borneo and dependencies, a year later. His companions were two PIME priests: Fr Antonio Riva (1823-1862) and Fr Ignazio Borgazzi (1829-1878).

August 11 was a day rich in activities and saw the participations of many representatives of the local Church and PIME. In addition to the diocesan bishop, Mgr Datuk John Lee, other Borneo bishops took part in the celebrations. Similarly, PIME was expressly invited and represented by Fr Mark Tardiff, aide to the superior general, and Fr Mauro Mezzadonna, PIME archivist.

The pilgrimage across the city began at Labuan’s parish church, which is dedicated to the Most Holy Sacrament. Bishops, priests, lay people and various guests were taken to various sites: where the first missionaries were thought to have landed, where they built their first home, their chapel, walled church, school. Since then many things have changed. The home of the apostolic prefect is no more; in its stead stands the Grand Hotel Victoria; similarly, in the spot where the church once stood now there is a huge tree with a small altar dedicated to Buddha.

An exhibit devoted the 150th anniversary was inaugurated back in the church’s parish hall. It shows all sorts of things about that time: events, people, the last contacts between Monsignor Cuarterón and his family in Cádiz (Spain).

Following a thanksgiving mass co-celebrated by all the bishops and all the priests, a bust in marble of Cuarterón was unveiled in the square in front of the church.

During their stay, Fathers Tardiff and Mezzadonna also visited Lokporin, not far from Kota Kinabalu, where Monsignor Cuarterón had a second mission which he ran personally (in Labuan Father Ignazio Borgazzi was in charge), and then in Brunei, where Fr Antonio Riva had set up a mission in  Brambangan. Here the small seeds planted in 1857 eventually blossomed under the English missionary of Mill Hill.

Today the diocese of Borneo, the states of Sarawak and Sabah (Malaysia), and Brunei can boast 600,000 Catholics. In August the Pope created a seventh diocese, that of Sandakan, on the western coast, looking out towards the Philippines.

*PIME archivist. In the past few years he has researched in the Rome archives (PIME, Prop. Fide, Lateran) for letters and other documents which were invaluable to Prof Michael Gibby of Singapore in writing the history of the period titled Crowned with the Stars.

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