Just once overheard a visitor from overseas comment to a friend, a parishioner of St. Mary’s, “You are very lucky to have such a nice church to go to pray to God.” and indeed I thought to myself how aptly true the remark was. The Church of St. Mary of the Divine Mercy is somewhere between a chapel and a church in size, small enough for one to feel a sense of togetherness and belonging and big enough to experience the powerful presence of the Almighty God. I feel that a church should be a place where one can feel at peace with God and from where one can draw inspiration and strength.
More than just a nice church, with its recent facelift, St. Mary’s is a beautiful church indeed with its own unique style of modern architecture. Walking into the church, a visitor cannot help but be impressed particularly by its Italian-designed state-of-the-art stained glass windows of Our Lord Jesus Christ, OurBlessed Mother Mary, The Patroness of our church, St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Jude and depictions of the fourteen Stations of the Cross which were put at some cost under close supervision of the original Italian makers. It reminds one of all churches with tall stained windows that one may have seen or read about in books or have actually seen in some existing old churches athome or abroad. It gives one the impression of the “old church” feeling of sacredness or holiness – a happy combination of “old church” atmosphere in a modern church structure. St. Mary’s parishioners are proud of their church which, according to many, is actually a tourist attraction of sorts, at least among visiting catholics.
History Of The Parish
Situated approximately a kilometer and a half from Sibu Town along Jalan Awang Ramli Amit, St. Mary’s Church was built in 1967 to cater for the spiritual needs of Catholics, particularly those residing in the then Race Course Road, including the government quarters’ areas and Kampung Nangka.
Construction of St Mary’s Convent and St Mary’s Primary School
The construction of the church was preceded by the building of St. Mary’s Convent in 1956 at the request of the local sisters, the Sisters of St. Francis(at the time mainly Chinese), with the support and through the effort of the late Reverend Father Joseph Chin. When these sisters moved into the convent, the late Mother Ursula Wong was appointed to be in charge. These sisters helped in the running of St. Mary’s Primary School which was founded in 1954 with the late Sister Theophane in charge and under the supervision of the late Reverend Father De Vos. Sister Theophane, who later became Mother Theophane, was later succeeded by Sister Ignatia Soon. Together withtheir staff of dedicated teachers, they took the school to great heights in academic achievement from the late fifties through the eighties. Not only were they great educators academically, but they were firm disciplinarians as well as dedicated propagators of the faith.
St. Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church was built at the initiative and painstaking effort of the late Reverend ather Joseph Chin who, before he came to Sibu had served as the Rector of St. Anthony’s Parish in Sarikei. The good Lord above must have had his reason to allow events to change the course of his life. Reverend FatherChin was diagnosed to be suffering from cancer which necessitated his transfer to the Sacred Heart Parish in Sibu. It was here that he felt the need to start a new parish. A good idea in the hands of the right man is the most power tool ever discovered. He put his heart and soul into the vision and managed to solicit sufficient funds from friends, philanthropic businessmen and other generous donors for his dream to come to fruition. The initial step was the building of St. Mary’s Convent for the local Sisters of St. Francis. With more funds obtained the eventual construction of the Church in 1967 after several years of planning completed the picture. For an upright and religious missionary, it was a mission accomplished. In fact he went a mile furtherin raising funds for the establishment of a kindergarten for St. Mary’s Primary School. Thus was born the Wong TuongKuang Kindergarten in the following year. Reverend Father Chin died several months later.
The completion of the church was a blessing for residents living near by and those in KampungNangka as they previously had to take a long and exhausting walk or take a bus to town to attend mass at the oldSacred Heart Church, in front of Bukit Assek Road.
An old parishioner from KampungNangka recalls with retrospective fondness the taxing journey that a group of other church goers and she had to take to attend mass in town in the late fifties and early sixties. ” We had to wake up well before five o’clock, in the darkness of predawn to start our journey to church. My mother and I would call on several other families down the road and together we would walk along the three-kilometre rough gravel road of the Kampong and Race Course Road. If it had rained the night before, the way would often be muddy and slippery but, walking in a group, our spirit was undaunted. We would reach town at break of dawn to attend the mass at Sacred Heart Church atsix thirty in the morning.”
The building of the church put an end to this long walk as the church is situated a leisurely stroll away from Kampong Nangka. In a way, the church was built particularly with the Kampong Nangka residents in mind as the early residents who dwelled there in the fifties and early sixties were mostly pagans. The earliest Catholic families included the Kurum family, the Bandung family, the Barieng family and the Yut family. A senior parishioner recalls early missionary activities reaching out from Mukah and Dalat areas under Father July and Father Van Royan in the fifties and sixties and through one catechist by the name of Sapurah actingon advice from Mukah-Dalat. New converts in the Kampong then included the Koh, Bedui, Sandai and the Dris families. Most, though not all, of these families as well as their descendents have remained as ardent Catholics to this day.
The Church Through the Years
The first parish priest of St. Mary’s Church wasof course the founder priest himself, the late Reverend Father Joseph Chin. Father Joseph Chin originally hailed from China which he left at the age of fourteen to come to Sibu, Sarawak. He stayed down river at SungeiPinjal, near the present Lee HuaSawmill. He received his education at Sacred Heart School. Later, he was sent to Penang where he received his seminary training for a priestly vocation. Ordained in Sibu, he served in St. Anthony’s Parish, Sarikeibefore being transferred to Sacred Heart Parish for health reasons. A friendly, diligent, serious and determined priest, he was referred to as a “big builder”for his impressive effort in developing the Sarikei mission as well as St. Mary’s Parish in Sibu.
When Father Chin passed away in 1968, he was relieved by Reverend Father Vollenburg MHM from Sacred Heart Parish who served until November 1969 when the late Reverend Father William Wagenaar who had served in Bintangor, took over. He was to serve for almost twelve years, until 1981 when he died after a short illness.
Reverend Father William Wagenaar, from Holland, was a very straightforward priest who would speak his mind on any subject to anyone. His lingual skills included Foochow which he picked up in Bintangor and Melanau which he learnt from his Melanau parishioners in KampungNangka. A football lover, he would take a ride on his old but stout bicycle to the football pitch beside the jailhouse along the former Race Course Road to watch a game of football. Fondly called “Apai” by his parishioners, he was well-known for his visitationson his bicycle to members of his church, particularly the very poor ones and the lapsed catholics in KampungNangka. To the poor, he would donate cash and kind from his own personal funds. He was awarded the knighthood by the Queen of The Netherlands in 1972.
During this time, a shrine of Our Lady was built by Reverend Father Lam when Reverend Father Wagenaar was on home-leave for three months. This old shrine has since been demolished and the new shrine of Our Lady is now incorporated in the left wing of the church.
When Reverend Father Wagenaar passed away in 1981, Reverend Father James Muhren took over temporarily and was later appointed the parish priest for St. Mary’s in 1983. During his term the church underwent majorstructural changes. The first of these was the extension of the priest house and the construction of the Parish Hall Building which was built in memory of the late Reverend Father Wagenaar. The building now houses the Parish Hall, Parish office, guest room and the Parish Library. This was followed in stages by the extension and renovation of the church, extension of the Sacristy and renovation of the Priest House and the Parish hall. Mention must also be made of the construction of the gate of the church which was donated by Mr. Peter Ting, a senior parishioner, and designed by his son, Mr. Joseph Ting.
Reverend Father James Muhren is well known for his humour, frankness and vibrant personality. A well-read priest, gifted in public speaking, he gives refreshing homilies that are always well prepared, usually heart warming and inspirational but sometimes devastatingly frank with criticisms His concern for his parish is unquestionable with his frequent calls for greater participation in church activities and deeper Reverend Father Muhren fell ill in 1995 and wasdiagnosed to be suffering from stomach cancer which almost took his life. However, he responded well to his treatment, staged a remarkable recovery and was eventually cured. According to many parishioners, his cure from cancer was a miracle.
In 1996 on 14th October, Reverend Muhren celebrated his fortieth anniversary as a priest in a grand fashion which drew hundreds of guests from all over the state as well as from abroad, a testimony to his popularity. Indeed it may be added that he has an international following with the many catholic friends he keeps in contact with or who keep contact with him. In recognition of his service. Reverend Father James Muhren was recently awarded the knighthood by the royal highness Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands.
Aware of his parishioners’ need for petitions, he wasthe one to encourage devotion to the great Saint Jude, the Patron Saint of desperate cases. He built the shrine of St Jude which was a great source of consolation to many a helpless soul in need of special favours. Every third Wednesday of the month is set aside for devotional prayers to this saint during its evening mass at 7 p.m. Other devotional prayers were also introduced, namely. “The Chaplet of Mercy”, Prayer To St Michael”, “Prayer To St Gerald”, “Prayer To Our Priest”, and the list goes on.
If there is anything like a parish boundary, it exists in the mind. While initially the church was strategically located to serve the nearby kampong and housing area, with the construction of new roads and consequently better transport, today it serves parishioners from all over including not only JalanAwangRamliAmit, KampungNangka and JalanBarieng which form the majority, but further beyond – areas like Merryway, SungeiAntu, Jalan Lotus, JalanTuah, Jalan Lily, JalanBunga Raya, Rejang Park, Jalan Gambier, Taman Seduan, Seng Ling Garden, Layang-Layang Road, Bintang Lane and JalanTunAbang Haji Openg.