Early history of the Roman Catholic church in Sabah

7th century: Nestorian Missionaries attempt to reach Borneo, but only managed to land in Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. It should be noted that Nestorianism was a fifth-century Christian heresy that said “there were two distinct persons in the Incarnate Christ, one human and the other divine, as against the orthodox teaching that Christ was a divine person who assumed a human nature.” Nestorianism was condemned by the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, meaning it wasn’t orthodox Catholicism when the missionaries attempted to reach these shores.

1289: Pope Nicholas IV sends John of Monte Corvino to lead a group to the Far East. Of the group, only Blessed Odoric of Pordenone, a Franciscan friar, made it to Borneo, when he landed on the shores of near present-day Mukah in Sarawak in 1322. So it would seem that he was the first ever member of the Catholic religious to set foot on Borneo.

Odoric of Pordenone (1286 – 1331)

1608: Antonio Pereira, Portuguese Jesuit priest, reaches Borneo by accident, when, on his way to Manila, a sudden storm wrecked his ship along North Borneo’s coast, and he and his crew ended up in Tempasuk, Kota Belud. They were immediately seized by the Illanuns who enslaved them. 4 months later, upon learning of the incident, the Sultan of Brunei rescued them, and they were allowed to preach to the people in Brunei. A year later, Pereira made his way to Manila, but the ship he was in sank and he was drowned.

Another account says:

Pereira left Malaca in July, 1608, for Manila in a Portuguese vessel, but they were wrecked after twenty days’ voyage. The Portuguese and Father Pereira started for Borneo next morning in the small boat, leaving 130 slaves who were in the vessel to their fate. After four days the boat reached a desert island, with its occupants famished. Father Pereira, having a knowledge of the region, procured water from one of the hollow canes growing on the island. There they were captured by Moro or Malay pirates and sold by them to the Borneans. They were sent to Manila in a small boat by the sultan; but, in a storm, Father Pereira died.

February 1688: Fr Antonino Ventimiglia, of the Italian Theatine Religious Order, lands in Banjirmasin, Indonesia. A year later he had baptised around 1,800 Ngadjus. He died in 1691.

After that, many European missionaries came to Borneo together with Spanish and Portugese colonizers. They were not successful due to the following factors:
(i) frequent interruption in their work, eg being reassigned to work in other missions;
(ii) failure to communicate with the locals [but why so?]
(iii) political developments in their homeland [but why were they more successful in the Philippines or the Malayan Peninsula?]

4 September 1855: Borneo finally properly recognized as a mission when the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide) set up the Prefecture Apostolic of Labuan and Borneo. The first Prefect Apostolic: Monsignor Don Carlos Cuarteron, of the Third Order of the Trinitarians, Cardiz, Spain. His work was assisted by the Milan Foreign Missionaries (PIME). It wasn’t too successful because Cuarteron “cast his net too wide and too quickly.”

30 March 1881: Borneo Mission put under Mill Hill Missionaries.

5 July 1892: Franciscan Missionaries of St Joseph (White Sisters) established in Sandakan.

8 December 1930: A minor seminary set up in Jesselton.

1943: Henry Chin ordained Carmelite priest in India, the first Sabahan Catholic priest (?)

11 May 1946: John Yong Li Chong ordained priest in Hong Kong.


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