Diocese of Miri
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Church History

Church History

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A brief history

Sarawak has a population of almost 2.6 million, made up of some 26 different ethnic groups. The non-Muslim indigenous groups are collectively called Dayaks – most of whom are Christians or practise animist beliefs – and they account for about 40 per cent of Sarawak’s inhabitants. The two biggest ethnic groups within the Dayak community are the Iban (also known as Sea Dayaks), who constitute just over 31 per cent of the population, and the Bidayuh; others include the Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Murut, Punan, Bisayah, Kelabit, Berawan and Penan. Dayaks who live in the interior of Sarawak are sometimes referred to as Orang Ulu, or people from the interior. Members of this group typically live in longhouses and practise shifting cultivation; they engage in fishing to supplement their diet if they live near a river. Only a few hundred of the Eastern Penan continue to live as a nomadic people of the rainforest.

The Chinese, at around 30 per cent, make up the second largest ethnic group in Sarawak, though they themselves can be subdivided as including speakers of Hakka, Fu-chou (Hokchiu), Cantonese and Hokkien. Most live in urban areas and are Buddhists or Christians or practise Taoism.

The number of Malays has increased to about 25 per cent of Sarawak’s population. They are in fact a heterogeneous group of people since many are probably the descendants of indigenous peoples who started to convert to Islam from the fifteenth century and become Malay through their adoption of the Malay language. Like the Chinese, they constitute a large percentage of the coastal and urban population.

Sarawak was loosely under the control of the Sultan of Brunei until James Brooke became governor of Sarawak in 1841 and was then appointed Rajah by the Sultan in 1842. Members of the Brooke family were to rule Sarawak – and become known as the White Rajahs – until 1946. For much of that century, the Brookes governed with local Malays and Melanau, though they also used Dayaks as the backbone of their army and encouraged Chinese immigration into urban areas.

In 1807, Pope Pius VII erected the Prefecture of the East Indies, which Pope Gregory XVI made a Vicariate on Sept. 20, 1842. This territory embraced all of what is now Indonesia, including the part of Borneo today forming East Malaysia and Brunei.

In 1885, Pope Pius IX separated the Island of Labuan and North Borneo (which were British dependent territories) from the Vicariate, making it a Prefecture and entrusting it to be legendary Father Carlo Guarteron, a one-time pirate.

In 1878, the Mill Hill Society was invited by the Pope to take over Borneo Mission and, three years later, in 1881, the first Mill Hill priests arrived in Kuching.

The first catholic mission to the Baram area was in Marudi, a settlement on the Baram River, further inland from Miri. The Brooke administration had its headquarters there to keep an eye on the restive tribes of the Kenyahs, Kayans and Ibans.
With the discovery of oil on the coast by Shell, everything moved from Marudi to Miri. The Church and mission moved as well dated from this time, 1912.

The old Church was dedicated to St Joseph who was also the patron saint of the Mill Hill fathers. The Church, in keeping with all the neighbouring buildings architecture was made of timber, with bilian atap roof. It was built by the great pioneer missionary Fr Henry Janson and by all accounts a very austere and apostolic man. Even with the increasing demands of the invasion of oil workers from all over Sarawak, North Borneo  and Singapore into Miri, he still continued his care for Marudi and all the longhouses on the river. And this was in the days before the outboard engines. Father Henry Jansen, a Mill Hill missionary was the very first to set foot here. Fr Jansen was not new to Sarawak by the time he started serving in Miri in the 1930’s. He had apparently reached the shores of Sarawak in 1900.

It was not however of of those wonderful success stories. Fr Henry Janson met resistance from the "Bomohs" or priests who intimated the long houses into refusing him basic hospitality. 
He started the first catholic mission in Marudi, then Kampung Kuala Tutoh and then to Long Banyok before making his way upriver to Long San and Lio Mato in the upper reaches of Baram.  Fr Henry Janson met resistance from the "Bomohs" or priests who intimated the long houses into refusing him basic hospitality. The Kenyah Leader Tama Bulan Wan  explained to Jensen that the ancestor would be angry if they were not honored as they always had been and that would bring disaster to the community.

Fr Jansen  travelled up the tributaries of the Baram and went even by foot up the mountains to reach the furthest Kenyah, Kayan and Kelabit communities. They were propelled by their belief in God to spread the good news.

Jansen made the three weeks journey by longboat to Long San with one other priest, taking up residence there. Jansen was sick at the time. And having had the satisfaction of seeing the mission established, he died soon after (in 1948)
As is so common in foreign missionary history his success came not long after his death. He was buried behind the old church in Miri which he built.The area in which he laboured is today the Diocese of Miri.

Then in 1947, there was a sudden change of heart among the people in the upper Baram. They sent requests down river for a missionary to come and convert them to Adat Sebayang, as they called it - the Pray Way.
Temonggong Oyang Lawai Jau, grand nephew of Tama Bulan  wanted the  Upriver People to share the same religion.

“In Long San it was the Temenggong (chief) himself who called a meeting of all the families to suggest that they should become Christian. He had met many Australians after the Japanese occupation of Borneo and was greatly impressed by them.
As is so common in foreign missionary history his success came not long after his death. He was buried behind the old church in Miri which he built.The area in which he laboured is today the Diocese of Miri.



In the 1970s led by the late Bishop AD Galvin, the catholic mission in the Baram and Long San expanded rapidly with the further establishment of School buildings, a dispensary and accommodation for staff of priests, nuns and lay brothers. The mission was served by regular transportation carrying both freight and passengers.



Fr Janson with some of his students
July 1935

The old priest's house July1935


The School near the round-about
next to the Gymkhana Club Miri


The School at Angsana Road

Because of the shortage of classrooms
student had to use the "New Century Theater"



In 1927, the Prefecture Apostolic of Sarawak was established. Twenty-five years later, 1952 the Vicariate Apostolic of Kuching was erected by the Holy See and Msgr. J. Vos was ordained the first Catholic bishop in Sarawak.

After the end of Japanese occupation in 1945, the Rajah formally ceded sovereignty to the British Crown in 1946 and Sarawak became a British colony in 1946, though some members of the Brooke dynasty resisted its cession to Britain. Despite opposition by a significant proportion of its population, Sarawak became an autonomous state of the federation of Malaysia in 1963.


On Dec. 19, 1959, the Vicariate of Miri was established and, in the following year, Father Anthony D. Galvin was consecrated the first bishop of the Miri Vicariate. He was ordained by Pope John XXIII in Rome on May 5, 1960. On Jan. 2, 1966, Father Anthony Lee, Miri Vicariate's local priest, was ordained.
The old church was  demolished to make a new cathedral in 1972. On May 31, 1976, Pope Paul VI established a new Church province in East Malaysia and Miri Vicariate was raised to the level of a Diocese.

On Sept. 5 of the same year, Bishop Galvin died suddenly while on holiday in his native England.

On May 20, 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed Father Anthony Lee as the first bishop of the Diocese of Miri. He was ordained bishop in St. Joseph's Cathedral, Miri, on Nov. 20 and the Diocese of Miri was officially proclaimed on the same day.




Compiled by Ben Chang






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From the Bishop's Desk

That desiring to know what God has to say to you personally, is the most important thing in the world. There are many who go through their whole life without ever wishing to know this and so remain ignorant of the things of God, and who is God and what would He have them do, to their great detriment.
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