Borneo was properly recognised as a mission when the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide) set up the Prefecture Apostolic of Labuan and Borneo on 4 September 1855. The first Prefect Apostolic was Msgr Don Carlos Cuarteron, a member of the Third Order of the Trinitarians. Born on 19 March 1816 in Cardiz, Spain, he was a sea captain before being ordained a priest on 9 Apr 1854. His vision of mission was to announce the Gospel in Borneo and in the neighbouring islands, to build groups of redeemed slaves into self-supporting Christian communities and to make mission work and commerce go hand in hand. He tried to do this with the help of the Milan Foreign Missionaries (PIME). The mission did not bear much fruit as Cuarteron tried to cast his net too wide and too quickly. However, he did manage to redeem around 50 individuals from slavery. In December 1879 he returned to Rome and resigned as Prefect Apostolic. He went home to Cardiz and died there on 12 March 1880.
After Cuarteron, the Borneo Mission was allocated to the St Joseph’s Society of Foreign Missions or Mill Hill Missionaries on 19 March 1880. On 30 March 1881 Fr Thomas Jackson was appointed as the second Prefect Apostolic. Born in Preston in 1843, he was ordained a priest in 1879. He arrived in Kuching from Singapore on 24 Aug 1881. He reached Labuan on 29 July 1881 and joined his confreres Fr Edmund Dunn, Fr Aloysius Gossens and Fr Daniel Kilty. The early moves were again merely exploratory. There was little attempt to put down firm roots in any one place due to thin distribution of population and the long distances to make contact with people. However, he was the one who brought in the Franciscan Missionaries of St Joseph (White Sisters) on 5 July 1885 in Kuching and in Sandakan on 5 Nov 1892. He resigned on 20 October 1895, returned to England and died at Manchester on 1 April 1916.
Following Jackson’s resignation, Fr Haidegger was appointed administrator for almost two years before Fr Edmund Dunn was appointed third Prefect Apostolic on 4 May 1897. Born on 22 Nov 1857 in Dublin, Ireland, Dunn was ordained on 18 Dec 1880. One of Dunn’s credit was to implement a policy which gradually widened the influence of the mission throughout the state. With additional priests from Mill Hill, mission stations established during his tenure were in Labuan, Papar, Kinuta, Jesselton, Inobong, :Putatan, Penampang, Sandakan, Bundu Kuala Penyu, Kudat and Tawau. Schools were built and taught by the missionaries.
In the June 1921 Sixth Provincial Chapter, the missionaries resolved that Rome raised the prefecture to the status of a vicariate with a bishop in charge. The resolution was not followed through but on 7 Feb 1927 Rome divided the prefecture into the Prefecture of Kuching and the Prefecture of North Borneo. The division was done more on political ground than for pastoral concern. The Prefecture of North Borneo covered North Borneo, Labuan and Brunei. Dunn was appointed to head the Prefecture of Kuching on 5 Feb 1927. He died on 30 Dec 1933.
Born on 8 Dec 1878 in Blundez Tyrol, August Wachter was ordained on 6 Dec 1903. On 26 July 1927, he was appointed fourth Prefect Apostolic of North Borneo. During his tenure Wachter followed the policy of expansion in depth. More stations were set up. Though close to the Kadazandusuns with his headquarters in Penampang, he tried to reach out to the Chinese. A minor seminary was set up in Jesselton on 8 Dec 1930. Though it was opened in haste by Fr Valentine Weber, it was here that the first three future local priests, John Yong Li Chong, Thomas Sham Yu Kee and Joseph Hiu, and one future Carmelite priest, Henry Chin, had their initial formation. Chin went to the Carmelite novitiate in Trivandrum India in 1933 and was ordained priest there in 1943. Wachter sent the other three to the Regional Seminary at Aberdeen in Hong Kong for their formal theological studies: Yong in 1936, Sham in 1939 and Hiu in 1940. Yong was ordained priest in Hong Kong on 11 May 1946 while Sham and Hiu were ordained priests in Canton, China on 16 July 1946. Henceforth, the missionaries moved toward the establishment of a viable local diocesan clergy.
Wachter worked toward the establishment of religious institutes. He invited the Discalced Carmelites Nuns (OCD) from Madrid Spain who arrived on 17 December 1930. He founded the local Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception (FSIC) on 16 June 1936 with the help of the White Sisters. The first four novices made their first profession in 1941. Wachter became a victim of the Japanese regime. He and seven priests, one religious brother and three lay workers perished between July and August 1945 at Sapong, Tenom.
The first lay association was the Chinese Catholic Young Men Society (CCYMS) formed in 1928 by Catechist Thomas Lee with Fr Valentine Weber. This society founded the Kung Ming Primary School in 1938. It was renamed Shan Tao Primary School in 1963. The CCYMS was later replaced by the Catholic Youth Association (CYA) in 1959 formed by Fr Patrick Cahill.
After the Second World War in 1945, Fr Arnold Verheoven assumed charge of the prefecture until a new prefect was appointed. On 18 Jan 1947 Fr James Buis was appointed Prefect Apostolic. Born on 19 June 1903 in Holland, he was ordained priest on 17 July 1927. Under his guidance, the next 17 years underwent an extraordinary expansion of the mission’s commitments in North Borneo. First, he rebuilt all the pre-war mission stations. Then he set up new mission stations along the Jesselton-Tenom railway line, Jesselton-Ranau road, Tuaran-Kudat road, east coast and interior regions. Another focus was the commitment toward education. The Legion of Mary was established in Penampang by Fr Desmond McLindon in 1950 and it soon spread to other missions.
On 14 Feb 1952, the Prefecture of North Borneo was raised to the status of a vicariate. By the decree Docet Usus, the Vicariate of Jesselton was erected and Buis was appointed its first Vicar Apostolic. With this appointment he was ordained bishop on 1 May 1952 in Holland. During his term from 1952 to 1969, the number of clergy and schools reached an all time high. The vicariate had 27 parishes with resident priests, 38 primary schools and 19 secondary schools. Various ways were initiated to induce the laity to take a more active part in mission. Catholic Sabah started life as a weekly church bulletin under Fr Verhoeven in Penampang in Dec 1957 and in 1971 it became a statewide Catholic paper under the direction of Fr Florian Jud.
When the Immaculate Conception Seminary was reopened in the first half on the 1950s, many boys from all over the vicariate rushed into it. These postwar seminarians attended school at Sacred Heart and later La Salle. In the seminary attention was given to prayer, community life and character formation. After secondary education in Jesselton, the seminarians would proceed to the minor seminary in Singapore before going on to College General in Penang for philosophy and theology. Today, the seminary, completely rebuilt on the same site, blessed and opened on 28 May 1971, houses the Initiation Year students (since 2001) of St Peter’s College Kuching (where the seminarians go for philosophy and theology since 1980), while the “aspirants” receive formation (intensive English course, prayer and community living) at the Catholic Diocesan Centre in Penampang (since 1988).
In the 1950s Buis accepted a number of priests from China threatened by the rise of communism there to serve in the vicariate. Among them were Frs Joseph Wang, John Tsung (1918-1993), Tobias Chi (1924-2010), Aloysius Tung and Peter Ma . On 17 April 1955, Peter Ma was ordained priest at the Sacred Heart Church, the first priestly ordination in North Borneo.
The La Salle Brothers were invited to take over the mission schools in Jesselton, Tanjung Aru, Sandakan and later in Tambunan. They came in January 1958. Buis also invited the Daughters of St Paul to set up their media apostolate in the vicariate and they came in January 1961. On 14 Feb 1955 Buis granted full autonomy to the FSICs, telling the White Sisters that the local Sisters “have now come of age.”
In the 1960s, the first batch of post-war local priests were ordained. Among them were Frs Simon Fung (29 Dec1963), John Lee (27 Dec1964), Francis Tsen (9 Jan 1966), Augustine Amandus (13 Dec 1966), Michael Mewo (17 Dec 1966), Peter Chong and Felix Chung (14 Dec 1969).
PUSKAT, a catechist training centre, was set up in Keningau in Oct 1966 under Fr George Bauer. The first parish council was set up in Penampang in Jan 1967 under Fr Willibrord Smit and it soon spread to the other parishes. The Catholic Women’s League was first mooted by Fr J Vivian De Souza in Tanjung Aru in 1967 and formally established there on 26 June 1968.
Bishop Buis was successful in dealing with the British Colonial Administration but when Sabah4 joined the Federation of Malaysia on 16 Sept 1963, he was less than successful in his dealings with the Malaysian officials5, especially in immigration matters. The formation of Malaysia had forced the Church to seek an identity separate from the state. Buis opted to retire in 1969 and left the state in 1972. He died on 24 April 1980 in Holland.
Fr Peter Chung Hoan Ting of Miri was appointed coadjutor bishop to Buis in September 1970. Born on 10 Sept 1928 in China, Chung was ordained priest on 26 Sept 1954 in Sarawak. His episcopal ordination took place at Sacred Heart Church Jesselton on 15 Nov 1970. This was seen as the beginning of “localising” the Church. During his short tenure (1970-1975) the Church went through tremendous trials. Missionaries (including the Daughters of St Paul) were expelled and Catholics were harassed. The Church lost control and influence over the mission schools. It was as if all of a sudden the local people had to take over the responsibility of nurturing the orchard which had been laboriously cultivated by the missionaries. Though Chung is a Malaysian, the government refused to grant a residence permit to him.
To have a strong local Church, it must have good local vocations. Chung encouraged more priestly and religious vocations and greater lay participation in the liturgy as altar servers, sacristans, choir members and readers, Proper administrative procedures were introduced. In view of the prevailing circumstances, a federation of parish councils came into being with the formation of PAX on 12 April 1971. Chung became the first head of this federation and with it, he was able to handle the political-pastoral situation of the vicariate well. In 1975 Chung was transferred to the Vicariate of Kuching and became its first archbishop on 31 May 1976. He retired from active ministry in 2003, having reached the age limit.
Lay associations began to blossom in the 1970s and thereafter. The Catholic Nurses Guild was formed in 1972, the Association of Catechists (PEKA) in 1973, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) in April 1974, the Neo-Catechumenal Way Community on 7 Sept 1980, the 4th Kota Kinabalu Company Boys Brigade on 22 Feb 1982, the Secular Franciscan Order on 15 Dec 1983, the Association of Pauline Cooperators (APC) on 29 May 1992, the Catholic Teachers Ministry in 2000 and the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCDS) on 31 July 2004.