This reflection was written by Journey With Us – Asia (Vanitha Nadaraj) for Catholic Asian News, and published in its November issue. For the last one year, we have been a contributor, writing on our visits to different churches. The lockdowns have not made the visits possible and so the articles written since March were based on our earlier visits and other sources. For this article, the source is the commemorative booklet of St Joseph’s Church in Sentul published in 2018 and the parish website.
NOV 26, 2020
I attended an online funeral service but felt something was missing. It was on Day 41 of the Movement Control Order and by now I am more than used to online masses and prayers. The whole of Holy Week was a virtual experience and so was the Easter celebration. Yet, something did not seem right when I found myself sitting alone and crying in front of a laptop while watching a Facebook live streaming of the funeral service of a good friend’s mother.
It was odd not to be physically present to express love and care to the grieving. To hold their hand or hug them, even to mumble condolences while trying to swallow a sob. All these expressions are necessary to show love to those they left behind as we say goodbye to the dearly departed.
I guess it was something instilled in me by my late grandmother. She made it a point to attend just about every funeral. Weddings were never her priority and so there were weddings where she sent my aunt to represent the family. But funerals were a must. She had always felt comforting others at a time when they needed most to feel the human touch and love was far more important and that this was expected of the community.
When I was welcomed into the Catholic community, it was before a huge congregation. Not a private affair privy to only a selected few, but a grand occasion where a full church came on the most important celebration of the year, the Easter Vigil.
I was there at the altar with my godparents behind me in St Joseph’s Church in Kuala Lumpur in 1996. In the pews behind me, sitting in silence were the parishioners who had occupied every single inch of the pews with hardly any space left. Among them was my husband-to-be.
My godparents later told me that I was now entitled to a plot in the church cemetery. As morbid as that may sound, it brought so much comfort to me. I felt like I belonged and belonged I did to this huge family. I do not know all the members of this family but that does not matter because I belong to a community bound together by the Holy Spirit. This to me is probably the most important community to belong to. It’s a community that is on a spiritual journey which is not confined to things of the earth but a journey that takes us all into eternity.
We journey together. And my first step into the Catholic community started at that church in Sentul where I was baptised. One that has stood there for more than 100 years and has seen at least five generations of parishioners.
From a chapel to a church
The birth and early growth of the church had so much to do with the community surrounding it. It started as St Anne’s Chapel, a satellite church for the then St John’s Church, now Cathedral, to cater to the Tamil-speaking Catholics. St John’s congregation grew to the point where it was bursting at its seams and it was necessary for there to be more churches to cater to the growing community. Tamil-speaking Catholics were directed to St Anne’s Chapel built in 1906 and for the Chinese-speaking Catholics, Holy Rosary Church was built in Brickfields.
But St Anne’s Chapel did not remain as a satellite church. The chapel was set up at a time when Kuala Lumpur was turning from a small settlement to a vibrant business centre. It was a time when the rubber industry was in its golden era, when business people like Loke Yew were the movers and shakers of the economy, and when British trading companies and planters like Guthrie and Dunlop started moving their operations from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.
All this growth was spilling over to Sentul which was then made the location for the Central Railway Workshop where locomotives were repaired and maintained, and carriages were built for the Federation of Malay States Railways. With this came a new workforce to Sentul and they were the workshop workers whose living quarters were close to the chapel. They then formed a big part of the Catholic community and to reflect this change in the demographics of the chapel, it was in 1908 renamed St Joseph’s Chapel, dedicated to the patron saint of workers.
Four years later, the chapel was gutted by fire but the parish priest and his team decided to not just rebuild the chapel but to also add a presbytery and a mission Tamil school for the children of the railway workshop workers. Part of the funds for the repairs and construction came from the workers.
The workers continued to contribute towards the church building extension and repairs over the years. In 1930 when a new church building was needed, parishioners pledged their one-month’s salary to help bear the cost. Then again, in 2012 when bits of the roof tiles fell while the parish priest was celebrating mass, the parishioners came as one to pay for the cost of replacing the termite-attacked roof.
As the Catholic community grew, the chapel became a church and its parish priests were instrumental in helping to establish schools in surrounding areas. They helped to get parcels of land, permits and set up administrators for the schools. The contribution of this church in establishing schools in Sentul was monumental. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children were educated in these schools and these schools are still there.
The 1950s and 60s saw a mature church emerging. A vibrant group of young parishioners were running the Young Christian Workers group bringing much enthusiasm and growth to St Joseph’s Church and also at national level. The church was moving even more vigorously in its estate and other outreaches. St Joseph’s Church was by then the mother church for all the outposts in northern Selangor, and Pahang and Terengganu.
In 1952, when the pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima arrived from Portugal, the church was given the distinction of hosting the Sacred Statue exposition for Veneration. It was a grand affair in Sentul that day. The whole town came to watch the procession from Ipoh Road junction to St Joseph’s Church. In 1967, the first Bahasa Malaysia mass for the KL Archdiocese was celebrated in St Joseph’s Church. In 1968, the St Joseph’s Mass Media Centre was started and this was the precursor to the Cahayasuara Communications Centre, the social communications department under the KL Archdiocese.
Out of St Joseph’s Church the mother church came Jesus Caritas Church in Kepong, Christ the Light Church in Desa Jaya and Christ the King Chapel in Selayang. From one milestone after another, the little satellite church in the backwaters of Kuala Lumpur is now a beautiful swan in the KL Archdiocese.
The commitment of the parishioners under the guidance of priests who were inspired by the Holy Spirit made it all possible. One of the priests is Monsignor Anthony Thomas, the Kuantan boy who joined the priesthood in 1965 and later served the St Joseph’s Church for a total of 22 years. The man who built the community hall in that parish and also the ones in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Kuala Lumpur and the Visitation Church in Seremban.
Our marriage was solemnised by the late Msgr Anthony Thomas at that hall he built in the Visitation Church. The church was being renovated then. He was a no-nonsense person with a gentle soul. Very cut-and-dry in his approach with us whenever we consulted him on a number of matters before the wedding. He was very accommodating and supportive so we gave him a gift to thank him for all his efforts – Lat comic books. When he removed the wrapping paper and saw the comics, he gave one of his rare smiles.
In 1991, he successfully organised the Eucharistic Congress, which drew 20,000 believers to the event at Monfort Boys Town in Shah Alam. Months before the event, he was involved in a road accident that caused a blood clot in his brain. The surgery was risky but successful and while recuperating he continued his work by putting together a choir made up of people from different parishes to animate the congress.
One of his passions was music. He produced the Tamil hymnal as well as the Lenten and Advent reflections, and Book for the Sick and Departed. He wrote the lyrics and composed the music for the Bahasa Malaysia version of: The Lord’s Prayer; Lord Have Mercy; and Holy, Holy, Lamb of God. He also produced the Psalters which is a musical composition of of Responsorial Psalms and chants in English and Tamil and later had it translated to Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin.
(One of our earliest stories was on someone who is a well known figure in the parish and a familiar voice to others – Neubert Ambrose.)
The community is the church
The story of St Joseph’s Church is just one of the millions of stories of churches around the world where God uses the community to build a church. It is never the other way round – the Catholic Church is not in the habit of building a church and waiting for it to be filled up. It always responds to the needs of the community.
And because of this, a church will always be more than an online presence. It will always be more than a website, a Facebook page or a YouTube channel although this community has now learnt to pray, attend masses and gather for BEC remotely via technology.
The human connection will always be an integral part. We are made up of people who look each other in the eye and greet one another, who come together in groups to minister to the needy, who organise biking trips with the parish priest, who kick off their heels and play football during Family Days, and who come together to worship as the Body of Christ under one roof called Church.