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Fr Joseph Bailham

Songket, wan tan mee and Hokkien. There’s a lot of Malaysia in Fr Joseph Bailham

AUG 26, 2021: It was one of the most liked posts in the Facebook group Malaysian Catholic Christians in the last month. There was so much excitement over the fact that a half-Malaysian priest was being ordained in London and he was wearing a chasuble made by Malaysian ecclesiastical tailor Johnson Heng. And the fact that the orphrey was made using songket fabric.

It was a photo of Fr Joseph Bailham OP’s ordination on July 4 and all eyes were on him and the rich burgundy songket bands with gold embroidery that ran down and over the chasuble. It probably made many of the Facebook users and commentators think that this newly-ordained is still very much a Malaysian. And he is.

“I like the red (in the orphrey). That’s the Chinese in me,” said the 32-year-old in a live stream interview recently from London where he is now serving in the Dominican Priory. Before the pandemic, the London-born priest would come to Malaysia in the summer to visit the family and friends of his Penang-born mother, especially his uncle Kenneth Chua, owner of Catholic articles shop G to G and parishioner of Petaling Jaya’s St Francis Xavier Church.

“I can probably understand about 70% of Hokkien. Penang Hokkien.” He would readily admit that his ability to speak Hokkien however is rather poor.

It was when his mother was studying in the UK that she met his father, of Irish stock, whose parents moved to and met in London in the 1950s from the Republic of Ireland.

And then came the topic of Malaysian food. Fr Joseph rattled off his favourites – wan tan mee (the dry kind), char siew and rice, roti canai – and it felt as though we just walked into a food court in PJ or Penang. He truly has a Malaysian palate. And like a typical Malaysian, he complained about the price of Malaysian food sold at a cafe near St Dominic’s Priory in London where he now lives.

He cooks well and learnt it all from his mother, according to Very Rev Fr Lawrence Lew OP, his superior and the Rector of the Rosary Shrine at the St Dominic’s Priory in London. “His mum’s a great cook. He can cook Hainanese chicken rice, rendang, currypuff,” Fr Lawrence said in a separate interview from London. Fr Lawrence was born in Kuala Lumpur and is now a UK citizen. (More about him in a soon-to-be published story.)

His uncle and St John Paul II’s death

Fr Joseph went to church with his family diligently but his heart was not there. “My father took me faithfully even when I would have much rather be elsewhere!” But when he was 16, all that changed. That was then two events influenced him greatly and set him on the religious path. One was the illness and eventual death of St John Paul II and the other was his Uncle Kenneth’s prodding.

In 2005 and Fr Joseph was 16. The news coverage on then Pope John Paul’s illness caught Fr Joseph’s interest. “I could see that he was in pain and struggling. He could not speak.” That triggered a lot of questions within him.  “Why is he even doing this? Why does he continue? Why not take the pill and end it all? This led me to read about him as a person. I wanted to know more about what made him continue. That made me want to discover the faith more and more.”

“My first genuine prayer – I consciously remember it. I had already put up a little cross on my room wall. I said a prayer for peace and healing for John Paul II, or that God might allow him to die peacefully. An hour later it was announced that he had died,roughly about the time I made my prayer. I burst into tears. It was someone I had never met but through the news coverage I developed some sort of bond or affection. It does something to you when you have an experience like that.”

It was either about that time or just before the death of St John Paul II that he had spent July and August with his uncle in PJ. His uncle had then had a spiritual experience that made him reassess his life and set new priorities. “He encouraged me to pray and that set me on this kind of path.”.

All this sparked a new and strange desire within him. “I hardly knew about the faith and yet I felt this desire to be a priest. It was quite an intense period, being called to be a priest without knowing what the call was.”

As the days passed, he was bringing in more and more religious items into his room. He now started serving as an altar boy at his parish. “There was me with all the seven-year-olds.” He was more than twice the age of all the other altar servers but that did not bother him. He wanted to be close to the altar.

There was an old woman who had for years on end approached him and his family every week just before mass to do the offertory but he refused each time. But after his new spiritual experience, he accepted her offer. “All the while I think God was using her to gently call me to serve the church.”

It was becoming more and more clear to him that he was heading in a certain direction. He decided to study theology at university. He did his undergraduate studies in theology at St Mary’s University in London and then went on to do his Masters in Theology at the University of Oxford.

Which order – Benedictine or Dominican?

During his undergraduate years, he worked at his home diocesan youth centre and was thinking of becoming a diocesan priest. In his first year, he took a retreat at a Benedictine monastery in the west of England for four days and three nights. “After the first night, I absolutely hated it. But began to settle into it.” One of the monks there spent some time talking with him and that helped open up the world of monasticism to him. “I was captivated by the living of a life punctuated daily by the Church’s liturgy.”

So for the rest of his undergraduate years, he mentally prepared himself for a life as a Benedictine monk. But there was something that did not feel right. The cloistered life is the heart of a monastic life but he wanted to serve people. “I thought I needed to sacrifice the desire to have an active pastoral life and I was ready to do this.”

A vocation fair in 2010 changed all that. He was about to complete his undergraduate studies and that was when he met Fr Lawrence in a group session where they were discussing various topics. “He said, ‘I like what you said’ and asked if I had thought of the Dominicans. I said, ‘I don’t like white.’ And he said, ‘You’ll get over that!’.” Dominican priests wear white habits while Benedictines typically wear black.

“I just wasn’t interested because I knew my heart was on the Benedictines. However I learnt that with the Dominicans I could find a common liturgical life that punctuated my day, but also the pastoral life which I had also been drawn to.” At this time, Fr Lawrence was the only Dominican he knew well.

About this time, while the internal Dominican-or-Benedictine debate was going on, his dissertation supervisor advised him to apply for further studies at Oxford University. “I was doubtful of my ability to study and I never thought that I would ever be in a position to study at Oxford. I was never particularly academically gifted.” But his results proved him wrong. He ended up being one of the top of his class year and he was accepted.   

In 2011, he began his Oxford degree at the Dominican-run Blackfriars Hall in Oxford and things could not get clearer. During Christmas that year, he decided he wanted to become a Dominican. “The Dominicans were able to present a systematic theology, notably through the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. So all those missing puzzle pieces were put together..”  

On Sept 8, 2013 as the world celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he moved to the novitiate house to begin life in the Dominican order. “The Gospel reading for that day at Mass was: ‘If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26)’. Sometimes it is blatantly obvious what He is saying.”

And songket it was

“When I was 14, I had a baju Melayu and songkok (the traditional Malay male outfit and hat).” Fr Joseph was at a stage where he was exploring his cultural identity. “Malaysia happened to be the thing for me and that made me distinctive as well. I went to Petaling Street (in Kuala Lumpur and on one of his trips back to Malaysia) and bought them with his aunt.

So when Fr Lawrence suggested he get a vestment with songket as part of the design, Fr Joseph agreed. That was when they contacted Johnson Heng. “I found his work good and I wanted to create something that would touch my roots.”

Fr Joseph at his sacerdotal ordination on July 4, 2021. Fr Lawrence Lew is behind him.

The last time he was in Malaysia was in 2019 and was supposed to come last year but the pandemic and the lockdown thwarted his plans.

“My dream is for the Dominicans one day to have a presence in Malaysia. There are few in the Dominican Order with connections with Malaysia.” He talked about the times he had attended mass in St Francis Xavier Church in Petaling Jaya and how he had talked about priesthood with then parish priest Rev Fr Simon Yong. “I would love to celebrate mass there one day (in SFX).”

He then talked about how he was there at the blessing of the G to G shop which his uncle runs. The shop is close to the church. He also talked about the wan tan mee stall that used to be near the shop.

You can’t help but feel Fr Joseph, the newly ordained priest in the centre of London, is very much bonded with Malaysia.