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Rev Aloysius Hopfgartner, founder of Sacred Heart School Sibu

Sacred Heart School Sibu is perhaps one of the oldest schools in the state.

It was founded in 1902 by Reverend Aloysius Hopfgartner.

Who was Rev Hopfgartner and how much time did he spend here in Sarawak?

Rev Aloysius Hopfgartner in an undated photo.

Here are 10 things you should know about Rev Aloysius Hopfgartner in remembrance of the founder of Sacred Heart School, Sibu:

1.Rev Aloysius Hopfgartner’s missionary life in Borneo

Born in Muhlwald, Taufers, in the South Tyrol, Italy on Jan, 1874, he was ordained as a priest at the Saint Joseph’s Missionary Society for Foreign Mission or better known as the Mill Hill Missionaries in 1901.

He came to Sarawak in August of the same year and was posted to Sarikei immediately.

A year later, he was posted to Sibu where he founded the Sacred Heart School.

For the next few years, he worked closely with the Ibans in Sibu division.

In 1911, Hopfgartner was transferred to Sandakan until his return to Kuching in 1916. Since then, he remained most of the time in Kuching. He was also the principal of St. Joseph School from 1931 till 1934.

In November 1935, Hopfgartner succeeded Monsignor Edmondo Dunn as the Apostolic Prefects of Sarawak following Dunn’s death.

2.The history of Sacred Heart School, Sibu

According to the school’s website, Hopfgartner built a small ‘atap’ shed as an English school on the present Government Concrete Wharf located.

Three years later, the school moved to Lanang Road. Instead of an attap hut, the building consisted of two storeys.

The ground floor worked as the class while the first floor served as a dormitory for the boarders.

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During the early days of the school, there were no school uniforms. Most of the students reportedly wore clogs to school back then.

The teachers taught the students English comprising Grammar, Composition and Dictation along with arithmetic, Malay and Religious Knowledge. Meanwhile, students who wanted to learn Chinese needed to attend extra afternoon classes.

The school session lasted from morning to evening. The morning classes started from 8am till 11am while the afternoon classes were from 1.30pm to 4pm.

As for recreational activities, the students only had the luxury to play football. They also needed to go through a session of manual labour where they collected firewood and cut grass.

By 1907, the school was relocated to Mission Road. Built over marshy land alongside the Rajang river, the water usually seeped through the school’s floorboards during floods or high tides.

3.He was the first known European to be fluent in Hakka in Sarawak

During his service in Sarawak, Hopfgartner learned how to speak the local languages including Hakka.

Reportedly, he was so fluent in Hakka, a Chinese dialect that he could give his homilies in that language.

4.Rev Aloysius Hopfgartner helped in the foundation of Sisters of St Francis of Sarawak.

Dunne was inspired to start a localised women’s religious order in the Catholic Church of Sarawak.

He wanted them to follow the rule of the Third Order of St Francis of Assisi. Dunne then asked Hopfgartner to compose a book of rules for the nuns.

He first studied the statutes of St Ann’s native nuns of Madras Archdiocese which also belonged to the Third Order of St Francis. He made the rules as closely as possible to theirs but with minor modifications.

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Finally on July 26, 1928, Dunne formally issued the decree of establishment of what is now known as the Little Sisters of St Francis of Sarawak.

The nuns are vowed to live in simplicity and humility after the example of St Francis of Assisi. They work mostly serving the poor and the youths.

5.Rev Aloysius Hopfgartner set the stone of the St. Peter Padungan church, Kuching.

In 1937, Hopfgartner bought seven acres of swampland at the Padungan area. He also rented a house near it to start a school and a new parish.

Then in 1940, a new school and a convent were built next to new parish. During World War II, the Japanese took over the school and convent to be used as a centre for war casualties and internment of European civilians.

Hopfgartner planned and started to build the church in 1949. St. Peter Padungan church was finally completed on Dec 18, 1949.

However, Hopfgartner was not alive to see its completion.

6.Life during Japanese Occupation

During the Japanese occupation, he was confined with one other priest to his own house.

They were always under the watchful eyes of the Japanese, at any moment likely to be singled out for their particular attention.

While Hopfgartner survived the ordeal under Japanese rule, his health declined tremendously after the war.

7.He was one of the last recipients of Order of the Star of Sarawak

The third White Rajah Vyner Brooke established The Most Excellent Order of the Star of Sarawak on Sept 26, 1928.

It is the highest order of chivalry within the Kingdom of Sarawak.

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The motto of the order was “Haraplah Sa-lagi Bernafas”, which was also the kingdom’s motto. It is the translation of the Latin phrase Dum Spiro Spero which literally means “As long as I breathe, I hope.”

The award was to recognise exceptional service by the Sarawak subjects and foreigners alike to the state of Sarawak.

It was last rewarded in 1946 making Hopfgartner, who received it on June 20, 1946, among the last recipients of the award.

8. Rev Aloysius Hopfgartner collapsed at the current site of St Peter Church Padungan and never woke up again.

According to the unnamed writer of his obituary, he met the priest in February 1949 and commented on his ‘frail appearance’.

Known as Hoppy to those who were close to him, the writer wrote, “Hoppy’s only comment was that he was weakening and the end was approaching. He had no regrets or fears, and he accepted the inevitable in that true priestly spirit in which he lived his life.”

Toward the end of April that year, he made his routine trip to Bau, walking for miles on foot during his visit.

He then returned to Kuching feeling ill. Yet, Fr Hopfgartner went out again to inspect the church building in Padungan.

Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke during his visit and reportedly remained in semi-consciousness for the next 19 days.

Fr Hopfgartner passed away peacefully on May 15, 1949. He was 75.

In Sacred Heart School, there is a clock tower and bronze plaque erected in Hopfgartner’s memory.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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