St Anthony’s Church in Bintulu is hard to miss; it has a 7-meter tall statue of Christ the Universal King in front.
The church is also hard to miss due to the heavy traffic which regularly happens along its roadways every Sunday as well as during the week because of the school located right next to it.
Catholics make up on one of Bintulu’s three large Christian communities besides Anglicans and Methodists.
However, the Catholics were the only one who built mission schools in Bintulu, providing childhood and primary education since 60 years ago.
Rev Edmund Dunn, the first priest to visit Bintulu
The first group of Catholic missionaryies to arrive in Sarawak were priests from St Joseph’s Society for Foreign Missions. The missionary college was located at Mill Hill near London. Thus, the priests who were trained there are known as ‘Mill Hill’.
During that time, the second White Rajah of Sarawak Charles Brooke thought that religion would be able to tame the “savageness” of local people.
Since the Anglican church had arrived earlier in Sarawak and established itself, particularly in the western region, Brooke assigned the Catholic missionaries to areas where the Anglicans had not been. This was to prevent clashes between these two missionaries.
The first group of Mill Hill priests who arrived in Sarawak on July 10, 1881 were Rev Edmund Dunn, Rev Daniel Kilty, Rev Aloysius Goosens and Rev Thomas Jackson.
According to an article by Jacinta Chan in Solemn Dedication of St Anthony’s Church Souvenir Magazine, Rev Dun was the first ever Catholic priest who visited Bintulu.
Dunn was the Apostolic Prefect of Labuan and Northern Borneo (comprising current day Labuan island, Sabah and Sarawak).
He arrived in Bintulu some time in 1920. Then, Rev Henry Jansen, the rector of Miri and Baram, visited Bintulu every now and then.
The first resident priest in Bintulu
Finally in 1954, Rev John van de Laar was appointed the first resident priest of St Anthony’s Church.
However, he had no proper place to live so he stayed in one of the empty government quarters along Abang Galau road.
He started to look for suitable piece of land to build a church. The sites considered included the mouth of Kemena River and the current site of Ming Ong Methodist Church at Jalan Sultan Iskandar.
Finally, the current site located right next to the old airport was chosen.
After Rev Van de Laar left Bintulu, Rev Peter Aichner arrived from Sibu on Feb 3, 1955 to take over his place.
His first Sunday mass in Bintulu was only attended by three people; two locals Mr and Mrs Richard Heng Ah Bah and Harry Buxton, a British Forestry Department officer.
Buxton reportedly was held as a Prisoner of War (POW) during the Japanese Occupation. Meanwhile, Heng was a staff of Bintulu District Council.
The construction for a proper church only started two years later on October 1957. Additionally, the plan was not only to build a church but a priest house, a school and a boarding house.
The school was first to be completed and was opened on Jan 17, 1958 as St Anthony’s Primary School (now SK St Anthony).
It became one of the three primary schools in Bintulu apart from Chung Hua Primary School and Orang Kaya Mohammad Primary School in those days.
Meanwhile, the priest house and the church were finished the following month. The church was blessed on Feb 23, 1958.
It was during the care of Rev Aichner that the number of Catholics in Bintulu gradually increased.
Construction on the new St. Anthony’s Church building
After Rev Aichner, the role of resident priest in Bintulu went to Rev Herman Plattner on Feb 16, 1959.
He stayed here for 10 years focusing the Catholic mission on education. Some of the priests who came to assist Rev Plattner also served as the principals of Bintulu Public Secondary School.
However, Rev Plattner’s biggest contribution is the building of the old St Anthony Church.
It was blessed by the first Bishop of Miri, Bishop Anthony Galvin in October 1968.
By 1986, this old building was too packed for Sunday mass. So, plans were made and money was raised.
The new church building was completed by the end of 1992 at the cost of RM1.7mil.
Meanwhile, the old church building was turned into a hall for prayer meetings and gatherings.
The church continued to accommodate the growing population of Catholics in Bintulu until another church was built in Tanjung Kidurong in 2010.
The 60th anniversary of the Catholic Mission in Bintulu
On Aug 15, 2014, the parishioners of St Anthony’s Church came together to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Catholic mission in Bintulu.
The celebration marked 60 years after Rev van der Laar came to Bintulu as the first resident priest. There was also blessing of the 7-meter tall statue of Christ the Universal King.
Looking at how big the Catholic church and its community are in this town today, nobody could imagine that the first priest appointed here more than 60 years did not even have a place to rest his head.