We come together this morning to honour the late Br Columba Gleeson who, from 1970 till early 1988, was Principal of this School. During those years he stood on this famous stage in this great Hall, to inspire, motivate and educate a whole generation of young men and women from diverse family, religious, cultural and racial background. To the many, from all walks of life, who were privileged to be taught by him, during the 22 years, from late 1965 to January 1988, he served in this School, he was their teacher, mentor and trusted friend. To his colleagues on the teaching staff of this School, he was exemplary in his devotion to his vocation. He epitomised the noble virtues in the founder of his Order, St John the Baptist De La Salle.
He had deeply touched the lives for many Josephians and by extension, also their families, and to borrow some words from Winston Churchill, we can marvel as to how “so many could owe so much” to just one special person. He was truly a wonderful gift from the Almighty to us in Sarawak. Well-known for his humility and integrity, he once wrote that he was an “apostle of the ordinary” and he transmitted this humility to all who came under his care. He often gave them this gentle reminder:
“A simple greeting, an act of kindness, a word of thanks, a sign of forgiveness – all can touch hearts. A smile costs nothing and crosses all language barriers, but may bring a spark of joy and hope to a broken and lonely life” (“The Face of God”. Living Our Faith. p. 88).
He transformed this School, in his time, to be a great educational institution. I can say he was, what he himself described, as “the gardener tending to his plants, giving space and time to grow into their own particular shape and beauty” (“Education”. Living Our Faith. pp. 63-64). Based on this enlightened approach or philosophy to teaching, he allowed his pupils the space and time, to grow into men and women with excellent personal attributes and strong moral fibres, to becoming fine humans mindful always of their duties to God, Country, society, family and themselves.
His remarkable service to this School, to the pupils under his charge and to the Christian community in this Archdiocese, and particularly, to this State of Sarawak, will long be remembered with deep appreciation, and indeed, will never be forgotten. He personified what is in Psalm 111:10 as:
“The good man takes pity and lends,
he conducts his affairs with honour.
The just man will never waver:
He will be remembered for ever.”
Therefore, it is in this context, that today, we commemorate his life – acknowledging, with utmost and sincere gratitude, all his sacrifices, his accomplishments, the kindness and the care that he rendered so willingly and unselfishly to all who needed his attention and assistance.
He was only 13 years old when he left his parents, James Gleeson and Annie Corbett and his other brothers and sisters, to begin his journey towards becoming a religious Brother devoting his life to the education of the youths. On becoming a Brother and after completing his teacher training in Manchester, he set sail, at a young age of 20, to a country which his parents and many in his native Ireland, had possibly never heard about. When leaving the Irish shores, in the days when the mode of travelling to the East was by way of a tortious sea journey, he must have wondered when his homecoming to visit his loved ones in Ireland would be. That itself was a huge sacrifice by Br Columba and his beloved family from a small Irish farming town. But, it was a very noble sacrifice — to fulfil a mission of educating the young in a poor underdeveloped country so that they could have opportunities of a better future for themselves, their families and their country. He spent two years at St George’s Institution in Taiping, seven years at Sacred Heart School in Sibu and 22 years in St Joseph’s Kuching where he was the Principal. His whole teaching career was spent in Malaysia, and as he correctly pointed out, he did not have a single Irish ex-pupil back home.
In the mid 1980s he spoke to myself and some members of the School Board of Management that it was time for him and the La Salle Brothers to “pass on the baton” on to someone from the ranks of ex-pupils of the School. He wanted a smooth transition. In consultation with the then Archbishop Dato Sri Peter Chung, he and members of the Board began to identify potential successors who could maintain the good public standing of the School and sustain its fine traditions of a Christian Brothers’ School.
Eventually, in January 1988, he passed on the responsibility of Principal of St Joseph’s to Mr Gerald Lee Leong Ai.
When he left for Ireland in early 1988, his Irish eyes were reportedly smiling – not only for the joy of having a well earned opportunity to see his family in Ireland, but more importantly, because he was able to look back with a sense of deep satisfaction of what he had accomplished for the School, for the students whose character he had helped to mould and whose deep affection and profound admiration for himself, was very much felt by him personally. He had lived up to the noble aims of the De La Salle Order.
He returned to Kuching in 1990 to spend seven years doing pastoral work at the Archbishop’s Office and founded the newsletter, Today’s Catholic. Through this media, he shared his thoughts and spiritual values with the Christian community through his regular column, Signpost. Br Columba’s work in the Archdiocese was highly commended by Archbishop Emeritus Dato Sri Peter Chung, who, in a personal letter to him recorded His Grace’s deep appreciation for his “dedicated services both to the schools and to my office”. He added: “I appreciate more specifically your work in faith formation for adults and the help you have given to me personally.”
The Government of Sarawak too, had duly recognised his invaluable services to the State by conferring him with State awards including a Commemoration Distinguished Service Medal during the State’s 50th Anniversary of Independence in 2014. He was only a handful of non-Malaysian citizens to be so honoured, and indeed a true reflection in appreciation of his invaluable contributions even after so many years of being away from Sarawak.
After he returned to Ireland in 1997 for family reasons, he served the La Salle Community at Castletown and in Belfast, until a couple of years ago when he stepped down due to a medical condition. He stayed at the Monastery community of the La Salle Brothers in Castletown, which was close to all of his family. He spent his final days at Miguel House, the adjacent nursing home for the La Salle Brothers where he was called to be with the Lord on 3 February.
From 1997 to 2013, he returned to this region, on several occasions, to visit his former students in Singapore, Kuching and Sibu. Many of his former students also visited him in Castletown and Belfast, from time to time, very much to his delight.
On behalf of the Board of Management of St Joseph’s and all present today and as well as all Josephians, I like firstly to extend our heartfelt sympathies to all family members of the late Br Columba. May they take solace from the fact that their loss is as much felt by all of us here in Sarawak and the wonderful deeds the late Br Columba had performed in the Country, have been gratefully acknowledged and will forever be treasured.
To Brother David, Brother Stephen and the other members of the La Salle Community in Castletown, we deeply share your loss of Br Columba who was well loved and respected by everyone in Miguel House and the La Salle Monastery. We, Josephians, will forever be grateful for the wonderful contributions of the La Salle Brothers, (including those of the late Br Patrick, Br Henry, Br Charles, Br Robert, Br Hilary, Br Albinus, Br Hyacinth and Br Mark who had left us, and Br Adrian and Br John Gaule who are presently resident in Miguel House), in the educational, personal and spiritual development of the youths in this State.
Finally, Br Columba left Kuching for home in Ireland in 1997. He has now left Ireland for home with the Lord. Taking words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
“Farewell, Dear Brother Columba, and may the angels sing you to your rest”.
May eternal rest grant upon him O’ Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him in the Kingdom of God.
Datuk JC Fong
Board of Management of St Joseph’s School
Delivered at the St Joseph’s School Auditorium on 13 February 2016