By Shannon Wei
KOTA PADAWAN — The time has come for Friar William Lee, OFM, Rector of St Ann’s Church, to say goodbye to Sarawak.
The news of his departure was first announced in a Facebook post dated 1 August. On 16 September, his Thanksgiving Mass was celebrated at St Ann’s Church.
“Time flies fast and soon, I am coming to the end of my 10-year term in St Ann. I am hoping to leave Kuching by end September/early October, if the situation permits,” he wrote.
“I wish it was in better situation that we are parting but nevertheless, I am grateful to those in PPC, the different ministries and various different groups for your support to the friars and St Ann all these years.
“I ask and pray that all of you will continue to contribute to the parish in whatever way that you can.”
In November 2018, Friar William was installed as the Rector of St Ann’s Church, after then-Rector Friar Gerard Victor, OFM returned to Singapore.
In an interview with Today’s Catholic, Friar William recalled some of the memories he will bring with him back to his home country of Singapore.
His first experience of Kuching was in 2010, when he was still a deacon. In early 2011, Friar William was officially posted to Kuching after his priestly ordination.
One challenge he faced during his time in Kuching, he said, was the language barrier. As someone fluent in English and Mandarin, he described Bahasa Malaysia as his “handicap” when communicating and celebrating Mass.
But the bigger challenges posed were not just celebrating Masses under the poor conditions of the old St Ann’s Church and building the new Church with Friar Gerard, but also forming and encouraging people to come for Masses which he described as a “personal challenge” – guiding them back and teaching them to appreciate the Eucharist and Sunday Mass obligation.
“When I first came [to St Ann], the English Sunset Mass up in the baruk had 100 people. But just before the pandemic began, we were talking about 1,000 people coming for Sunset Mass.
“The two Bahasa Masses up in the baruk then was 1,500 combined, but here [at the new church of St Ann] was 3,000. Then we added on another English Mass on Sunday evening and it was another 1,000 people coming,” he said. However in light of Covid-19, he describes it as “heartbreaking” to see the Church in a more vacant state.
Aside from St Ann’s Church, he also recalled the moments leading up to the opening of the new St Michael’s Church at Teng Bukap. Prior to completion, Masses at Teng Bukap were celebrated in a rented dewan, fitting up to 400 people in a tight space.
“Part of the whole push when I came here was to gather people for the Mass Centre. A few kampungs would come together in the Mass Centre and we would celebrate the weekend Masses.”
A fundraising dinner was held in celebration of Friar William’s 50th birthday, raising up to RM100,000 for St Michael’s in addition to love offerings from parishioners.
“I still remember then-Archbishop John Ha. He was always laughing at me that I was so daring, dressed in a Dayak costume. I think that will be something very unforgettable… dancing in that warrior attire, singing and raising funds for Teng Bukap. That was amazing and the people came to help.”
A display of several shrines at St Ann’s Church. (Photo: Today’s Catholic/Shannon Wei)
In these two Churches, Friar has also helped to design several shrines—seven shrines in St Ann and four in St Michael’s—which parishioners might have spotted over time. With these shrines, he also leaves a mark on his contributions which will be long remembered.
“Praising God for all that you have done and asking the blessing of Almighty God to be upon you and your families and that St Ann will continue to intercede for us, together with Mary our Mother, St Francis and St Clare for a containment of the current pandemic and for a better future! Continue to keep safe, take care and God bless!” – Friar William Lee, OFM