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Brunei cathedral, a haven for migrant Catholics

Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei Brunei cathedral, a haven for migrant Catholics

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption at the heart of Bruneian capital Bendar Seir Begawan, is the largest and mother church in country that caters to spiritual needs of a largely migrant Catholic population.

As in other parts of this tiny but wealthy Islamic monarchy, the Assumption Church is a melting pot as majority of about 21,000 Catholics in Brunei belong to the cathedral parish. About 70 percent migrant Catholics are Filipinos, and the rest are Indians, Indonesians, Malaysians, and others.

Formerly known as St. George’s Church, the construction of the current church started in 1957 and took 12 years to complete. The church was consecrated on Aug. 15, 1969, the feast of Assumption of Mother Mary. A beautiful painting of Mary Assumed into Heaven, just below a crucifix of Jesus, adorns the backdrop of the church’s main altar, as a tribute to blessings of Mary for the local church. Besides, the church holds Novena of Perpetual Help every Wednesday.

The opening of the new church, St. George’s Church by Bishop John Vos on Easter Sunday 1957

Though the church building is relatively new, but Catholicism in Brunei has a long history. Catholic faith here was brought to Filipino migrants by Spanish missionaries centuries ago. The missionaries also converted ethnic Kadazans in Sabah state in neighboring Malaysia, which is a part of Borneo Island. The faith was nurtured in the 19th and 20thcenturies by British religious order, the Missionary Society of St. Joseph, popularly known as Mill Hill missionaries.

Brunei became a part of Apostolic Prefecture of Labuan and North Borneo in 1855 and from 1881, Mill Hill missionaries started serving in Brunei. The first recorded baptism of a Bruneian took place in 1915 in Labuan and the first baptism in Brunei occurred in 1919.

For a long time Brunei had no resident priest to serve migrant Catholics. Mill Hill missionaries traveled from Labuan in Malaysia to look after local Catholics. Father A. Stotter became the first resident priest in Brunei in 1932.

Before the church was built in 1957, a small chapel, a school (St. George’s School) and a parsonage existed. A local Catholic, George Newn Ah Foott, donated the land where these structures were built. The new church replaced the chapel.

Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Bandar Seri Begawan in 1969

Brunei became a part of Apostolic Vicarate of Kuching, in Sarawak state of Malaysia, in 1952. Seven years later, it became a part when a new Vicarate Apostolic was formed with Brunei and Miri in Malaysia. In 1976, it was elevated a diocese. Brunei became a separate church jurisdiction, an Apostolic Prefecture, in 1997.

The local church exalted when first Bruneian priest, Father Ivan Fang, was ordained in London in 1985. The second priest, Father Cornelius Sim, was ordained in 1989, in Seria of Brunei. Father Sim became the first native bishop of Brunei in 2005, a year after Brunei became an Apostolic Vicariate. The church in Brunei gained prominence when Pope Francis appointed Bishop Sim as the first cardinal in November 2020. Cardinal Sim died due to a cardiac arrest while battling cancer seven months later.

For decades, Catholics in Brunei were under various ecclesiastical provinces. Its elevation as a separate Church territory helped establish the distinct Bruneian Church.Though Catholic make up about five percent of Brunei population, the church has made its mark amid the dominance of Islam.

The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption,with its majestic appearance with a tall entrance tower and spacious interior, is the public expression of Catholic faith in one of the few absolute Muslim monarchies left in the world today.

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