Irish priest has spent nearly five decades helping fishermen in Kampung Laut to overcome poverty, illiteracy and disease
Father Charles Patrick Edward Borrows wears a farmer's hat used by villagers in Kampung Laut, which he has helped transform from swamp and sea to fertile land over the past 50 years. (Photo: St. Stephanus Parish)
Father Charles Patrick Edward Borrows believes it was God’s plan to send him to Kampung Laut, a fishing area in Central Java province’s Cilacap district, to help the local poor overcome abject poverty.
The 78-year-old Irish Oblate missionary, who became an Indonesian citizen in 1983, has been instrumental in cutting the chain of poverty for thousands of fishermen in Kampung Laut.
The area is an estuarine lagoon system consisting of many small, mangrove-covered islands in a lagoon environment where most of the population engages in fishing. The small incomes earned by the fishermen are not enough, so most families live on the margins of subsistence and in deep isolation.
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For nearly 50 years, Father Borrows has served the area and its people and seen things change slowly but surely.
Parts of Kampung Laut have changed over the decades to become fertile rice fields and plantations, freeing many people from poverty, illiteracy and diseases.
“If I come to a region, I think first not to build a church but of the welfare of the poor,” the priest told UCA News.
Over the years, Father Borrows has helped more than 700,000 farmers and 16,000 fishermen in the district
In 1973, Father Borrows arrived in Indonesia and was assigned to St. Stephanus Parish in Purwokerto Diocese, Central Java. Kampung Laut is a part of the parish territory.
The priest found locals in Kampung Laut living inside floating houses. They were poor and illiterate, while many suffered from dengue fever and skin disease. Their children were stricken with malnutrition and diarrhea.
Born in Seville, Dublin, on April 8, 1943, he was to join the Oblate of Mary Immaculate (OMI) 20 years later to strengthen his idea of helping the poor, seeing them all as images of God.
After being ordained as a priest in 1969 in Dublin, he sought to serve in a poor country. His prayers were answered when his congregation sent him to Indonesia.
In 1976, he started working on a project by inviting local people, government and the Indonesian Army to reclaim several small isles and swamps and transform them into fertile land.
The priest personally toiled, ferrying stones and soil, to motivate the locals. The reclamation process went on for a decade with an area of about 6,000 hectares, including about 4,700 hectares used as rice fields, made habitable for humans.
The fishermen began toiling on the rice fields and soon became farmers. They now produce about 30,000 tons of rice every year in a switch that has contributed much to pulling them out of poverty.
Some have gone on to become entrepreneurs by establishing businesses, while others rear livestock like ducks, rabbits, and goats to supplement their farming incomes.
Over the years, Father Borrows has helped more than 700,000 farmers and 16,000 fishermen in the district. Most are now economically well-off and send their children to school.
He has built 25 schools from kindergarten to senior high school besides the Nusantara Maritime Academy. Around 8,000 students, most of them from farmer and fishermen families, study in these institutions.
His schools have students from all faiths, mostly Muslims from nearby villages.
I reject the death penalty because they [prisoners] are the image of God. It is torture. Usually, I open the Bible and read it to the Catholic inmates so that they can repent
Father Borrows is now focused on building streets, bridges, dams, waterways and wells in the villages of the district. However, radical Islamic groups accuse him of Christianization.
“I and my schools were accused of Christianizing,” he said, adding that “education is the right of all children. It frees people from poverty.”
Dedi Sugiana, a Muslim resident, said the Catholic priest had saved the poor and helped everyone irrespective of their background.
The 56-year-old father of three said he was helped by Father Borrows and now runs a restaurant. “I can send my children to school,” Sugiana told UCA News.
Since 2015, Father Borrows has begun serving inside the district’s prisons, including a maximum security facility on Nusakambangan island for hardened criminals facing the death sentence.
“I reject the death penalty because they [prisoners] are the image of God. It is torture,” he said. “Usually, I open the Bible and read it to the Catholic inmates so that they can repent.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, the priest has continued to organize Mass and spiritual discourses online for the benefit of prisoners. His mission, as God planned it, continues.
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