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Iconic La Salle brother inspired many generations

Sim Yoon Han

Published
Modified 14 Feb 2016, 7:05 am

OBITUARY "All reality is iconoclastic," the theologian and children's writer CS Lewis noted, in his book ' A Grief Observed'.

"Images of the holy easily become holy images - sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It must be shattered from time to time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast."

Brother Columba Gleeson, the last De La Salle brother to serve as Principal of St Joseph's School in Kuching, Sarawak, died aged 81 of myeloma, a blood cancer, on February 3 in Castletown, Ireland.

Thanks to his astonishing achievements at St Joseph's from 1965 to 1987, he had come to be identified as the school's leader and symbol (though he had been well loved, too, at Sacred Heart school in Sibu, where he had taught from 1957 to 1962). His iconic image inspired loyalty and affection.

But he did not care for the cult of the personality. He was an iconoclast - a man who worked all his life to tear down unjust social structures.

By teaching the lowest rungs of Sarawakian society at the birth of a new nation in the 1960s, Brother Columba demolished barriers to the movement of Sarawakians between social classes.

He, and his brother teachers in the De La Salle religious order, provided an education accessible to the most wretched of Sarawak's poor.

Old Josephian beneficiaries from humble families included chief ministers Abdul Taib Mahmud and Adenan Satem, as well as great campaigners for social justice, such as the late Bandar Kuching MP Sim Kwang Yang, indigenous land rights activist Wee Aik Pang, and current Batu Lintang State Assembly Representative See Chee How.

Brother Columba's ruddy good looks, blonde hair, twinkly blue eyes, lively humour, and passion for sports will always be fond memories for Josephians spanning several generations.

He dedicated himself to showing the way to his students, rather than teaching them by rote. He never limited his aspirations to St Joseph's excellent academic performances, matching any other school in the entire country, or the perennial victories in athletics championships.

Signpost on life's journey

Brother Columba understood that life is a journey, and he tried to light the way for his students.

In the early years, most "sons of St Joseph", from all ethnic groups, suffered from urban poverty, and lived in straitened, unhygienic housing, in perpetual hunger. Many were beaten at home. Some lost their way and were recruited to street gangs.

A few were grateful simply to live in boarding school, where Brother Columba and the La Salle brothers, mostly Irish, became their family, calming them down and straightening them out.

Brother Columba never bribed or cajoled his students into accepting Christianity. He led by example and gave all he could to the boys in school, while treating their diverse cultural and religious backgrounds with respect, and an intelligent interest.

"Religion is a way of life," he taught. He often remarked that being a good Christian was not about having your hands always up in the air, praising God: it was having your hands on the ground, helping the dispossessed, and working.

He embodied St Joseph's motto, " ora et labora " - "pray and work" - and he emphasised both equally.

When he retired as St Joseph's Principal in 1987, he worked in the Archdiocese in Kuching, and later in a monastery in Castletown, Ireland, and then in a home for troubled youth in Belfast.

He also contributed a column, 'Signpost', for Today's Catholic, the church newspaper he established in Kuching.

In 2003, in an article 'Heaven Begins on Earth ' , he wrote: "God does not 'send' us to heaven (or to hell). He merely honours, as he always does, the free choices we make every day, the bricks with which we build our heaven."

To Brother Columba, God had made it clear to his followers that God is found "not in the sky, but in the broken, the outcast and the marginalised. If they recognised and served him there, heaven would be theirs."

Brother Columba's guidance (and sense of humour) are clear to all in his writing:

"Oh to be with the saints above,

That would be perfect glory.

But Lord, to live with the saints below;

Now that is a different story."

Students gone astray

Unfortunately, many of St Joseph's best students have, over the decades, gone astray.

A few have gladly joined the state's "elite" as robber barons, timber tycoons, and lavishly dressed thugs.

Others have climbed the social ladder, became well-off, but have never helped the less fortunate. They pulled the ladder up after them, as John Galbraith described in his book The Affluent Society .

Some have achieved great professional renown, then "migrated" abroad, never to return to Sarawak. Some roads lead to perdition, or worse still, to Singapore.

Sarawak remains poor, neglected, and exploited to this day - a beautiful place run by ugly people.

Amidst a sincere outpouring of grief among old Josephians over Brother Columba's death, it may be worth recalling novelist Hilary Mantel's words on this sense of loss.

"Recovery can seem like a betrayal," she wrote. "Passionately, you desire a way back to the lost object, but the only possible road, the road to life, leads away."

Brother Columba and his beloved fellow La Salle teachers - all of whom have now left us, except for Brother Adrian Gaule in Ireland – had illuminated the road to life and provided pointers.

Yet many urban Sarawakians, despite the benefit of a good education, still seem lost, and subservient to the icons of Sarawak's public life.

Our current path is certainly no road to life.