Farewell to last of Borneo’s Big Three

Brother Columba — file picBrother Columba — file pic

By Eikman Teo

KUCHING, Feb 13 — They came back to their alma mater after 10, 20 or 30 years, quickly filling up the school auditorium, to say their last goodbye to their beloved ex-principal. Some sat, many stood for over an hour in an emotional ceremony held in honour of an Irishman who spent his entire adult life away from his own home, family and country, and touched the lives of thousands of local students.

Brother Columba Gleeson passed away in Ireland on February 3 at the age of 80. He taught in St Joseph’s School, Kuching from 1966 to 1987, the last 18 years as principal. He belonged to that generation of legendary La Salle Brothers who helmed mission schools for boys in Sarawak and Sabah since the 1950s.

A section of the crowd who turned up to attend the memorial ceremony in honour of the late Brother Columba, 1935 – 2016. — Picture by Wee Boon KiongA section of the crowd who turned up to attend the memorial ceremony in honour of the late Brother Columba, 1935 – 2016. — Picture by Wee Boon KiongBrother Columba’s demise marked the end of that era. He was the last of Borneo’s big three. It was two and a half years ago that Brother Albinus O’Flaherty, the last La Salle principal of Sacred Heart School in Sibu, Sarawak passed away. Then two months ago, Sabah witnessed a similar outpouring of tributes when Brother Charles O’Leary died. He was the principal of La Salle School in Kota Kinabalu for 17 years to 1985 before the school was handed over to secular administration. Committed to providing an all-rounded education, all three always reserved a special place in their hearts for “the least, the lost and the last.” 

For over three decades until the 1980s, the La Salle Brothers led schools which established a reputation for academic and co-curricular distinction. Recalling their school days, old boys from these schools never fail to share stories of how the outstanding results in exams, sports and other endeavours were achieved in a setting where students of different races, creed and social backgrounds studied and played together. One distinguished old boy described Brother Columba as “race and religion blind.”

The La Salle Brothers took over the administration of St Joseph’s Kuching in 1950. Admitting students from all walks of life, the school produced many illustrious alumni including the last three chief ministers of Sarawak, top civil servants, corporate leaders and sports stars. Every year, top students won scholarships to study in top universities overseas. The school’s signature achievement as a sports powerhouse was in athletics. Its athletes won the local inter-school overall championship for 29 consecutive years starting from the inaugural competition in 1962.

The requiem mass at St Joseph’s Cathedral, Kuching for Bro Columba was conducted by three bishops of which two were his ex-students. — Picture by Wee Boon KiongThe requiem mass at St Joseph’s Cathedral, Kuching for Bro Columba was conducted by three bishops of which two were his ex-students. — Picture by Wee Boon KiongBrother Columba first arrived in Sarawak in 1957. In 1962, he was recalled to Ireland to pursue his university degree, only to return to serve as a teacher before becoming the principal in 1970. His stint at the helm was the longest among the school’s four La Salle principals. When news broke of his demise on the night of Feb 3, a continuous string of tributes from ex-students flooded mainstream and social media. They spoke of a strict and compassionate educator who lived, led and inspired others by example.

Brother Columba, who left Sarawak for permanent retirement in Ireland in 1997, often joked that he dedicated his life to teaching but never ever taught a single Irish student. – Malay Mail Online

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