An altar boy’s tribute to Father Chua

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I was an altar boy, which I loved and am very proud of. It was strict, but also really nice.

—  Michael Keaton, American actor

I was watching the Denmark Open at home in Kuala Lumpur when the news of Reverend Father Datuk Lawrence Chua’s passing came in on Sunday night.

Chua’s death was not a surprise but it was untimely, because prior to his Covid-19 infection in early September, he was not known to be suffering from any serious illness apart from the occasional old-age bouts.

The Catholic priest’s passing at 86 was not unexpected because he was fighting for his life at the ICU a few days prior to Sunday night.

No, I did not shed a tear for the good man who had lived to a ripe old age upon hearing of his passing. Instead, I whispered a thank-you prayer to the good Lord for taking him “home” quickly, thus sparing him of more pain and suffering in the hospital.

And I continued watching the exciting women’s single final between my favourite 19-year-old An Se Young of South Korea and Akane Yamaguchi of Japan. Later it was the men’s final between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2, Kento Momota of Japan and Viktor Axelsen of Denmark.

If Chua was not sick in hospital, he would probably be watching badminton and football matches on the Super Sports channel too as he was quite a sports fan as well.

Like most Catholic schoolboys in Kuching 50 years ago, I have known the young Father Chua while serving as an altar boy in the old St Joseph’s Church from 1968 onwards.

I was 12 in 1968 and in Primary 6. Chua was 33 and was ordained a priest just four years earlier, in 1964.

In the early 70’s, Chua was one of the few local Chinese priests in Kuching; the rest were mainly Mill Hill missionaries.

To us altar boys in St Joseph’s parish, Chua was a wonderful and pious priest as well as a disciplinarian and a strict man.

Let me relate my naughty boy encounter with the young priest circa 1970-71. I was 14 or 15, in Form 2 or 3 when Chua caught three or four of us, altar boys, drinking altar wine. Aha, that was a “no no” for him.

The incident happened behind the chapel at the then St Peter’s Seminary.As altar boys, we used to hang around in the sacristy and have access to the red wine, used by the priest during mass.

It was during one of those days when the stern Father Chua suddenly appeared from nowhere to find us with a bottle of red altar wine behind the chapel.

Oh dear, we knew we had it this time. This Chinaman was different from the European “Ang Mo” priests who were more lenient. The disciplinarian Chua knew how to punish naughty boys.

Yes, he did. I can still recall that he gave us a long lecture about good behaviour being altar boys and residents in the preparatory seminary.

He also said that to take altar wine which we did not pay for was akin to stealing from the church, and this was a big sin. Surely, Chua knew well what it takes in his journey to the priesthood.

Well, it was a lesson well learnt. I don’t think we ever drank red wine from the sacristy after that lecture from Chua.

Years later in 2006, I related the incident to Chua during my late brother’s wake in my Kuching home when the good priest came by.

He could not remember his encounter with naughty altar boys more than 30 years ago. Perhaps, he must have met many in his long life as a priest.

But Chua did ask me whether I was now a heavy drinker since I love to consume altar wine as a teenager.

The irony of it all is that I am not a drinker at all and I have never been drunk in my life. That’s the truth.

How can I get drunk when I don’t drink at all? I think I am allergic to alcohol.

Drinking altar wine was just a teenager’s outlet for a little excitement, I suppose. The danger of being caught for doing something wrong could possibly add to the pleasure of being naughty too.

I have not seen Chua for many years as I have left Kuching for some 30 years.

My impression of our dear priest is that Chua had done his very best for the growth of the Catholic Church in the Kuching Archdiocese.

He was not known as the “church builder” in the archdiocese for nothing. His work of distinction as a builder and a man of God was conspicuous in what we see in the Holy Trinity and Blessed Sacrament churches in Kuching today.

I must also applaud Chua for his good taste at dressing and carrying himself well at official events. He was the best ambassador of the Archbishop in the church’s ties with officialdom.

Father Chua, you have lived a holy and fulfilling life. Rest well now.

On my next trip back home to Kuching, I will visit your Blessed Sacrament parish, to raise a glass of wine in your honour (even when I don’t drink, but only for you).

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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