By Keruah Usit
As we Malaysians struggle through a cynical time of religious fear-mongering in schools and in our wider society, we would do well to reflect on the life of a tenaciously open-hearted teacher, Brother Albinus, born Michael O’Flaherty.
Brother Albinus passed away peacefully at the age of 83 on Aug 4, after 62 years of teaching and inspiring students of all races and religions.
This great educator, a member of the pioneering La Salle order of pragmatic teachers, was the last La Salle Brother principal in Sarawak. He retired from the Sacred Heart School in Sibu at around the same time as Brother Columba left as principal of St Joseph’s School in Kuching.
Brother Albinus taught most of Sarawak’s professional and political leaders, and a slew of ministers, judges and clerics. His students straddle both sides of the political divide: Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud as well as three-term MP Sim Kwang Yang, and former state attorney general JC Fong as well as land rights lawyer See Chee How.
“He was born with the spirit to serve others, all his life, without complaining, and without claiming credit for himself. He did it out of ultimate concern for humanity. He exemplified the Christian spirit of universal love,” Sim said.
Brother Albinus was an erudite teacher and a fearsome disciplinarian. He served St Joseph’s Kuching from 1960-70, and Sacred Heart from 1970-87.
St John Baptist de la Salle, the founder of the order, said: “Example makes a greater impression than words.”
The Brothers established schools in many of the poorer parts of the world, including Malaya, Borneo and Singapore, during the early years of nationhood.
As de la Salle had entreated, Brother Albinus preached by example, and practised before the eyes of the young what he wished them to accept.
He never forced his faith on his students, or boasted of his profound learning and intellect.
He educated young people of from all over the vast state, and his Muslim and Buddhist students visited him regularly at feast days, throughout his 53 years in Sarawak. He had an astonishing memory for their names and years of schooling.
He used to say that all who do good – and not just Christians – are people of God, long before Pope Francis made a similar pronouncement this year.
Brother Albinus imparted knowledge to us, tried to instill moral and spiritual values in us, and cheered us on in all our sports. He lived his life humbly and simply.
He remained selfless to the end of his life. In 2002, at the tender age of 72, he set up the Yayasan La Sallian Kuching (YLK), a foundation that provides tuition to rural children, and to advance the Brothers’ vocation of ‘faith, service and community’.
The not-for-profit project has set up eight ‘tuition centres’ so far in poor rural villages. The YLK enlists retired teachers, rebuilds abandoned houses or halls, and sets up electrical wiring so that schoolchildren have somewhere safe to read at night.
The children have responded with smiles and eagerness, and extraordinary academic improvements.
Sharing a love of learning
Brother Albinus was born in 1930, one of eight siblings, in County Kerry, southwest Ireland. He recalled growing up in a rudimentary farmhouse, reading by candlelight or the glow of the fireplace, as bombers droned overhead on their way to destroy lives and cities.
He took up religious vows at the age of 14, and attended teachers’ training college at the end of the war. He set sail for his new life in September 1951. He reached Singapore in early October, and taught for seven years at St Joseph’s Institute.
He was a literary man. He wrote beautifully in English and translated passages from Latin. His degree was in English literature, and he was especially fond of WB Yeats, Charles Dickens and Graham Greene.
Greene had travelled the world himself, a decade or so earlier. Perhaps Greene’s struggles to reconcile his faith with the moral ambiguity in a seedy, poverty-stricken and pitiless world resonated with Brother Albinus.
Brother Albinus was officially a ‘permanent resident’ in Sarawak, but he loved the community, and was as much a true Sarawakian as any of us born here.
John Baptist de la Salle said “to touch the hearts of your students is the greatest miracle you can perform”. The love and good works Brother Albinus inspired in some of the La Salle alumni in Sarawak is an ongoing miracle, though a work in progress.
He and his fellow-Brothers taught without bigotry. Brother Albinus taught all comers, clever clogs and slow learners, hoping and praying they would all use their talents well.
He educated selfless leaders and social activists, as well as, ironically enough, crooked ministers who then used their knowledge to lord it over others. Brother Albinus was always a champion of social justice, and a fierce critic of corruption in high places.
A life of love and loyalty
The choice he made nearly seven decades ago, to be of service to others, came full circle when Sarawakians embraced him and cared for him as he grew increasingly frail.
He was teaching up to a week before he was admitted to hospital with bowel obstruction, but finally succumbed to a weak heart and lungs. He displayed no fear in his dying days. True faith helps in accepting death, as critics of religion will readily agree.
Brother Albinus admired Yeats greatly, and liked to recite ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
His funeral service will be held at St Joseph’s Cathedral, Kuching, at 9am tomorrow. We pray Brother Albinus may find some peace and rest, after his decades of tireless service to others.
(KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’.)