Rev. Fr. Bourke, a Redemptorist priest in captivity by CQMS Theodore Moissinac 4SSVF
Rev. Fr. Bourke, a Redemptorist priest in captivity
By Theodore Moisinnac
In October 1936 I was transferred from Penang to the Tranquerah English School in Malacca. War clouds were forming over Europe and East Asia so I thought I should enlist in the army. In January 1937, I went to the Malacca Customs office and was duly enlisted as a member of the Malacca Volunteer Corps (later known as 4SSVF). After taking an oath of allegiance to the British Crown in the person of King George VI. Captain E. V. Rodrigues, OC of the Eurasian 'D' Company witnessed my oath.
From 1937 to 1939 I underwent training in arms and foot drill, rifle drill and training in attack and defence. I enjoyed every bit of it. In 1940 I was promoted Company Quartermaster Sergeant which was the rank I held until the end of the war in 1945.
In the middle of 1940 we had a church parade, and all the ‘D’ Company boys in their cleanest uniforms marched into St. Francis Xavier Church and occupied the front pews. The Mass was said by Rev. Father Lourdes but another priest gave the sermon. By his attire we recognised him to be a Redemptorist priest from the Singapore Mission.
For a long time we have had sermons by French and local Asian priests but when this Redemptorist priest opened his mouth to begin his sermon all of us just sat still and looked at him in wonder for the language and the words that he used were different from what we had been used to hearing.
To my ears it was like classical music. He spoke of our loving duty towards Malaya which badly needed our services and our wonderful spirit of sacrifice in defence of our country. In June, 1940 as I was standing on the verandah of our building a military jeep came up the driveway and out stepped a British officer. I noticed the three pips on his shoulder and knew he was a Captain. So I hurried down to meet him. I gave him my smartest salute to which he responded just as smartly and I said, “Can I help you, sir?” He said,” I am the Roman Catholic Chaplain who has been posted to your battalion.” I said, “Yes, I’ll take you to Mr. Roy De Vries, our Second-in-Command.”
I brought him to Mr. De Vries’s office and I told Roy: “This is our new Chaplain, Reverend Father Bourke.” He then asked Mr. De Vries if he could have a Mass said in the evening. To which Mr. De Vries responded, “Why, yes. CQ (Moissinac), please show Father his room and the place downstairs where Mass could be said.”
So I showed Fr. Bourke round the camp. He seemed to be satisfied but he told me not to use ‘Sir’ when addressing him but to call him ‘Father’. I passed the word round and in the evening a large number of the boys gathered for the Mass which was said in Latin. Mr. Benedict Gomes was the organist. Father Bourke took his meals at the CO’s table.
Before being posted to Jalan Eunos in Singapore, the Battalion was quartered in St. Patrick’s school in Katong but after the initial bombing of Singapore our CO asked that the battalion be housed further inland. So we all went to a wooden building in Jalan Eunos which was next door to Geylang. Father Bourke also went to other companies in the area.
On the night of 8th December, 1941, the Japs began their bombing of Singapore. Geylang being crowded with the Chinese received the most attention. While the bombing was still going on, I saw Fr. Bourke rushing towards Geylang, a small bag in his hand. I saw him again about 2 hours after the bombing had stopped. His hair was mussed up and his uniform was dirty with mud and blood. After giving him a mug of strong tea I said to him, “Father, is it so necessary for you to go out during a bombing raid? They have the Red Cross and others to look after the wounded.” He replied, ”Yes, I am a non-combatant but I am also a priest and a human being. Can you get me a bicycle?”
I got him one and he used it when the bombing was further afield. There was no way to stop him, his compassion for the wounded and the dying was so great.
Some time before the surrender, because of the pressure of the Japanese forces our Battalion was ordered to go about 5 miles back. Captain De Vries told me to get everybody out of the camp. So I ordered the signallers, the buglers, the transport staff, the medics and the cooks to meet at a certain point in the camp.
When they had gathered together I drilled them in the formations recommended in the British infantry manual on what action to take when attacked from the air. The last to arrive was Fr. Bourke. We got into a square formation and proceeded southwards. It was not long before we were spotted by a Zero fighter which swooped down with machine guns blazing. After a few strafing rounds the plane flew off. The bullets went straight through our formation but missed everyone! No one was injured. We experienced one more attack before we reached our destination but again no one was hit.
When the British surrendered in Singapore we were holding the fort just north of Newton Circus and Fr. Bourke was with us. Our boys were scared and miserable and Fr. Bourke stayed with them till he was forced to join the European troops that were marching to the Changi Point camp nearly 10 miles away.
Before the Padre left he told me to stay with the boys because they were very nervous and frightened. All the officers and NGOs had disappeared. There was nobody to lead them so I took over and formed them into 2 large circles with everyone standing with their best friends beside them. I made them ease themselves before lying on the grass so that they would not be walking about in the darkness of the night. I pointed out to them the 2 machine gun units on the high ground. They could be shot for trying to escape. The men slept — only tired men could sleep. Not one man disappeared during the night. The next morning the Nip guards came, and we formed up in marching order and went as prisoners to Farrer Park.
Fr. Bourke told me to gather the boys every evening after dinner and to pray the rosary together. I followed his instructions and in the dark took the boys to a field far away from the huts. While we were on our 2nd decade of the rosary we were all startled by a loud and furious shout. It was by an angry Nip who was annoyed that we had wandered so far from the camp. I showed him my Rosary and told him we were praying. He kept quiet for a moment and then suddenly put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a rosary. He told us to start the rosary again, this time he would lead saying the rosary in his own language while we answered in English. After the rosary we all shook hands with him and he told us not to go so far away from the camp.
In 1944, I was warded in the big hospital camp at a place called Tarsau in Thailand. I had malaria and had been in this hospital for 3 months. One morning about three weeks from Christmas I took a stroll outside my hut for some fresh air. The hospital was on the edge of the jungle and there was a group of Nip guards who were using hand gestures and signaling to me to come to them. A number of Catholic men had been hard at work building an altar of bamboo for the Christmas Mass on Christmas day. I was scared because such action by Nips usually meant a beating up for some wrong you have done. When I reached them they held up rosaries and crucifixes.
I began to breathe more easily. I signed them to wait for a while. I then went to Fr. Bourke’s hut and told him about the Nips. He told me to call the interpreter. I did so and through him we learnt that they needed confession and would like to attend Mass on Christmas day. Fr. Bourke agreed to my arrangement. I said,” But Father, you do not know the Japanese language.” Fr. Bourke smiled and told me to get a blanket and a mat. He also told the interpreter to be present. The next day I got up early in spite of the chilly weather and waited for the Japanese.
They came, all eight of them. With the assistance of the interpreter the priest showed them the routine. The priest would sit on the ground with the interpreters and a Bible by his side. The Interpreter would read the command in Japanese. All hands to be under the blanket. The penitent would hold the priest’s hand and by pressing his hand he would state the number of times the sin was committed. All the Nips went through the same procedure. All of them were present for Mass on Christmas day.
On another day, Fr. Bourke told me that his stock of communion wafers was about to be finished. A group of men from our group used to go daily to a small village. There was a small chapel there but it was locked and the priest had gone away. They asked permission from Fr. Bourke to break into the chapel and to obtain communion wafers. Fr. Bourke was very reluctant to give his consent but in the end he did. The men broke a window and entered the chapel. They found 2 boxes of unconsecrated wafers. They took one box and left a letter from Fr Bourke beside the other. I did not see Fr. Bourke again until three months after we were released.
The unedited verbatim form of this article was originally published in the Ujong Pasir BEC Newsletter of December 2001. Editing by Andrew Hwang.
This story appears courtesy of the late Theodore Moisinnac who was born in 1912 in what is now Indonesia. He was educated in Penang and later moved to Malacca in 1936. He was active in Eurasian musical circles and was even elected Music Convenor of the Eurasian ‘D’ Company of 4SSVF. He held the position of choirmaster at St Francis Xavier Church in Malacca for over 30 years.