Book - East of Kinabalu

With the increase in numbers of Filipinos, we now had a large number of Christians on the estate, both Catholic and Protestant. We had already built a beautiful mosque for our Muslim workers. The Filipino representatives asked if we could have a church for the Christian community.

In consultation with our leading Christians, I produced a rough sketch. Pablo turned it into a professional-looking plan, and our building gang had it erected in a matter of a few weeks. It was sited on a picturesque spot on the Tungud River, beside the new bridge. The Christians contributed nearly half the cost and the company contributed the rest.


The church was light and airy and, as in the general manager’s house, it made much use of decorative hollow blocks, which Kong Miew produced on the site. We built a spire with a cross on top using some metal pipes. Finally at the request of the Catholics, we built a confessional box in one corner near the back door.

On one of my visits to Kota Kinabalu, I contacted the Catholic and the Anglican Bishops. They were both delighted to learn of the new church. They agreed that there would be no problem in having it used, at different times, by both the Protestants and the Catholics. The Bishops agreed that they would conduct a joint, ecumenical, opening ceremony.

We arranged to have the opening when Colin Black was on a visit to the estate, accompanied by his wife Eileen. There was a large crowd in attendance. We had flown in several dignitaries from Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu. But we were disappointed that the Catholic Bishop was unable to attend since he had been summoned to Rome to the Ecumenical Council.

The old Dutch priest from Sandakan had been instructed to attend in his place, but he was not happy about sharing a church with Protestants. Although he turned up, he resolutely refused to participate in any sort of joint opening ceremony. The Anglicans were represented by Bishop Roland Koh. He was dressed in resplendent white and gold robes. He had a mitre on his head and he carried his Bishop’s crook.

Eileen Black opened the proceedings by making a short speech and cutting the ribbon across the gate into the churchyard. The congregation then advanced up the path, to assemble in front of the new church. Bishop Koh positioned himself in front of the church door and commenced the dedication ceremony for the Church of St Peter of the Labuk. It was lengthy.

The ceremony was being held at mid-day to allow the VIPs to fly back to Sandakan or Kota Kinabalu after lunch. It was blistering hot in the noonday sun. The ladies in their hats and gloves were already showing signs of discomfort. The Bishop in his heavy robes must have felt even worse, but he continued stoically.

At last after a final prayer he advanced and struck the door symbolically three times with his crook and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I now invite you to take your places inside the church.” Turning to me the Bishop said “You may open the door now, Mr Davidson.” I grasped the handle firmly but with due reverence. To my dismay, it would not turn. I rattled the door but it remained closed. It was, in fact, locked.

David Marsh was in the crowd. “I’ll get the key,” he said and dashed off. He returned after what seemed an age. “The building foreman has got it.”

“Good,” I said. ”Let me have it.”

“No,” he replied, “he has the key, but he left for Sandakan a couple of hours ago as soon as they finished decorating the church. He will be back on Monday.”

The Bishop and I looked at each other and at the waiting congregation. “We shall have to break down the door,” I whispered. The Bishop thought that would be very improper, just after he had blessed it. The crowd were beginning to get restive. The VIPs were starting to fidget.

We had to come up with something quickly. “Bishop,” I said, “You haven’t blessed the back door, have you? Can I suggest we break in from the rear?” He gave his reluctant agreement to this.

In a second or two, there were loud crashes and a couple of workmen opened the front door from the inside. The congregation filed swiftly into the welcome shade of the church for the Anglican service, which was followed by lunch at the Club.

Standing in …
I was not myself a regular attender either at the church or the mosque. However, a few weeks later, I was back in St Peter’s Church again. This time it was for a big Filipino wedding. Natividad Balangue was a Botany graduate from Manila. She worked for Chris Ho as a research assistant. She was to be married to George Villacero, one of our bulldozer drivers.

The wedding celebrations were organised jointly by the research department and Joe Joyce’s roads department. The marriage ceremony was to be performed by the Catholic Father from Sandakan at 6pm, and would be followed by a great feast in the Club, to which almost the whole community had been invited.

We had our usual weekly management meeting the afternoon of the wedding. While it was underway, my secretary came in to report that Sabah Air had rung to announce that the plane we had chartered to bring in the Catholic priest had been cancelled owing to a mechanical problem. It would not be available for a charter until the following week. This was a disaster.

Joe Joyce reported that the buffalo had already been slaughtered. Someone jokingly said that the captain of a ship could perform wedding ceremonies, so why not the manager of an estate? None of us took this seriously, and Chris dashed off to investigate whether we could bring the priest up by speed-boat or, alternatively, if the feast could be postponed by a week. We carried on with the meeting and Chris did not reappear.

When I got back to the house at about 5.30pm, Olive was waiting for me anxiously, dressed in her smartest clothes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have rung to tell you the wedding has been postponed. The priest can’t get in because the plane has broken down.”

“No,” Olive said. “The wedding is still on, and we have to be at the church in half an hour. Chris Ho has just been round to tell everyone that it is to proceed as planned, and that you, heaven help us, are going to perform the ceremony.”

While I bathed and changed, Olive was frantically searching for a prayer book. All she could find was a Bible. Whilst we were being driven to the church I searched through it …Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and so on. There was nothing I could find in the shape of a wedding service.

I stood at the altar with the Bible in my hands, facing a packed congregation. George stood in front of me with his best man at his side. Natividad’s arrival on the arm of Joe Joyce, was heralded by the massed guitars of the Filipino community lined up on each side of the aisle. They were playing, for some mysterious reason, the American marching tune, ‘Blaze Away’.

Natividad was radiant in an elaborate white wedding gown, and Mrs Castelotte, one of our teachers, was her maid of honour. I had never attended a Catholic wedding ceremony, least of all a Filipino one. Remembering snatches of my own wedding service, I intoned solemnly: “We are gathered here today to witness the joining together in holy matrimony …”, and then read a lengthy extract from the Sermon on the Mount. It seemed to go down well.

The happy couple exchanged rings with no prompting from myself, and Mrs Castelotte did something elaborate with a silk cloth which she tied round both their hands. Then her husband Pio stepped up with his guitar and led the congregation in a very lovely ‘Ave Maria’.

Then it was my turn again. I repeated the words I could remember from past weddings. “Speak now or forever hold your peace…Let no man put asunder…Do you George Villacero?… Do you Natividad Balangue? …I now pronounce you man and wife…..You may kiss the bride….”

Joe Joyce said that if we had rehearsed it for a week beforehand it could not have gone more smoothly. Mrs Castelotte said that it was the first time any of them had attended a Presbyterian form of wedding ceremony. It was, she said, very different from the Catholic service which they were used to back home, but they had all found it very moving.

A week or so later the Dutch priest arrived on the estate. He asked to see me in my office. I braced myself for what I expected to be an unholy row. Not for the first time the Father surprised me.

“I want to thank you, my son, for performing the ceremony on my behalf. It is of course perfectly permissible for a lay person to perform a wedding ceremony in an emergency. All that remains now is for me to formally bless the union. Natividad tells me that it was a beautiful wedding.”


Datuk Leslie Davidson
Author, East of Kinabalu
Former Chairman, Unilever Plantations International

This is the second part of an edited chapter from the book published in 2007. It can be purchased from the Incorporated Society of Planters;  email:


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