Air of gloom as Church orders villagers to vacate land



“Please help us”: Some of the villagers who are not sure what to do next – Photo by Anil Netto

Villagers in a dozen households next to the St Francis Xavier’s Church face uncertainty after receiving three letters over the last year from lawyers acting on behalf of the Catholic Church in Penang.

The residents had been ordered to vacate their premises by 31 May 2009 (which happens to be Pentecost Sunday, marking the coming of the Holy Spirit). In the latest letter of 19 May 2009, they have been granted a second extension until 31 May 2010 on “humanitarian grounds”, provided they agree in writing to compensation of RM10,000. If not, they have to vacate their homes by this Sunday.

The lawyer’s letter states the church can afford to provide only RM10,000 as it is a “non-profit religious institution”. Lay Catholics, however, are not in a position to judge whether the church can afford to pay more as its diocesan accounts are not made public to them as a matter of course.

Allow me to introduce you to some of the villagers the church wants to evict (see photo above, from left):

Augustin Martin, 82, raised at the nearby orphanage in the early 1930s. He was a church organist during World War II and worked as a driver for the Kee Huat company in his younger days. Occupant of house no. 52-E.

Arokiasamy Dass, 84, born here in 1925, former JKR tractor driver. His father arrived here around 1920 just before getting married. Occupant of house no. 52-H.

Olga Fernandez, 71, arrived here before the war. Her family originally settled in the area in the late 1920s. Occupant of house no. 52-G.

Bellimin Rajah, 70, worked as a Cold Storage clerk. He remembers crouching in his house when George Town was being bombed by the Japanese during World War II: “A big stone dropped on my sister’s back,” he recalls. Occupant of house no. 52-C.

Manimathu, 74, widow of the late Mr Selva. She has lived here since 1949. Occupant of house no. 52-F.

Jayamary is Bellimin’s wife. She arrived here in 1967, after getting married.

Anthony Muthu, 79, a former ludlow (headline layout) operator for the now defunct Straits Echo. He has lived here since 1937. Occupant of house no. 52-Q.  His father, Sinnasamy Appasamy, arrived here after his marriage.

Theresa Savari, 60, is Anthony’s wife. She arrived here after their marriage.

Among those not in the photo above:

Santhanam Sinasamy, 82. Occupant of house no. 52-P.

Lourdesamy s/o Ponnudurai, 60. Occupant of house no. 52-I.

One of the villagers remembers a Japanese officer looking for a base in the area for his troops during World War II. “When he came over and saw us and the other children, he decided not to disturb or evict us. Instead, they used the Chinese school behind, next door. Imagine, even the Japanese occupying forces didn’t ask us to leave.”

“(French priest) Fr Louis Riboud really sayang Augustin (the organist) and he told our families we could live on the land,” recalls another villager.

The parish originally catered to Tamil Catholics in George Town, many of them poor and from the working class.

Now, the lawyers’ letter states that the church wants the villagers to vacate their land so that it can be used for “charitable and social purposes”. The Bishop maintains there are no plans to sell the land.

But it is not clear why the church wants the villagers to move out of this prime land now and what exactly it intends to do with the land.

The old buildings of St Joseph’s orphanage next door have already been demolished and the site presently is walled up and has been lying idle for years. The Lighthouse drop-in centre next door has no immediate expansion plans.

“Whatever happened to the parable of the Good Samaritan?” asks Anthony Muthu, one of the villagers. “Is it only meant to be preached during Sunday sermons? Why is no one putting it into practice and helping us? Where do we go, at this age, looking for low-cost housing with RM10,000 in compensation? Which bank will give us housing loans at our age?”

The church hierarchy points out that some of the residents have not paid their rents for a few years.

But the residents say they have spent a few thousand ringgit of their own money for roof repairs and collapsed walls. They thought that the church would overlook their rent over the last couple of years as the villagers had taken care of the repairs at their own expense.

“In any case, if the church felt that we had defaulted on rent, shouldn’t it first have issued lawyer’s letters demanding payment of rental like landlords usually do instead of keeping quiet and then all of a sudden, asking us to vacate the premises?” asked Anthony. “By their silence, we felt that church leaders understood our predicament and our need to carry out repairs.”

What hurts the villagers most is that all dealings are now through the church’s lawyers, without any avenue for face-to-face consultation with church leaders. That puts the villagers at a disadvantage as they cannot afford lawyers of their own. “What happened to all the Catholic lawyers?” wonders one of them.

“They claim we are outsiders,” observes another. “But we have lived here much longer than those who accuse us of being outsiders. It is the bishop and his priests who are the newcomers here.”

I guess it’s a lot easier to evict faceless, nameless people, strangers whom we do not know – using a lawyer as an intermediary.  But imagine if these people were our own family members, our parents or grandparents….

Andrew Aeria, a Catholic, has a suggestion: “If the church really needs land for social, cultural and religious use, it could use the spacious premises at No. 1 Bell Road for this purpose.” Recalling previous controversial land deals, Andrew suspects that the church hierarchy has a long-term plan to dispose of the St Francis Xavier’s Church land for commercial gain – even though the Bishop has dismissed such accusations as “absolute nonsense”.

Meanwhile, the despairing residents say they are praying that the Holy Spirit will guide and touch those who are trying to help them.

This is a report from the latest Herald, from the Penang Bishop’s perspective:

No plans to sell church land, Bishop Selva

PENANG: Bishop Antony Selvanayagam has refuted claims that the diocese is planning to sell a portion of its land to the Cititel Hotel for development.

“That is absolute nonsense,” said Bishop Selva.

“The land on the grounds of the St Francis Xavier Church off Jalan Penang has been earmarked for religious, charitable and cultural purposes.”

St Joseph’s Home, the Lighthouse, the learning centre and a century-old village are situated within the property.

The Church wants the villagers to vacate their rented houses for redevelopment according to religious, charitable and cultural purposes.

These villagers have not been paying their rent for the past 34 months.

Bishop Selva said that ample notice had been given to the residents to relocate.

The residents were initially asked to vacate the premises by Nov 30 last year. They were later given an extension until May 31 this year.

It is understood the residents are being offered ex-gratia payment of RM10,000 each, with rental arrears deducted from the amount.

Bishop Selva explained that “so far two persons have accepted the payment and have left while another 12 remain.”

Another issue, which cropped up during this standoff has been the contention that the village is situated in the Unesco heritage zone. But Bishop Selva clarified that the village is situated outside the heritage zone but within the buffer zone.

“This means that we cannot demolish the houses but we can redesign the interior to suit the different needs of the organisation or group which will be using the houses.”

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Maxwell Sim
Maxwell Sim
17 Nov 2010 12.42am

It is sad indeed that so many people still misunderstand the reasons behind why the Church would like to sell the land if at all. I have heard of cases where the Church has been forced off its own land by the very people it has charitably housed on its grounds after the fifty or so odd years. Let’s face it..most of these residents have been squatting on Church land for many many years now. Like Mdm Roselyn Chong have said, where are their children? I don’t think the Diocesan authorities would want a situation where one day these squatters… Read more »

8 Sep 2010 11.56pm

anil you are real have speak on behave of the poor God Bless you.

22 Jun 2009 12.15pm

hahahah!!!…..Malaysian lor…

21 Jun 2009 7.07pm

hahaha jerry hahaha. why laaa??? peace 😀 🙂

12 Jun 2009 9.07pm


Why laaa you deleted all my comments from here?

I think cos the same comments were sent to different posts at the same time, but I thought they were all duplicate for the same post. – Anil

9 Jun 2009 10.59am

“WHATSOEVER YOU DO TO THE LEAST OF MY BRETHREN, THAT YOU DO UNTO ME”. The church must ensure it doesn’t qualify itself as “the cursed” in Matthew 25:41 To all the Andrews & Khoo’s, you are spot-on in understanding and practical application of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. To all the gregs and Samuels, read and re-read the 4 gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A SPM form 5 student can finish these books over the weekend and understand the gist of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. To Dissapointed, you qualify yourself as “the cursed” in… Read more »

9 Jun 2009 10.09am

To all Catholics responding to this report, as your brother in Christ, I would like to advise you NOT TO condemn those who hi light the plight of the poor in such manner or God’s wrath and fury might come upon you and your families.

I quote from the gospel Matthew 25:41 –

“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”.

These were the words of Jesus.

8 Jun 2009 1.01pm

Shalom. I was at Holy Spirit Church in greenlane last sunday when the priest highlighted this matter and in his wisdom encouraged us to investigate further for the truth before shooting off our feelings. Many of our feelings may have been based on so called facts that we feel are true, to our knowledge that is. I have to agree that the Bishop could have and can still have better means to deal with this matter. The reasons why there is such ill feelings towards the Bishop ( I cannot say the Church because obviously, the Bishop is not the… Read more »

8 Jun 2009 2.16am

To all Catholics responding to this report, as yr brother in Christ, i would like to advise you NOT TO condemn the Bishop, Clergy or Church in such manner or God’s wrath and fury might come upon you and your families. If you have anything to say to the Bishop, clergy or church, use the proper approach and channels instead of venting out your frustrations in a site that is visible to just anyone. To Anil, I hope you will remove this post. It is going to do more harm than good. I appreciate your concerns – but this post… Read more »

Roselyn Chong
Roselyn Chong
6 Jun 2009 12.30pm

Hmmm… couldn’t help but notice Astro dishes on the roofs. While I do sympathise with these people because of their age, they have been staying on the land as tenants for years at a minimal rental rate. I’m sure they were working at one time because they must have had to sustain themselves. At RM60 to RM200 a month, where did the rest of their funds go? And I’m sure their children must have went to school and on to better things. Where is their responsibility in taking care of their aged parents? I’ve heard that some of these children… Read more »

3 Jun 2009 1.57am

The following is from the 19.04.09 church bulletin, from The Church of the Immaculate Conception, Pulau Tikus, Penang. READ and digest, re-read, and read between the lines. “Very often we priests hear of things happening in the Church, only after the fact, i.e. when your Bishop decided to sell part of the land in the compound of St. Francis Xavier, it was only after the sale that we heard about it… and we had to take the flak from you, the people. Our Church teaches/preaches transparency but often forgets to practise it… could be partly the fault of us, the… Read more »

3 Jun 2009 1.44am

DeePo, pls read my post again. Did I say I believed the money went to Rome?
Do you know how much money the Church reaped from the sale? Interest on it alone, compounded all these years, can erect more than a dozen churches.

2 Jun 2009 10.14pm

mmm on….

the money went to rome?

where u this theory…? i’ve heard this many years ago…but i do know where the money goes….it goes to church development!…not rome…

u ingat nk urus gereja senang ka? in a capitalism world like nowadays….everything needs money….

dun talking … lar.

2 Jun 2009 12.24pm

The Church’s public relations skills are zero. It should clearly explain the reason(s) why the residents are being asked to leave. Surely the plans for the redevelopment ought to be ready and should be revealed. People are reasonable but they hate it when the Church is hiding behind this cloak of secrecy….

johanssm / khun Pana
johanssm / khun Pana
2 Jun 2009 4.48am

If the church can afford to have a lawyer surely the church will be able to get a basic old folks home for them.
All the residents are 60 and above plus they were given permission to stay on that land years ago.
I do hope Penang’s PR state government will be able to help in this case. They just wanted a shelter

2 Jun 2009 1.23am

Since we’re talking Church finances, how many of you remember that the Church sold the land where Gurney Plaza is, for many, many, many millions. Some people say the money went to Rome… I doubt the Malaysian govt would have sat by and watched that capital take flight.

1 Jun 2009 9.23pm

and so you who are angry with bishop anthony, have u booked your
advance-booking into seventh-heaven. and where do u think that
bishop anthony be – your say?

1 Jun 2009 8.26pm

Much has been said but what now is the outcome??? Any suggestions?? Should the those people continue to stay or should they move? Should the bishop sell the land or should he not? Should the diocese accounts be made public or should it not? What should the diocese do with the money if the land is sold? We have all poured out our comment and opinions of which some has been done without sensitivity to any extant (aerias)and we should acknowledge everyone opinion and respect them except those of which who do not give respect too. Why dont now change… Read more »

1 Jun 2009 4.20pm

Allow me to summarize:
1) Taking in squatters on your land ….. foolish!
2) Reasoning with people who believes in the supernatural ….. foolish!

1 Jun 2009 1.37pm

Someone in the posts above was indignant there are some Astro dishes on the houses. I say, would you begrudge the old and poor their own dreams? I earlier asked of the Bishop, What would Jesus do in a similar circumstance? I know Love was paramount to him. I googled “poor in the Bible” for a lesson on loving the poor. The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern. Prov. 29:7. But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does… Read more »

1 Jun 2009 1.34pm

Attractive Altar boys, young Choir boys, money, sex, land …. all these thrown in …… is a potent mixture that clouds everyone’s eyes.

Maxwell Sim
Maxwell Sim
17 Nov 2010 12.46am
Reply to  KHOO JIN HUP

Mr Khoo,
if your son were to sin, am I to assume that your whole clan is guilty of the same sin as well? Same argument. The Church although universal in nature cannot account for the behaviour of a minute few that have strayed just as there would be a black sheep in every family and the Church has never condoned the actions on those priests who have betrayed their flock’s trust in them. We have made mistakes but the sin is not general to all Catholics.

anna brella
anna brella
1 Jun 2009 5.54am

As possession is usually nine tenths of the law, suggest the persecuted tenants stay put in their naturalised/rented homes and search for a good lawyer to act for them on a pro bono basis – suggest giving Malik Imtiaz, Haris Ibrahim, P Uthayakumar or Zaid Ibrahim a prospective tinkle. Perhaps the tenants can use, as did good Lord Denning, the doctrine of equitable estoppel as a shield against this apparently uncharitable, and potentially unconscionable, action by the Church illustrated here through the Christian voiced and human faced actions and behaviours of its institutional moral arbiter and representative executive head, the… Read more »

31 May 2009 11.08pm

Can we have the comments of our dear Bishop, please ? I am sure as a servant of God, he will be able to frankly inform us the facts of the case. Can we all, please refrain from commenting ‘for’ or against so fervently until we hear the truth from the bishop ?

31 May 2009 5.50pm

The Bishop should hold himself accountable to God. In the deepest recesses of his heart and in his loftiest prayers, he should be instructed by one simple question, What would Jesus do in a similar circumstance? That is the only question he should ask his conscience. To the worldy and pragmatic, that land has huge potential development value. To the Gregs and Samuels, what you say is fine if the land belonged to a corporation or a family… to be denied the financial fruits of that ownership is not quite fair. To a man of God, to sages and saints… Read more »

31 May 2009 12.33pm

it is sad. as sad as before abraham putting that knife at Isaac.
It is sad that fr Joachim kang in Singapore got to do even if it means losing all. We all know abraham’s result but fr joachim kang
theory is open.