“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.”