Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tribute to Fr. Joseph Dapoz

I still remember, the last time I met the late Rev. Fr. Joseph Dapoz, was when he was in his late 80's. At that time, he still managed to stand-up and walk a bit, most of the time needing the support of his walking stick. He was, as usual, always conversing fluently in Kadazan whenever he met up with the locals. One thing that I will never forget about him is his 'sharp and vivid' memories. When I told him my father's name, instantly he could recall how my father used to do 'this' and 'that'...and shamed on me, I couldn't keep up with his conversation all because of poor communication....yes, I am one of those kids who does not converse local dialect at home.

Dear Father Dapoz, you 'Rest-In-Peace' have fought the good fight and now it is time to rest and wait for your reward. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Mercy continuously intercede for you until you are released from your infirmity. Please pray for me when you have entered into beatific vision.

_________________________________________Father Joseph Dapoz, the last foreign missionary in Sabah, who passed away on Feb 22, served the Catholic Church in the state for 63 years.

“He was always a zealous servant of the Gospel, building the Kingdom of God generously without counting the cost,” recalled Archbishop John Lee.

Dapoz, 91, died at the Holy Family Residence Senior Home in Purak, Papar, south of Kota Kinabalu. He was laid to rest four days later at the Catholic cemetery here.

After retiring from active ministry in 1995, Dapoz served as a chaplain to the Holy Family Residence Senior Home.

He did return “home” to Holland briefly after his retirement only to discover that his real home was in Sabah.

During his long stay in the state, Dapoz served at various parishes in Limbahau, Papar, Penampang, Inanam, Keningau, Toboh, Tambunan, Tuaran, Kepayan and Tanjung Aru.

In the book, Dapoz MHM: Portrait of The Last Dinosaur, co-authored by Leonard Alaza and Rita Lasimbang, Dapoz said that all his life had been “devoted to answering God’s call’.

He told the authors that he was looking forward to the final call from God. “When the phone rings, I will pick it up. He (God) has my number,” he said.

Special permission

Dapoz was born on Nov 9, 1920 in the mountain village of Wengen in Tyrol, then in Austria. After World War 11, Tyrol was divided between Austria and Italy and Dapoz ended up in the Italian half.

He was ordained by special permission on June 29, 1944 just five months short of his 24th birthday, the minimum age required by the church to be ordained a priest.

In May 1948, he was sent to serve in British North Borneo (Sabah) as part of the Mill Hill Missionary Society based in London.

He once recalled that he heard a voice in his head, telling him to go to North Borneo or the Philippines to take the place of missionaries killed there by Japanese occupation forces.

Mill Hill promoted education and provided medical assistance at a time when such assistance was unavailable from the government or society. It also built churches, schools and houses for the people.

If there’s one thing that many people remember about Dapoz, it was his remarkable ability to remember even years later those he had met only once. To remember is to live.

In Sabah, the conflict between the church and adat (custom) was resolved somewhat through missionaries like Dapoz. For one, he was willing to concede that the funeral customs and traditions of the Murut and Dusun – including the Kadazan (urban Dusun) – were not against Christian teachings.

For example, when the gongs (dunsai) were beaten, it was to celebrate the life and times of the deceased. It was a simple ceremony to send off the deceased to Hibabou, the next life, or Heaven.

Dark days

Many churchmen like Dapoz found it difficult to accept catechumens – lay church people – who had many wives. It took quite some time before the Christian concept of one man, one wife was accepted by the faithful among the Dusun.

Nevertheless, Dapoz immersed himself in the customs and traditions of the Dusun without compromising his faith and upbringing.

Dapoz was willing to meet with the Bobohizan (traditional priestess) but as persons and not as their being pagans. He met the Bobohizan in places like Keningau and Penampang where they were friendly towards him and busied themselves with cooking river fish, his favourite, for him.

Eventually some Bobohizan embraced Christianity through Dapoz but also through the work of others like him.

Dapoz’s fluency in the Kadazandusun language and Dusun dialects was legendary. He also spoke Ladin, his mother tongue, and English, German, French, Italian and Latin.

He was once asked by the local media why his “work permit” was not cancelled during the “dark days” of the church in Sabah under the regime of Mustapha Harun, the then chief minister. It was a time when so many foreign missionaries were deported from the state.

Dapoz’s reply was that he only knew how to work with and for the people and never spoke out of turn.

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