Every visit by Father Berthold was something to look forward to. But even then, who would have realised the extent to which this missionary priest from the Church of St Anne inflamed the heart and soul of Peter Koh to become a missionary himself.
Peter, the youngest of seven children in the Koh family,
grew up in his father's farm in Punggol, a rural district in Singapore. His
parents, Dominic and Theresa, are Catholics, as were their parents before
From a very early age, Peter, as well as his two brothers and four sisters, were taught the values of Christian faith and love. But it was Father Berthold by whom he was most inspired.
"I remember him vividly even to this day," says Peter. "He was a fatherly character, always caring and mindful of his parishioners. He was a foreigner, yet he spoke fluent Teochew (a Chinese dialect) and he could relate so well to all of us in the neighbourhood. I used to wonder how he did it. I was really amazed and impressed by him and, I guess, that's how my feelings of a missionary life of adventure and excitement grew ... deep in my heart, I cherished a desire to be one day like him."
As time passed, new ambitions did emerge. Peter
thought of being a teacher in his secondary school days. He had been helping
friends in their school work and thought: "Well, I rather like teaching and
in so doing, I can help others, too".
Yet later, he felt that teaching might not be a well-paying job; so, his next choice was to work in a bank. But both of these passing fancies remained just that - fleeting ambitions. By the time he reached junior college, he had an inkling that his real calling was to be a priest.
"There was no clear sign from God. But I felt an increasing
desire, a search in my heart for something more in life," says Peter. Hence,
despite the fact that he was offered a place to study business administration
at the National University of Singapore, Peter decided in no uncertain terms
to head straight into a priestly vocation immediately after his National
His ultimate vocation, with Scheut Missions - CICM, was another story. Peter, after having looked at various possibilities, including joining the Franciscans or Redemptorists, had initially decided on becoming a diocesan priest. The Scheut Missions was 'out' at that point in time because he thought the CICM did not accept local candidates. In retrospect, the Lord's calling to Peter was clearly towards the missionary track.
While waiting to join the seminary, Peter had a nagging feeling that diocesan priesthood was not quite what he wanted. "I somehow wasn't satisfied with the idea of being a diocesan priest. It didn't seem to be what Father Berthold had inspired in me," he says.
Then, he chanced upon a Scheut Missions brochure left casually at home by his sister who had attended a vocation presentation. (Incidentally, that sister is now Sister Agnes Claire of Marymount Convent; she made her final vows in October 1997 at the Church of Christ the King in Singapore.) Reading it, he realised that the CICM was actually open to local candidates. He contacted Father Frans De Ridder and, within a few months of discussions with him and familiarisation with the mission, Peter decided to switch from diocesan to the CICM.
Thus began a series of studies and training prior to his ordination as a CICM missionary priest. He stayed for a while with the Scheut Missions (that was located then at Nassim Road) while studying philosophy at the Punggol seminary.
proceeded to Taiwan for his novitiate. Fifteen months later, he returned to
Singapore before leaving for the Philippines for four years of philosophy and
theology studies, and then to Zambia for three years of internship, and
finally back to Manila for a final year of supervised theological reflection
of his work in Africa.
Undoubtedly, some of his deepest memories of his journey to priesthood came from Zambia's Copperbelt where he had his first missionary experience. It was also in Zambi where he was ordained a deacon on 12 November 1995 in the parish of St. Maximullian in Kitwe.
Like most foreigners, Peter had arrived in Zambia expecting to find himself on a safari sojourn. So it was quite a dose of cultural shock for him to find that, in fact, Zambia was anything but a safari.
"I was first of all awed by everything around me, not least of which was the colour of my own skin. I had never been so self-conscious; I felt as if everybody was looking at me," he says. The economic situation in Zambia, particularly in the Copperbelt where he was based, was also a far cry from what he was accustomed to in Singapore. "The shops," he says, "had so few things in them, unlike Singapore where we are used to seeing a great variety of goods and everything we need for daily living."
Like most foreigners, Peter had arrived in Zambia expecting to find himself on a safari sojourn. So it was quite a dose of cultural shock for him to find that, in fact, Zambia was anything but a safari. "I was first of all awed by everything around me, not least of which was the colour of my own skin. I had never been so self-conscious; I felt as if everybody was looking at me," he says. The economic situation in Zambia, particularly in the Copperbelt where he was based, was also a far cry from what he was accustomed to in Singapore. "The shops," he says, "had so few things in them, unlike Singapore where we are used to seeing a great variety of goods and everything we need for daily living."
But if economic hardship and cultural differences were tough to adapt to in the beginning, Zambia also provided Peter much food for thought and learning.
For one, the Zambians were a friendly people - sometimes to the extent of being extremely frank in their views. "Why are you so slow in learning our language?" one said to Peter.
Living in Zambia also made Peter realise the value of human relationships. "I have now come to cherish human relationships much more than before. Human relationships are far more important than money and time or getting a job done. Having lived and worked in Zambia, I now see how we in Singapore have become so task-oriented that we run the risk of losing the value of human relationships. "In Zambia, people are not so conscious of time and I have to keep checking myself, especially in the beginning. Now, back in Singapore, I have to remind myself not to fall into that task-oriented habit again."
For Peter, the first year in Africa
was a year spent patiently learning the Zambian language,
Chibemba, and getting adjusted to the way of living. But following
turned enthusiastically, among others, to assisting the local CICM priests to
help the villagers, working in the fields and shanty towns and on a new
project: starting a school for the young. "I was involved in working with
the local Christian community, numbering about 3,000 in that area, especially
with the youth, helping them with their English. We decided to go a step
further, to build a school in which we could teach the youngsters aged between
nine and 15, to help them to learn reading and arithmetic.
"Our goal is not so much to put up a physical school, a physical building in that sense of the word. We would gladly have taught the students under a tree if that was all we had. Our desire was to build people, getting them equipped with the right values and skills," adds Peter. Some may call it idealism. But then what is missionary work without ideals such as these?
And for Peter and the CICM team at Zambia, the dream of "building" the young has in fact taken off well. Some 60 youth were brought into the programme last year, and this year there are plans to add a new section to accommodate another 30 students. "I'm really happy with the progress and I'm looking forward to continuing the work in this area when I go back to Zambia after my ordination," Peter said.
While he misses his family, he knows he is needed far more out there in the missionary field. Ask him about his vocation and the praises from this young man come out loud and clear. "This is a very exciting vocation," he emphasises. "You get to meet different people, climb mountains, cross rivers ... It's difficult but it's challenging, and most of all, it is very meaningful."
An avid reader, whose favourite author is Jeffrey Archer, Peter writes in his spare time poems and personal reflections, including his experiences in Zambia. One day, he hopes to be able to publish these memoirs. But for now, being ordained a missionary priest is already a dream fulfilled. As he wrote in one of his reflections:
With determination, hardwork and the grace of God, Peter is confident he can embrace his mission as a servant of the Lord with 'One heart, one soul' as so many CICM missionaries - and others like Father Berthold of the MEP - have done before him.