Remembering a ‘Saint’

Requiem Mass

Fr Cosmas Lee (second right, front row) seen alongside Archbishop John Wong, Archbishop Emeritus John Lee and other priests during the Requiem Mass for the late Brother Charles O’Leary at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kota Kinabalu. – pic by Mary Chin

Full text of Fr Cosmas Lee’s homily

Requiem Mass for Bro Charles O’Leary, FSC
Dec 28, 2015

“BELOVED Brothers in the religious family of Bro Charles, friends and associates, Brothers and sisters in the Baby Lord Jesus.

The late Bro Charles.

I wonder if Bro Charles would have agreed with the Archbishop for asking me to give the homily in his requiem Mass, for I fear that I was one of the few who had dared to stand up to him on several occasions. But that was a long time ago, before he turned 70, and I, 52. Our first act of devotion today is to turn to God, the Almighty Giver, whom we must bless and thank, for the gift of Bro Charles.

To have seen Brother is to have seen a lot of our Good God – his fierce loyalty, devoted and yes, consecrated care for the young, who are not so young now and their loved ones especially in the sacred field of education.

At the first news of his death on Xmas eve, a friend of mine spontaneously said: “A full life and a perfect end!”  Instead of dragging on from 87 and left wondering about where and how to be nursed as he began to lose grip of body and mind, God took him and embraced him to himself, swiftly and mercifully. In the mystery of life, it’s not that common when good things happen to good people!

As a religious man, he leaves us in the Year of Consecrated Life; as a mortal not without fault, he goes on the 22nd day of this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy; and it was Xmas eve, having just celebrated Mass and having listened to the Gospel of Zachariah’s Benedictus, and received communion; he was in perfect clarity of mind and still having enough physical mobility many would envy at his age. In fact he was walking to drive home from church when he collapsed.

As good La Sallians many of us should know our own history.

Born 15 Oct 1927, Michael O’Leary joined the Brothers of Christian Schools in 1945, took the name Bro Charles Dionysius, and was sent to Borneo in 1951 when he started teaching at St Joseph’s Secondary School in Kuching until 1957. Along with Bro Rafael Egan and Thomas Carney, he arrived at Jesselton in January 1958.

He was in La Salle as teacher, assistant principal and principal till he retired in 1985. When he died last Thursday, he was still fully and actively in charge of Benildus House a boarding home for outstation students. Countless people have been inspired and deeply influenced by his life and work in Borneo spanning nearly six and a half decades.  You can find the full data of his life and work and his legacies in the Archdiocese of Kota Kinabalu website.

Allow me to speak briefly and very personally on the wonders of God in Brother. The last time I had time to sit and chat with Brother was on Sunday the 29 Nov last when we invited him to St Simon Likas for the blessing of the renovated church, first communion and confirmation. Another Lasallian and I were supposed to have taken him to dinner during Advent but alas I couldn’t make it with the nightly confessions. We sent him 3 bottles of red wine less than 3 weeks before he left, and are still wondering if he drank any.

Like many of his students we have tried to look after our old bachelor teacher to show him that we have not been that ungrateful. Recently, with childlike delight, he told me the story of how a number of his students  in one of his favourite classes took him on a pleasure trip and wheel-chaired him around on a tour of Ho Chi Minh City, which he enjoyed tremendously.

But … for a number of years after taking my school leaving certificate from Bro Brendan the principal in 1967,  my memories of him were not exactly positive,  memories of the infamous disciplinarian who would not suffer fools likely, less the recalcitrant student.

With the vilest Irish temper, which even in half flare, would turn the redhead face purple not unlike that of a cock turkey beating off a competitor, sparing not his hands or the rottan or the blackboard duster. Thank God my class had him only for Scripture and English Literature unlike some of you in the boarding house who had to live in closer quarters with him.

Then the miracle happened…it must have been around the time of his retiring from school. He shifted, mellowed and changed, bringing to the fore splendidly the many God-given gifts in him. In my more matured vision he appeared more and more like, shall I say it, a saint, some reincarnation of St John Baptist de La Salle that we heard so much about in school and in the seminary.

I thank God for Brother’s faithfulness to the vow of and consecration to  poverty and simplicity. He was not attached to earthly things. Whether you give him the finest whiskies, a new car,  a datukship, or put his name in front of the school hall, he would in his unique innocent laughs acknowledge and accept the truth of his deserving, but you could never spoil him; he was always free and incorruptible, a rare virtue these days! Just look at how he lived his final days in the little quarter at Benildus house! Because of his detachment from earthly things he became all things to all people. What a tremendous witness in this materially obsessed world!

I thank God for the great gift of Presence in Brother. He had such a phenomenal gift to remember people, their names, their connections, their needs, their joys and sorrows. In fact the last thing he said to me was to help a dear friend to come home to church. And he sounded he was begging me. And when brother asked you to do something, you will be damned by your conscience if you don’t carry it out. Such was his inspiring influence and moral authority.

When I asked another good La Sallian what he would say if he was to preach at his funeral, this is some of what he said: “I would mention the numerous lives he influenced in his career in the schools and on retiring from school, in running Benildus House.  It is truly God’s grace to see his energy in the running of Benildus House to his last days.

At Benildus house, he looked after the maintenance of the house, reviewed the report cards of each boarder (thank God his temper has moderated in his senior years), joined them in prayers, maintained discipline.  What an example of God’s love for Neighbour he showed by this shelter of the young from towns outside Kota Kinabalu and assuring the parents that their children would be looked after by Brother.

There was no need to continue running Benildus House and the easy option for him was to retire gracefully to the Brothers retirement home in Ireland , where he would have much comfort.  It was his sheer will and total dedication and love of service that he continued till his last day.”

Have you ever found Brother not accepting an invitation without a really grave reason??? Except for those working in the funeral parlours, I dare say there are very few people, if any, in KK, who have attended more funeral services than Brother Charles, and in response, so many of you are here to attend his in return. The same could be said about his presence at the weddings of his students, their children and even their grandchildren. In Brother we have seen a lot of God, our Emmanuel, the God-with-us, in good and bad times. In  Brother’s presence it was always Christmas!

Finally, I thank God above all for brother’s gift of the Christian faith.  He was a firmly grounded person, rooted in the good old Irish Catholic faith, loyal to his daily prayers and Mass, his spiritual exercises. He was deeply a religious and churchman.

Hurt by the many scandals in the church especially in his native Ireland, he was never naïve and never stopped being interested and well informed. He kept his faith and run the race, to the finish. That deeply Christian faith of his has been the source and wellspring of who he was and what he did.

In the Gospel read today, Jesus told us that there are many rooms in his Father’s house. May Brother be indulged with the boundless mercy of the Father.

And by the help of that same divine mercy we are confident that he will be assigned to a room infinitely greater than his Benildus House or the VIP room at Fook Luk Siew Funeral Parlour! Requiscat in pacem! May he rest in the peace he so well deserves!  Amen.”

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