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Christians of Palasari – A historical perspective and impact on Bali by Mark Ulyseas
This is truly the island of the gods for even though Hinduism is the dominant religion (93.5% approx) other faiths exist in pockets across Bali. In the West of Bali there are a number of mosques along the coast and if one turns off the road and heads into the hills that border the National Park one will come across a small community of Balinese Catholics in an area called Palasari in Melaya sub district, about 90 km from Denpasar (the largest town and seat of the Governor of Bali).
In the centre of the settlement of over 1,300 Balinese Catholics is a big church with many spires amidst mango trees, vanilla, coconut, coffee, cocoa, nutmeg and rice fields. It is a thriving village that has often been referred to by many as a possible role model for the rest of Bali.
So how did Christianity get a foothold on the island? How has it survived the onslaught of historical factors like colonisation and political upheavals to build a seamless bridge between its flock and the predominantly devout Balinese Hindus – whose way of life is an endless stream of devotion to their pantheon of Gods and Goddesses? The answer to this probably lies in the psyche of the Balinese and their acceptance of all things spiritual.
This brief historical account of the Balinese Christians and the priests that led the flock, throws light on hitherto little known facts about this isle and its vibrant ethos.
It is claimed that the king of Klungkung despatched a letter to the Portuguese in Malaka, written on a lontar [Palmyra palm] in 1635, which said, “I would be very pleased if, henceforth, we become friends and people come to this port to trade. I would also be happy if the priests come here so that whosoever wishes may embrace the Christian religion.”
On March 11, 1635 two priests, Father de Azevedo SY and Father Manuel Carnalho SY departed Malaka for Bali. Unfortunately, there are no historical records of what transpired from this meeting or the fate of the priests. It was only in 1865, two Protestant missionaries from the Zending Utrecht Association, R.V.0nech and Y de Vroom arrived to study the language and culture besides evangelizing. Y de Vroom was murdered on June 8, 1881 for reasons unknown. In the ensuing years The Netherlands’ government banned missionaries from operating in Bali. Even though the letter from the Apostolic Vicar of Batavia to the Dutch Governor General requesting permission to work in Bali was approved on May 24 1891 it was not until September 16 1913 that Monsignor Petrus Noyen SVD came to Bali and said,
“I hope the time comes/has come when we can do missionary work in Bali, but only priests who are truly humble, patient, holy and learned will succeed in the midst of the Balinese people; for the first 10 years of mission work no repentance can be expected. But when the time comes to begin harvesting I believe that Balinese Christians will be an exemplary faithful congregation in Indonesia. They will be people who are capable of filling positions in commerce, the arts and politics, as well as holding ecclesiastical office. ”
In 1929 Monsignor Leven posted two priests, Vod der Hayden SVD in Mataram, Lombok and J Kersten SVD in Denpasar, Bali. The later became an expert in Balinese language and culture.
The legendary Father Simon Bois SVD
Born in Mendlik, a small town in The Netherlands, he entered the Societus Verbi Divini –SVD – Society of the Divine Word) on 0ctober 10, 1910, at the age of 18. He was assigned to work in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in 1919. Brother Bois worked for a month and a half with Father van Lith in Muntilan Magelen before heading to Ende (Flores). It was during the short stint with Father van Lith that he was confronted with the side effects of colonisation – poverty and illiteracy and this left an indelible mark on his psyche. Even though he worked as a school inspector in Lesser Sunda he was constantly reminded of the ravages of colonisation.
In 1921, along with Monsignor Noyen SVD, he approached the Governor General for permission to set up schools in Bali viz. Denpasar and Klungkung (now called Semarapura). In September the same year his request was approved by the local government to establish a HIS school (Hollandsch Inlandsch School) in Gianyar. Brother Bois travelled to the USA (1922 -1925) to continue his studies in theology where his interest grew in Art and the role of the bioscope, which took him to Hollywood.
He was ordained Father Simon Bois, SVD near Chicago in March 1925. It was not long before he was recalled to Bali by Father J. Kersten to assist in the ongoing humanitarian work because of his deep understanding of Balinese culture and the diversity of customary laws known as ‘Desa, Kala, Patra’ (time, place, circumstance).
On June 01, 1936 coinciding with the Pentecostal Feast, I Made Bonong and I Wayan Diblug from Tuka were baptised – they were the first Balinese Christians of the area.
From 1940 to 1942 construction began on 200 hectares of land near Tuka, which was given to the church by the government. It was carpeted with dense forest, the majority of trees being that of nutmeg (pala/pele). The newly established village was called Palasari (‘Pale’ means Pala/forest, and ‘Sari’ – essence, which in Biblical terms stands for ‘yeast’). However, there are other interpretations of how Palasari got its name.
Initially, 18 families from Tuka and six from Gambuh moved to the ‘promised land’. But many returned to their villages because of the harsh living conditions and the wild animals that inhabited the area. Only 18 people remained to help Father Bois SVD establish the village and the makeshift church.
The success of Palasari attracted people from the surrounding areas and prompted the local government and King of Jembrana to grant the church an additional 200 hectares.
During the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1946, Father Bois was arrested and incarcerated in Singaraja. However, two catechists Philipus Parera from East Tenggara and I Nyoman Pegeg carried on the ecclesiastical work.
When Father Bois returned to Palasari village it had grown rapidly and expansion of the settlement took it across the river to Sangiang Gede, which is the site of the current village of Palasari.
In 1947 a major outbreak of malaria in the village claimed many lives. The three volunteers who helped Father Bois and his parishioners to combat the disease were Ibu Ayu Kendar Sabda Kusuma, Asst. Priest Blanken SVD and Brother Ignasius AM de Vrieze SVD. The aftermath saw the creation of a basic framework for Palasari’s development.
Father Bois was appointed as the parish priest of Singaraja in 1950 A year later on a visit to his homeland, The Netherlands, he passed away. Father B. Blanken SVD became the parish priest of Palasari and held the post till 1970.
The church post-Father Simon Bois SVD
1951 – 2010. The present imposing place of worship –Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was designed by Brother Adrianus de Vrieze, Ida Bagus Tugur a well known Balinese architect and I Gusti Nyoman Rai. The architecture is a curious mix of Gothic and Balinese! Monsignor Albert O. Carm, Bishop of Malang, inaugurated the building on December 13, 1958.
1968 – First Balinese ordained priest – Servasius Subagha SVD
1969 – First Balinese becomes a nun – Ni Wayan Rika, later christened Sister Hubertine.
The 50th anniversary of the parish was celebrated on September 9, 1990.
The present parish priest, Father Louresius Maryono Pr., has continued the work of Father Bois SVD by maintaining good relations with other faiths and government bodies with the policy of not being exclusive but inclusive with emphasis on education, development of the community in social and economic areas.
Father Simon Bois SVD had been instrumental in bringing about a change in the attitudes of the locals in the area: Empowerment of the villagers in terms of primary health care and hygiene, development of vocational skills, raising of living standards with education as the basis for all round progress for a sustainable future.
Of course, one cannot ignore the fact that religious indoctrination is continuing to play an important role in moulding the parishioners into responsible and productive citizens.
Today the village has a school, vocational training centre, medical centre, sports facilities, orphanage, Franciscan Monastery and three all Catholic Banjars.
A Balinese Catholic
Al Purwa is a second generation Balinese Catholic, Honorary Dutch Consul, District Governor of Indonesia (Rotary Club), successful businessman and philanthropist.
“When I was in high school I decided I didn’t want to be poor. I became a tour guide, waiter and sold soap that a friend and I made, to pay for university. I met my wife Marina while working at Puri Saran Kanging in Ubud. We married on January 5, 1976. When I told my father about my marriage he replied that Father Simon Bois had mentioned to him 25 years earlier that both families would unite. Incidentally, when my father I Wayan Ripug, a Hindu, became an orphan at the age of seven it was Father Bois SVD who sent him to Flores to study. Later he became a teacher in an elementary school and also a catechist. My wife’s ancestor was none other than Father Bois SVD!
Father Simon Bois’s philosophy was to travel through poor districts educating people and thereby empowering them to improve their lives in all spheres. His basic teaching was – make peace with yourself, make peace with your family and spread this peace in the community. He believed that education was the basic foundation upon which one had to build one’s life.”
Al’s wife Marina believes that one should not compare oneself to those who have more but to those who have less: “As a Catholic I have this feeling of belonging and being taken care of by my God. In my religion the rules are meant to help me be a productive and peaceful member of society. The teaching of forgiveness is paramount and therefore easy to follow”.
Parish priest Father Louresius Maryono Pr.
“0ur parishioners are Balinese. They are no different from their fellow men across the isle; even mass is conducted in the Balinese language. And this is what makes our community so unique.
Very small numbers of western tourists have visited us. Catholic groups from Java and Sumatra have been increasing in number. Tourism would bring financial and religious benefits to the parishioners by stimulating the growth of ‘informal economic sectors’.
The truth is not many tourists know about Palasari. We are hoping our Church leaders, as well as, government and even the media would consider putting Palasari on the tourist map by promoting it as a Catholic religious centre because it is rare on an island of a thousand temples.
This is the ethos of Bali, of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect.
So let us share it with the rest of the world.”