Brother Albinus or Michael O’Flaherty was born in Ballynoneen, County Kerry, Ireland on May 23, 1930, the youngest of eight siblings in a family of farmers. He was just four when he started school at Ballyduff National school, about a mile away.
He joined the La Salle Brothers at the age of 14 in Castletown in County Laois as the order was then actively recruiting young boys to be trained in response to appeals from overseas for Brothers to staff their many schools. Michael volunteered without even knowing what he was in for at that time. His mother, a devout Catholic, agreed but his father objected initially. However, he relented after he was convinced that the Brothers were doing good work and his son could always come back if he did not like the vocation.
Michael continued his education at Castletown before undergoing religious training in the Novitiate, where he was given the name Albinus. Inspired by the stories of some Brothers who had returned from the Far East after the war, he and several others volunteered to go East after finishing their religious and academic training.
In September 1951, he sailed for Singapore on the P&O Carthage. After a three-week journey and a transit of a few days in Penang, he arrived in Singapore on October 2 and began his teaching career at St. Joseph’s Institute.
“When we had Brother Albinus as our Form Master in Std. 8 (present-day Secondary 3 in Singapore and Form 4 in Malaysia) in 1953, we had surmised that he wasn’t much older than we were,” recalled his student, John Yip, the former director of education in Singapore,
“Yet, he effortlessly commanded our respect by example, as a caring and hard-working teacher. He was a mentor to all and interacted well with each one of us, both in the classroom and beyond, and in the process, helped to form our character and personality.
“He instilled in us the gumption to seek the truth whilst teaching us how to lead a meaningful life. On reflection, we could see he was consciously trying to know each one of us as individuals, and to understand our particular needs and aspirations in those difficult times not long after the Japanese Occupation,” added Yip in describing the young but emotionally mature teacher.
He played football and rugby and related well to his students through sports. “Brother Albinus stood out among them (the Irish Brothers). It was not a matter of his height or his Irish good looks. He was by nature somewhat reserved, but you just needed to mention the word ‘rugby’ to see his eyes light up, and he was really alive!” recalled Brother Harold Reynolds from the De La Salle Health Science Institute in Dasmarinas, Cavite, the Philippines. However, as he grew older, he enjoyed books and nature. His greatest pleasure was to spend a couple of days by the seaside, with an armful of books.
Albinus’ spirituality also made an impression on Brother Harold. “There was a quiet dignity about Albinus, too, that transcended the merely natural. There was much about him that told me when I was with him that I was on holy ground. It spoke to me of a man at peace with himself and with a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.”
In 1958, Brother Albinus returned to Ireland to pursue an English and Literature degree. Two years later, he was posted to Kuching where he taught at St. Joseph’s. During his 10 years there first as teacher and then as principal, he made an indelible mark on his former students — including many senior Sarawak politicians.
Chris Chua, the chief executive officer of St. Joseph’s Private School Management Bhd., observed that Albinus’ lifelong work was “to help every child develop a spirit of love, service and respect; and to fully respond to his/her God-given potential to learn and excel in all undertakings.”
However, he made an even greater impact when he was sent to the Sacred Heart Secondary School in Sibu in 1970 for the next 17 years. The students who were fortunate enough to have him as their teacher, attributed their success to Albinus. The book and DVD titled A Tribute to the Last Irish Brother in Sarawak contains stories of his students — Chinese, Malay, Dayak, Indian — who related how Albinus had personally coached them in their studies. Rich or poor, Albinus treated them equally by guiding, protecting and helping them even after their school years as well as giving financial aid to needy students.
Roland Ling, past president of the Sacred Hearts Alumni Association, paid the following tribute to their beloved teacher: “You came to Sibu in 1970, a towering figure in white. You became our teacher, our coach, our mentor, our father figure, our role model, our beloved Brother for 17 years and more.
“Your students first feared you, were awed by you, then understood you, then respected you, and finally all loved you. You have touched the lives of thousands, you lived by your principles, and you were resolute and faithful to the end. You have instilled the LaSallian spirit in us all.”
It was a great loss to Sibu when Brother Albinus retired as the principal of Sacred Heart in 1987 at the age of 57. However, he refused to leave Sarawak and continued to find ways to help students.
He went to Kuching where he took up the post of director of St. Patrick’s Private School until 1991. In 1992, he was appointed director of St. Joseph’s Parish Tuition Centre and, for a while, also lectured on World Religions at Inti College Kuching. Eunice Chew, former principal of St. Joseph’s Parish Tuition Centre, said Albinus’ motto was to “make the best of everyday and celebrate all that you are”. The tuition centre is what it is today because of his legacy.
He remained there until 1997 when he went to Fuzhou, China to teach English in private schools as there were no Brothers’ schools there. Life there was very challenging for him and his health suffered, forcing him to return to Sarawak after a year.
In January 1998, Brother Albinus went to Sydney, Australia, following discovery of an aneurysm and also because he needed heart bypass surgery. It was a complicated operation and he was in a medically-induced coma for about two weeks, during which he suffered a stroke that affected his leg. He had difficulty walking and had to use crutches and undergo physiotherapy before he could gradually walk again.
After recovering, he returned to Kuching in August 1998 and taught World Religions at Inti College again for a while. In 2001, he took up the task of writing a book on the history of the Kuching Archdiocese titled The New Dawn for the then Archbishop, Peter Chung Hoan Ting.
Albinus refused to rest despite his deteriorating health. In 2002, he founded the Yayasan LaSallian Kuching (YLK), a charitable organisation, with alumni from St. Joseph’s Secondary School, Kuching and Sacred Heart Secondary School, Sibu to help rural children with their studies. YLK set up tuition centres in villages and recruited supervisors and teachers. Today, there are 11 such centres. In between running the foundation, Albinus continued to tutor small groups every evening at his quarters in English and Literature and also conducted Bible study.
In November 2007, his nephew Adrian Pink, who was close to him, came to Kuching with the intention of bringing him back to Ireland. Brother Albinus asked this writer to take Adrian around and introduce him to his former students. When Adrian saw the love that Albinus’ former students had for him, he said to the writer “that the people back home did not know and understand that a simple boy who left them at 21 years old had made such a meaningful impact on the lives of so many in Sarawak”. He agreed that his uncle would be better looked after by those in Sarawak, and went home alone.
In December 2011, Albinus was coughing badly and discovered that he had a spot on his right lung. He was admitted to the National Heart Centre in Singapore on February 6, 2012. The doctors there found that he had not one but two aneurysms and that the growth on his right lung was stage-one cancer but could be treated. After surgery, he stayed in the hospital for two weeks. He returned to Kuching to recuperate but was in and out of hospital. All his medical expenses in Kuching were either waived or borne by his former students, many of whom took turns to look after him despite his reluctance. His health did not improve but he refused to rest unless he was hospitalised.
Despite his health problems, he briefed the De La Salle Christian Brothers Asia-Pacific region coordinator Brother David Hawke during the latter’s visit to Sarawak on June 26, 2013. A week before his admission to hospital, he was giving English tuition and conducting Bible study for secondary school students. His weekly teaching schedule was so full that anyone wanting to meet him had to make an appointment.
On July 16, 2013, Albinus was admitted to the Prince Court Medical Centre in Kuala Lumpur after continuous vomiting and stomach pain. Many of his former students were praying for a miracle. But on August 4, 2013, Albinus’ breathing became more laboured and his blood pressure dropped fast. At 11.28 am, he breathed his last. Those who were present at his hospital bedside were devastated, almost unable to believe that their beloved Brother Albinus — the towering legend — was no more.
His funeral was held on August 8, 2013 in Kuching and many of his ex-students flew in from overseas to attend it.
In his 18th century Meditations, St John Baptist De Lasalle, founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, said that “young people need good teachers, like visible angels”. Brother Albinus was one such teacher.
For 53 years in Sarawak, Albinus dedicated himself to educating the young, irrespective of class, colour or religion. Although he believed in discipline and was a tough taskmaster, he did not insist on his students blindly following rules but encouraged them to develop moral values and the right attitudes in studies and sports.
Albinus’ teaching talent was matched by his Christ-like character. A man of action who believed that “faith without works is dead”, he had strong faith in God to empower him to finish the tasks he set out to complete. Archbishop Emeritus John Ha of Kuching, in a tribute, said, “Like St. Paul, Br. Albinus’ commitment to Jesus shone brightly through his love, care and concern for the students he taught and had charge of. His strict discipline flowed from his heart of love for all his students — a love that urged him to desire the best for everyone.”
In the gospel of Matthew 25:35-36, Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”
That is how those whose lives Albinus had touched remember him. Like Christ, he laid down his life so that others might live. From the day he landed in Singapore on October 2, 1951 till he departed this world on August 4, 2013 at the age of 83, Albinus was a blessing wherever he went. Born with a servant’s heart, he single-mindedly ministered to people’s needs without complaining or claiming credit, and left a legacy of service to the least, the lost, and the last which his Sarawakian students are determined to continue.
In October 2020, the Sarawak state government approved the renaming of a road in front of the Sacred Heart Secondary School in Sibu to Jalan Brother Albinus, in recognition of his life spent in educating the children of the state.
A Tribute to the Last Irish Brother in Sarawak, Br Albinus, F.S.C. (Michael O’Flaherty), 1930-2013. Based on a series of interviews conducted by Rosemary Lim on September 5, 2012 and edited by Brother Vincent Corkery. Sarawak: Yayasan LaSallian Kuching, 2016.
A Tribute to the Last Irish Brother in Sarawak, Br Albinus, F.S.C. (Michael O’Flaherty), 1930-2013. Sarawak: Yayasan LaSallian Kuching, 2016. DVD.
“Educating the Least, the Lost and the Last”, Borneo Post Online, September 2, 2021, https://www.theborneopost.com/2012/09/02/educating-the-least-the-lost-a…. Accessed September 11, 2021.
“Jalan Oya renamed after Catholic religious Brother Albinus O’Flaherty”, Dayak Daily, November 26, 2020, https://dayakdaily.com/jalan-oya-renamed-after-catholic-religious-broth…. Accessed September 11, 2021.
Letters and condolences received on Brother Albinus’ demise.