François Xavier Hab was born on November 5, 1829 in Bassez Kontz, known today as Contz-les-Bains, a commune in Moselle, Grand Est, in north-eastern France. He joined the seminary of Metz and in 1853, was a candidate to join the MEP seminary. He was ordained a priest on May 17, 1856. Records show that on July 13 that same year, he was assigned to set sail for the Malay Peninsula, to carry out the mission work of the MEP in the region.
Upon his arrival in Penang, Hab settled into a house in Georgetown built on land donated by an English family, the Godfreys, to the Church of the Assumption. He was charged by the then vicar apostolic, Jean-Baptiste Boucho, to take charge of the growing Tamil migrant community in Penang. He began preaching at the nearby cemetery chapel to the local Tamil Catholics and catechumens (persons receiving instruction in preparation for baptism or confirmation). Eventually, Hab began to preach and evangelise in the neighbouring plantations both on the island of Penang and in Province Wellesley on the mainland, where a fair number of the Indian labour force resided.
While there are few details, Hab seemed to have accomplished a great many feats in growing the Indian Catholic community in his first decade as a missionary. This included establishing the St Francis Xavier Church in Georgetown, Penang, which was consecrated in 1867. At the time, the church catered specifically to the Tamil-speaking community. Today, however, it is a regular parish open to all Catholics. Furthermore, having built the church along with a parsonage and a boy’s school, Father Hab is also believed to have established the St Joseph’s Orphanage in Georgetown, Penang in 1865, which still stands today as St Joseph’s Home. In the early 1900s, the orphanage opened its doors to not just male Catholic orphans but to underprivileged boys and girls of varying religious and ethnic backgrounds.
His work led Hab to expand the Tamil Catholic community beyond Penang to the states of Perak and Kedah. However, due to his declining health, he was unable to travel back and forth between the island and mainland by himself, and he obtained the help of Father René Marie Michel Fée who arrived on the Malay Peninsula in 1879. Fée would eventually become Hab’s successor in continuing his mission of expanding the Indian Catholic community.
Not too long after Fée’s arrival, Hab’s illness required him to step back to rest and recover. The following mission report from 1880 in the MEP archives highlighted Hab’s role as the founder of the Indian Mission in Penang and also emphasised its continuing success under his protégé:
“The Indian Mission of Pinang continues to prosper under the leadership of a young Missionary whose zeal achieves the most consoling successes. Mr. Hab, forced by illness to abandon this post of which he was the founder, before leaving for the Hong Kong Sanatorium, had the consolation of seeing his work happily continued by his successor.”
Hab’s work did not stop there, however. Not too long after, he returned to assist Father Fée in bringing to fruition a dream they both seemed to share. That was the building of an “agricultural settlement” which would include a village church. The settlement would allow a Catholic Tamil community that would be entirely independent and segregated from outside influence, and fully immersed in the ideas and ways of the Catholic faith.
Hab gained approval for the idea from the third vicar apostolic, Bishop Edouard Gasnier. He then found a suitable piece of land in the northern part of Perak which was irrigated by water that flowed from the River Kurau and had soil that was ideal for rice cultivation. Father Hab then set out to the head office of the British authorities in Kuala Kangsar and was granted 200 acres of forest to carry out their plans. This land would eventually become the Indian community of Soosay Paleam. An MEP mission report from 1882 regarding Hab and Fee’s efforts showed that the venture became a success.
“Mr. Hab almost forgot the infirmities from which he suffered and had just realized one of the dreams of his life, the establishment of Indian colonies, entirely independent and Christian. He succeeded in grouping 25 families of neophytes and put this first Christian community under the patronage of Saint Joseph. The care that had to be given to this foundation and the lack of capable catechists somewhat hampered the work of conversions; the number of baptisms rises, however, to 32.”
Not much is recorded about Father Hab’s ventures after this although there is no indication that he ever stopped his work of educating and expanding the Catholic Indian community. However, the impact of his work can still be seen today in the continued existence of the churches and foundations he contributed to building and founding.
A report from 1886 regarding the work in Penang throughout the years said that “the Indian mission deserves a very special mention. The Saint-Francois-Xavier Church was the cradle of this mission… in 8 years the number of Christians increased from 800 to 1985, included in this number is the Colony of St. Joseph or Sousei-Paleam.” The impact of the church that Father Hab built years before was still significant enough close to 20 years later to warrant special mention in the report. His successor, Father Fee, became an even bigger contributor to the growth of not just the Indian Catholic community but the Catholic Church in Malaya, becoming bishop first of Malacca, then Singapore.
Hab’s ailing health eventually caught up with him and he passed away on May 25, 1890. He was buried at the church he founded and which is still standing strong today, the Church of St Francis Xavier in Georgetown, Penang.
- ^ The France-Asia Research Institute (IRFA), “François Hab”, accessed July 12, 2023, https://irfa.paris/en/missionnaire/0694-hab-francois/
- ^ IRFA, “François Hab”.
- ^ Shanthini Pillai and Bernado E. Brown, “The Apostolic Vicariate of Western Siam and the Rise of Catholicism in Malaysia and Singapore”, International Journal of Asian Christianity 1 (2018): 58, https://brill.com/view/journals/ijac/1/1/article-p45_45.xml?language=en.
- ^ Pillai and Brown, “The Apostolic Vicariate”, 58
- ^ Shanthini Pillai, “French and Diasporic Tamil Catholic Mobilities in Colonial Malaya”, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 35, No.2 (2020): 223. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26937859
- ^ Lucia Lai, “Saint Joseph’s Home Celebrates 150th Anniversary”, The Herald Malaysia Online, December 11, 2015, https://www.heraldmalaysia.com/news/st-josephs-home-celebrates-150th-anniversary/26656/5
- ^ Pillai, “Franch and Diasporic Tamil Catholic Mobilities”, 225.
- ^ The France-Asia Research Institute (IRFA), “Malaisie, Mission Report, 1880”, accessed July 23, 2023, https://irfa.paris/en/ancienne_publication/rapport-annuel-1880/malaisie/
- ^ René Marie Michel Fée, “The Beginning of a Tamil Settlement in Malaya: The Foundation of St. Joseph’s Parish, Bagan Serai”, Malaya Catholic Leader, March 9, 1935, 13. https://issuu.com/catholicnews/docs/1935_cn09
- ^ Fée, “The Beginning of a Tamil Settlement”, 13.
- ^ The France-Asia Research Institute (IRFA), “Presqu’île de Malacca, Malaysia-Singapore, Mission Report 1882”, accessed July 23, 2023, https://irfa.paris/en/ancienne_publication/rapport-annuel-1882/presquile-de-malacca/
- ^ The France-Asia Research Institute (IRFA), “Lettre commune et compte rendu des travaux de 1886, Mission Report 1886”, https://irfa.paris/en/ancienne_publication/rapport-annuel-1886/lettre-commune-et-compte-rendu-des-travaux-de-1886/
- ^ IRFA, “François Hab”.
Fée, René Marie Michel. “The Beginning of a Tamil Settlement in Malaya: The Foundation of St. Joseph’s Parish, Bagan Serai”, Malaya Catholic Leader, March 2, 1935, 13. https://issuu.com/catholicnews/docs/1935_cn09
Lai, Lucia. “Saint Joseph’s Home Celebrates 150th Anniversary”, The Herald Malaysia Online, December 11, 2015. https://www.heraldmalaysia.com/news/st-josephs-home-celebrates-150th-an…
Pillai, Shanthini. “French and Diasporic Tamil Catholic Mobilities in Colonial Malaya”, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 35, No.2 (2020): 217-242. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26937859
Pillai, Shanthini, and Brown, Bernado E. “The Apostolic Vicariate of Western Siam and the Rise of Catholicism in Malaysia and Singapore”, International Journal of Asian Christianity 1 (2018): 46-63. https://brill.com/view/journals/ijac/1/1/article-p45_45.xml?language=en
The France-Asia Research Institute (IRFA), “Francois Hab”, accessed July 12, 2023. https://irfa.paris/en/missionnaire/0694-hab-francois/
The France-Asia Research Institute (IRFA), “Presqu’île de Malacca, Malaysia-Singapore, Mission Report 1882”, accessed July 23, 2023. https://irfa.paris/en/ancienne_publication/rapport-annuel-1882/presquil…
The France-Asia Research Institute (IRFA), “Malaisie, Mission Report, 1880”, accessed July 23, 2023. https://irfa.paris/en/ancienne_publication/rapport-annuel-1880/malaisie/
The France-Asia Research Institute (IRFA), “Lettre commune et compte rendu des travaux de 1886, Mission Report 1886”. https://irfa.paris/en/ancienne_publication/rapport-annuel-1886/lettre-c…