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07 August 2007

Edwin Ward writes:

CANON Frank Lomax died at his home in Singapore in May, aged 86. After school in Lancashire, he crossed the Pennines to read for a degree at Leeds University, followed by two years at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, to prepare for ordination. He was ordained deacon in 1944 and priest in 1945, by the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Noel Hudson, who was a former Bishop of Borneo. He served his title at St Anthony’s, Byker, where he remained until 1950. He and his wife Irene were married immediately before setting sail to Borneo in July 1950.

They expected to be posted to a parish in Sarawak, working among indigenous people; but, on arrival in Kuching, Frank was very surprised when Bishop Nigel Cornwall presented him with Archdeacon Mercer’s Hakka Lessons and told him he was sending him to Sandakan — a predominantly Chinese town in British North Borneo. As the Bishop was briefing them on Sandakan, he said: “Do not forget the peoples of the interior.” So, from day one, Frank had the challenge of the interior placed before him.

This was only five years after the Second World War. When Frank and Irene arrived in Sandakan, the whole town was built of kajang and atap (jungle materials), even the government buildings and banks; and St Michael’s Church was a stone-walled shell, roofless after the bombings of 1945.

Services were held in a kajang and atap building known as the “cowshed”, which doubled up as a school on weekdays. Frank was responsible not only for Sandakan. He also looked after the congregations in Tawau, Lahad Datu, and Semporna. There was a desperate shortage of manpower, and SPG could not find the much needed clergy. Frank persuaded Bishop Cornwall, a doughty Anglo-Catholic, to accept the offer of workers from CMS in Australia.

This was a bold step in the 1950s, when the Church was very conscious of churchmanship differences, and many doubted whether the conservative Evangelicals from Sydney would fit into such a stronghold of high-churchmanship. So, in 1953, when the first CMS workers arrived, Frank was able to hand over the care of the Anglicans who lived in Tawau Residency.

In 1951, not forgetting the Bishop’s instructions about the peoples of the interior, Frank and Irene spent a few days with the Assistant District Officer at Beluran, discussing the possibility of starting Anglican work in Sapi.

Like many of his predecessors, Frank was acutely aware of the challenges of work on the great rivers of the Kinabatangan and Labuk, with their great mass of people awaiting evangelism; but there were so many difficulties — no personnel, no money, very difficult river trips, and so on.

The first tour of duty was mainly spent in rebuilding the parish, spiritually and physically, after the ravages of war. Language study was important, so that he could celebrate the eucharist, read Bible lessons, and preach in Hakka. The church, the schools, and staff accommodation had to be built. When the Lomax family went home in 1955, their son Michael having been born in 1952, they were delighted when Bishop Cornwall invited them to come back to the parish. When they returned in 1956, they expected to continue the same work, but, as Frank said, “The Lord had other ideas.”

After their return, Frank accepted an invitation to accompany Bruce Sandilands, a young government surveyor, on a survey trip up the Labuk River. Shortly afterwards, he visited the Kinabatangan, the longest of the rivers of North Borneo. These jungle trips opened Frank’s eyes to the opportunities awaiting the Church in the headwaters of these rivers.

In October 1956, he submitted a plan to the diocesan standing committee in Kuching, and this was received enthusiastically and given their authority; but he was told that, as far as finances were concerned, North Borneo stood alone. With no prospect of diocesan or overseas funding, it was a matter of canvassing the parishes in the North Borneo parts of the diocese (the diocese of Sabah today) for their full support.

In 1957, St Michael’s, Sandakan, had a Lent-box collection, and this raised 500 Straits dollars (£62); and so the North Borneo Interior Mission was born. All Saints’, Jesselton, now Kota Kinabalu Cathedral, came in with some cash; and, for very many years after that, these two parishes provided nearly all of the Interior Mission’s funds.

When Frank went on his second leave in 1960, mission stations had been opened in Tongud (1958), five days’ journey up the Kinabatangan, Sapi (1958) in the Labuk delta, and Telupid (1960), two days’ journey up the Labuk. Plans were well under way to start a mission on the Segama River. This opened shortly after Frank’s return at the end of 1960.

During Frank’s 1960 leave, he spent a weekend at St Mark’s, Darlington. A result of this was that the Vicar (Fr Alan Burn) and I (a churchwarden) went to work in Borneo. During Frank’s third tour, which was concluded in 1962, he consolidated the work in both Sandakan and the Interior Mission. When I took over as Superintendent of the Interior Mission, I found everything had been left in apple-pie order, though still running on a shoestring budget, and heavily dependent on funds coming from St Michael’s and from All Saints’ Cathedral.

It soon became crystal clear to me that the Interior Mission was Frank’s vision, and that he had nurtured it to adolescence. Without him, the Church would have continued to work only in the coastal areas for many more years.

After North Borneo (it was still a British colony when he left), he returned to Newcastle diocese, and was Vicar of Prudhoe for ten years. He then went back to Asia as Vicar of Singapore Cathedral until retirement in 1987. He stayed on in Singapore, and for many years he helped out at St Peter’s Hall and in many parishes.

Without Frank Lomax, CMS Australia would not have sent missionaries to take over the work in Tawau Residency in 1953, and the North Borneo Interior Mission would not have started work in 1957/58. He said that his family’s 12 years in Sandakan were among the best of their lives.

During these years, he probably had a greater influence on the future development of the diocese of Sabah than anyone else, and that influence is still keenly felt today. Deo gratias.

The writer was Superintendent/ Executive Officer of the Sabah Anglican Interior Mission from 1962 to 1966.

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