A BRIEF HISTORY
OF COLLEGE GENERAL
by Edmund Woon Yaw Yen

In its 330 years of history, College General has gone through a lot of trials, persecutions and joy to form priests for the Church in Asia. In this article, Edmund highlights some of the important periods and events in its rich history of heroism, perseverence and fidelity to its mission.
 

ITS BEGINNINGS IN AYUTHIA, THAILAND

The history of College General can be traced back to the early years of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP). Founded in 1658, this society of missionary priests received formal instructions from the Congregation of Propaganda to establish seminaries in mission lands for the formation of local clergy.

Thus in 1665, the Vicars Apostolic Bishops Pallu and Lambert de la Motte, acting on these instructions established the Seminary of the Holy Angels in Ayuthia, the then capital of Thailand. Three years later the first two priests were ordained and one of them Francis Perez, was later consecrated a bishop and named Vicar Apostolic of Cochin-China in 1691.

In 1670, there were 33 major and 50 minor seminarians from Siam, Cochin-China, India, China and Japan - and so early in its history, the seminary lived up to its founders' vision for it to be the institution for the formation of candidates to the priesthood from all over Asia. Since then it is commonly known as College General. Its standards were just as good as those in Europe as proved by one of its seminarians, Anthony Pinto, who after presenting a brilliant theological thesis in the presence of Pope Innocent XI was granted permission for immediate ordination.

1688-91 was a period of upheaval and persecution in Thailand and the missionaries and seminarians were beaten and imprisoned. Some fell sick and died. But persecution gave a renewal of life to the College. Though this may seem parodoxical, persecution gave a renewal of life to the college and this happened many times in its history. After 1713 its numbers grew again with an influx of seminarians from Tongking and China. A new building, half European and half Indian was erected to house a 50 strong community.

PEREGRINATION FROM AYUTHIA TO CHANTHABURI, HONDAT AND PONDICHERRY

The Burmese invasion in 1760-65 forced the seminary to move to Chanthaburi (Thailand) for a few months and later to Hondat (Cambodia). Here they lived in abject poverty and often a single fowl had to suffice for about 30 persons. Later a new building was built but before it was completed, rebels razed it to the ground. The deteriorating political situation and constant persecutions forced the formators to look for a more tranquil location for the seminary.

India was chosen and so in 1770, 2 professors and 41 seminarians arrived at Pondicherry, India by sea after stopping for 2 months in Malacca. However despite its peaceful calm, Pondicherry proved unsuitable as it was too far from China and Indo-China where most of the seminarians came from. Hence in 1782, the seminary was temporary closed until a more suitable place could be found.

AT PULAU TIKUS, PENANG 1808-1914

After considering various places, Penang - a British colony since 1786 - was chosen because of its political stability and its geographical location which made it easily accessible to the other mission lands. The procurator of the MEP, Fr. Letondal, went as far as Mexico to collect funds for building the new seminary.

In 1808, a new Superior, Fr. Lolivier arrived in Penang with five seminarians from Macao. The following year, the revived College began anew in Pulau Tikus with 20 Chinese seminarians. Soon the arrival of other nationalities again justified the name of College General. The first few years were difficult due to poverty and a shortage of professors from France. Some of the missionaries on their way to the mission field offered their services on a temporary basis. This was how Frs. Imbert and Chastan, future martyrs in Korea, were employed as professors; the former in 1821 and the later in 1827-30. Notwithstanding these difficulties, we were told by a witness that he found it to be a "seminary where the inmates worked hard and where our Good God was loved." This persevering and zealous spirit in the face of suffering and the fact that many of the seminarians came from and would later return to mission lands which were undergoing persecution made the seminary not only a seedbed for priestly formation but also for nurturing martyrs.

In 1834-35, persecutions of Christians in Annam (Vietnam) forced the Vicar Apostolic and a score of seminarians to flee to Penang to continue their priestly studies and among them was Philip Minh who was martyred in Vietnam in 1853, beatified in 1900 and canonised in 1988.

In 1884 there was another wave of persecution in Annam. Fourteen priests and catechists were massacred, many of them former students of the College. About 24 seminarians managed to escape and were sent to Penang. The Vicar Apostolic of Hue (Annam), Mgr. Caspar, wrote at that time, "The seminary in Penang welcomes all anguished souls and receives them like a loving mother. It is a refuge open to all who are in want .... Thanks to this college, our Mission of North Cochin-China remains, more than any other mission perhaps, supplied with priests. This precious college had rendered, renders and will render immense service." With the increase in numbers, the Superior Fr. Wallays,in 1885, expanded the buildings and constructed the main edifice which with its long row of arches is admired by all. Peace in the mission lands later led to a drop in the enrolment as local seminaries were allowed to function again. Most of the seminarians then came from newly established missions in Rangoon and Mandalay in Burma. During this period, the seminary took the opportunity to revise its curriculum.

AT PULAU TIKUS FROM 1914-1983

World War I (1914-1918) saw an increase in numbers again. This time the seminarians were from seminaries in the region which had to be temporary closed because many of the French missionaries had to go back to France. World War II (1939-1945) did not produce the same effect as the missionaries remained in the mission and the various seminaries continued to function. Furthermore the Japanese occupation of Malaya disrupted communications. During the war, the whole college took shelter in Mariophile, a holiday villa about 3 km from Pulau Tikus. There, they had to fend for themselves and academic studies were interspersed with manual labour. They survived on home grown vegetables, fishing and lifestock rearing. Their motto was "primum vivere, deinde philosphare" meaning "to live first, philosophise after!"

On February 1945, they evacuated Mariophile to make room for the Japanese Navy. All except 2 priests and 9 Malaysian seminarians returned to the college at Pulau Tikus. The latter went to stay in the Church of the Holy Name Of Mary in Permatang Tinggi on the mainland. After the armistice in August 1945 the whole community was reunited again at Pulau Tikus.

College General again played host to the persecuted and exiled seminarians when the Communist persecution in Manchuria and China in the late 1940's and 1950's forced many young seminarians to flee their country. Many of them were not able to return to their homeland after their studies and they chose to serve in Malaysia, Singapore and other parts of the Chinese Diaspora as far as Vancouver, Canada.

In the 1950's and 1960's there were less seminarians from the neighbouring countries as they too began to set up their own local seminaries.

In 1965, College General was officially affiliated to the Pontififcal Urbanian University in Rome and the seminarians who passed their examinations were awarded a Baccalaureate in Theology.

Vatican II brought new changes and every aspect of the formation was reviewed and new standards were set. Greater dialogue, sharing of responsibilities and openness to the world were encouraged. In 1966, English became the official medium of instruction. Malaysian and Thai professors trained in Rome returned to replace the French missionaries and in 1970 Fr. Archiles Chung became its first Asian Rector. The MEP has thus fulfilled its mission of training local clergy and they handed over the whole seminary to the local ecclesial authorities.

In 1983 the Church in Singapore had to set up its own major seminary as their seminarians were having difficulties in obtaining visas to study in Malaysia. Since then College General has become the regional seminary for the 3 dioceses in Peninsular Malaysia.

AT MARIOPHILE, PENANG FROM 1984 -

In 1984, College General was relocated from its premises in Pulau Tikus (where it has been for 176 years!) to Mariophile as its buildings were too old and too big to be maintained by the smaller number of seminarians.

On 19th June 1988, 117 Vietnamese martyrs were canonised in Rome by Pope John Paul II. Among them were Frs. Philip Minh, Peter Qui, Paul Loc, John Hoan and Peter Lu - alumni of College General. A play dramatising their lives and martyrdom was staged by the seminarians at a mass celebrating the auspicious occasion at the Assumption Cathedral, Penang.

In 1989 the present 3 blocks of residential buildings were completed and the seminarians and professors moved in from the old buildings at Mariophile. In 1992 the seminary began to incorporate recommendations from Pastores Dabo Vobis - the post -synodal exhortation on priestly formation. In 1994, phase two of the new buildings, that is the hall, library, classrooms, communications resource centre, lecture theatre and administrative offices was completed and the official opening and blessing will be held on 4th October 1995.

College General has produced about 1,000 priests since its inception 330 years ago. Most of them went back to serve in their native countries in many parts of Asia and many were martyred. It is for this reason and the fact that some of their relics are kept in the College's chapel that the seminary is also known as the College of Martyrs. Quite a number of her illustrious sons have been ordained Bishops in their homelands. Coincidentally on the official opening and blessing of its new buildings at Mariophile on 4th October 1995, one of her sons Fr. Murphy Pakhiam, will be ordained as the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur. Just as important are the many priests who have graduated from this historical seminary and have faithfully, zealously and heroically served the Church in Asia for the past 330 years - many to the extent of being martyred for Christ.

Probably no other seminary has been relocated so many times in its history and credit must be given to the MEP missionaries who in spite of numerous difficulties, persecutions, imprisonments, ship-wrecks etc. have striven to maintain it. Not many seminaries in the world are also blessed with so many martyrs and saints among its alumni. With the help of God and with such a rich history of martyrdom and perseverence in the midst of adversities, College General will confidently continue to form holy,faithful and zealous priests for the proclamation of the Gospel in the third millenium.
 
 


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