Long service: Bretaudeau will be returning to his parish in Vendée, France to re-evangelise the French people.
ONE of Malaysia’s longest serving foreign priests, 83-year old Reverend Father Peter Bretaudeau will be closing a chapter of his life to return to his homeland after 57 years.
“Having spent so many years in Malaysia, I regret very much having to leave this beautiful country, but I know France needs me more now,” said Bretaudeau.
When he first arrived in the then Malaya, one month after independence in August 1957, there were only about 37,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur. To-date, that figure has grown to 300,000.
Conversely, Bretaudeau said French Catholics had become alarmingly complacent about their religion.
“In the parish that I am returning to in La Roche-sur-Yon, Vendée, less than 10% of Catholics regularly attend Mass, so I will spend the rest of my days trying to bring more French people back to the church,” he added.
Born in 1931 as the third of five children in the village of Le Poiré-sur-Vie in Vendée, Bretaudeau found his calling to join the priesthood at the age of 25.
“At that time, there were hardly any Catholics in Asia and I wanted to join the Paris Foreign Missions Society or Societe des Missions Etrangeres de Paris (MEP) so I could come here.
“The MEP decided to send me to Malaysia.
“When I first arrived, I could not speak a word of English so I learnt the language here before going to India for two years to learn Tamil,” said Bretaudeau, who has retained his French accent but incorporates “lah” in his conversation.
One of his fondest memories is the 10 years he spent as the main parish priest in Seremban, Negri Sembilan in the 1960s and 1970s.
“At the time, there were many Indians working in the rubber estates around the area and their poverty and hard working conditions struck me,” said Bretaudeau.
Wanting to provide estate workers in the state with a better life, Bretaudeau met with the National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW) and discussed forming an organisation to improve the education opportunities for workers’ children.
“In the late 1960s, the fall in the price of rubber badly affected them and the need for such a movement became more urgent,” he said.
With the help of the NUPW, the Persatuan Kemajuan Rakyat (PKR) was born, starting with eight members and expanding to hundreds over the next two years.
“To address the problem of unemployment among youths in the estates around Seremban, we set up tailoring classes for girls and a vocational institute to train boys in electronics,” said Bretaudeau, noting that the institute was the first of its kind in the state.
Many students from this electronics institute went on to become teachers when NUPW started another institute.
His career as a Catholic missionary took him to 10 churches around the Klang Valley and Negri Sembilan.
“Malaysia has developed so much, I feel there is nothing more for me to do here so I want to return to France while I am still in good health,” said Bretaudeau, who will spend two weeks visiting his family, including two sisters, before starting his pastoral work.
He leaves the Holy Family Church, Kajang in the capable hands of Reverend Father George Harrison, who was inspired to join the priesthood by Bretaudeau.