Brother Peter PhelanDe La Salle missionary preached gospel of education abroad, writes Brother Malachy Buckley
IRISH people such as Brother Peter Phelan have championed the reputation of Ireland in far-flung lands. His entire life was dedicated to education which empowers the individual. In declining health he returned home from Malaysia to Castletown, Co Laois, for palliative care and was optimistic about recovery. However, he passed away unexpectedly recently. The Malaysian media reported the death of an illustrious Irishman and his local cathedral was overcrowded for his funeral liturgy.
Richard Phelan was born in Lower Kilmacow, Co Kilkenny, in 1934. He entered the De La Salle order and was given the name Brother Peter. He volunteered for the far east and did teacher training in England and his BA degree in UCD. He was a tall, sturdy and crafty hurler but his outstanding qualities were his understanding of local culture and his vision and commitment to the welfare of his students.As headmaster of St Martin's school in Tambunan, Malaysia, he ran a programme called "no pupil is left behind". It is a project that aims to help the weak and average students. Hence, the elite shine and the weak grow. In his later years he became director of a hostel in Nabawan for disadvantaged and indigent pupils. This provided accommodation for the poorest children of the area and facilities for their education. Large numbers of these children were enabled to take their positions in the professions which would have otherwise evaded them.
Br Phelan was a bridge of opportunity between despair and hope; that bridge was steadfast and was crossed by many who now have grateful memories. He was kind, caring and inspirational.
Even in times of personal darkness and interior turmoil, he came across to his students as one in complete control. He pursued the vision, the light at the end of the tunnel. The Nabawan hostel was a beacon on the hill.
Br Phelan was a life-long student and a well-known writer of books; he was the recipient of the 1980s Barwis Award for Far Eastern Studies in London. From Kilkenny came this unsung hero: he was a truly detached missionary -- in his room all his worldly possessions could fit in a sitting chair.
A large congregation of family and friends attended the funeral mass, concelebrated by six priests in Castletown, Co Laois. Condolences were extended to his brother Jim, his sisters May Joe, Ann and Sister Ita and his friends.