The late James Ansibin

By Audrey J Ansibin

Oct 28 2020

SAINT Simon Catholic Church Likas community recently celebrated the feast day of St Simon the Zealot during a live-stream Mass on Oct 25.

At the beginning of the Mass, the virtual community heard the “Hymn to St Simon the Zealot”. And the saint, ironically known for being “hidden and unknown”, as rector Fr Cosmas Lee described him, was everything that the composer of the song strived to be.

The rector made special mention of the composer, James Ansibin. A former Choir Master at the parish, he was called home to the Lord on Oct 12, 2016.

Publishing this story about the life of hidden service of the late Choir Master of the “last chance-bah” parish may seem to go against everything that the patron saint of the 2,000-member parish would have wanted.

But this is not that kind of story.

One who had worked closely with the late James is Sarawakian theologian Dr Jeffrey Goh who with his better half, Angie, travel across the country to help Catholics to have a better grasp on the compassion of Christ – known as “Esplagchnisthe” in Greek.

”The late St Simon Likas Choir Master with an uncanny talent to appreciate good Catholic music and tradition.”

One of the first encounters between James and Dr Jeff was during the “Prodigal Son” retreat, held at Bundu Tuhan, in which the former had enthusiastically responded with a “yes” to help arrange the music programme. This was at the dawn of the third millennium – the early 2000s.

Fittingly, the last retreat that James helped musically was also Dr Jeff and Angie’s retreat of the same name at the Likas parish some time in August 2016. However, this time the retreat included the challenges of serving in church ministries to fit into needs of the parish servers at the time.

Among the topics included the challenges of having unhealthy competition among the ministries. The speaker had said jealousy is the No.1 killer in Church ministry.

“Jealousy kills effective ministry in Church,” Dr Jeff had said, adding that the cause of jealousy more often than not stem from the threat to one’s self-importance.

Coming from a family of singers and musicians, James was all too familiar with fame, publicity and being in the spotlight through their home-grown talent in performing arts.

In one of his rare journal entries dated August 2014, James wrote: “Our community today will only serve when we have personal interest.”

He also added: “What we have to do – persevere, doubt no more. Be faithful in what ever we do. And most importantly, to ‘feed my lambs’.”

The last anecdote referring to Jesus’ instruction to Peter to feed His flock. It was in the conversation where Peter reversed his action of infamously denying knowing Christ three times by professing his love for God in the same number of times.

Like the early disciples, anyone who serves in Church may have some kind of personal interest or agenda when they first started. But, eventually, those who stayed on and persevered, would have had the privilege to be moulded into the “disciple” God wants them to be, no matter how painful the process is.

And in the case of the late Choir Master of the Likas parish – “humble, unknown and zealous” like its patron saint, named after the late Bishop Simon Fung, who himself was a simple man.

On the passing of James, Dr Jeff was aware that it can sometimes sound “trite to speak well of someone just for the public gallery”.

“But our late musician brother James was truly different. Not only was he always available when the community needed him, he was such a humble and gentle soul who always had the good of the community at the forefront of his consciousness.

“Collaborating with him had always meant I could count on a brother to deliver his best to the community, hassle-free. I always remember how delightful it was to work with brother James during all those retreats and seminars,” Dr Jeff said.

Unusually gifted and diligent server – but a bit of a loner: Rector

The Likas parish rector recalled four years ago on the day James passed, he and Louis Thong “were taking our first one-day break in Siena on our walk to Rome in the Year of Mercy”.

“James was an unusually gifted and diligent server, but a bit of a loner. When he took over the Music Ministry, he certainly realised the sacred call that came with it, but he saw himself called to the direct work of the ministry – leading the members to glorify God and be holy through music and singing.

“He was weary of the other organisational hassles that came along with the ministry, like all the clerical, communication, interrelation with other ministries etc. Perhaps also he knew no other way of sharing the leadership, when he proposed setting up the ‘committee’.

“As a pastor and having many experiences about people and their challenges in ministry, I instinctively sensed it was not a wise move to form a committee, to ‘divide’ the authority of the ministry.

“I foresaw all the ‘power struggle’ that would distract him, especially in Sabah where people see any ‘committee’ as the governing body and its chairman the boss, and can’t really discern that the ministry in all matters is led by the choir master (as in all ministries),” Fr Cosmas said, adding that the committee is just a group of keranis carrying out little organisational chores.

With the Parish Pastoral Council line-up in August 2010

Another person who shared Fr Cosmas’ sentiment on the late Choir Master was former parish office clerk Maureen Wong, who not only found him humble but also “quiet”.

“James was a simple but very dedicated person,” she said, who had collaborated with him on church-related work.

“James was a quiet, humble and kind-hearted man – he didn’t talk much. But he was very helpful whenever we asked him for help even though he was very busy.”

The early calling: ‘You give your all, or not at all’

It was when his wife, HeIena Wong, invited him to join the Light of Jesus Christ Covenant Community (LJCCC) in the nineties, that James was eventually able to share his musical talent through its worship ministry.

One of them who knew James during his short stint serving in the ministry is Sergius Ramday, who said the team had “misread him as being rigid when he called for full commitment from the members”.

“We thought it sufficient to sing or play the instruments when we could.

“We only discovered later that his principle of commitment means that ‘If you want to serve, you serve with the fullest commitment’. In other words, you give your all, or not at all.

“I believe that he has set a benchmark for those who want to serve in the ministry. My memory of him is definitely of one who has given his all in his serving,” Sergius said.

Meanwhile, one of the first family members James invited to sing with him in the worship ministry was his first-born daughter Rachel Ansibin-Woods, who now resides in New Zealand with her husband and four young children.

Rachel recalls going to choir practice every week at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kota Kinabalu.

“Dad was the lead guitarist at LJCCC music ministry. He led the choir and was very devoted in serving the Lord,” she said, adding that he would perfect his guitar fingerings every day on Don Moen’s “God Will Make A Way”.

“We served at weddings, carolling and the year-end LJCCC concert.”

She said he later formed Harmonic Choir Group comprising mostly family members after leaving LJCCC worship team.

“Serving in the music ministry was his calling. He spent most of his days rearranging music and printing simplified music sheets for the choir members to practice.

“He divided the group into soprano, alto, tenor and bass to create better harmonies. He prioritised his calling before recreational activities,” Rachel said, adding that before they knew it, the choir continued to grow.

From gigs to regulars at Sacred Heart Cathedral Sunset Mass

When the Harmonic Choir Group (HCG) was formed, they were invited to sing fortnightly at the Sunset Masses on Saturdays, besides the occasional wedding and funeral services.

The Choir Master of Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) English Choir, Nicholas Lee, said James was “very enthusiastic serving in the music ministry”.

“I can see his passion to serve and offered his music talent to God. When we have our parish feast day and need all the choir’s collaboration James will never disappoint me,” Nicholas said, adding that James was always there to lead his team.

“He was a humble man. He was willing to ask for my opinion, a younger man and less-experienced in the ministry. I always felt comfortable working with him.”

Former Public Address (PA) system worker at SHC, Oswald Manggas, said James was “humble, easy to work with, friendly and always had a smile on his face”.

Meanwhile, one of the original HCG members was James’ youngest brother Edward who said he’d been serving in the music ministry for over 10 years under the guidance of his late brother.

“He’s a dedicated Choir Master and had a lot of patience and would do anything to help and improve the choir members,” he said, adding that James also taught them how to read notes and do vocal exercises.

“He sacrificed a lot of his time to rearrange and simplify hymn sheets for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. He gave me courage, faith and confidence to go to the ambo in front of the congregation to sing Psalms to proclaim the Word of God,” Edward said.

Meanwhile, a long-time musician with the group and niece said James was “someone who believed everything must start from home”.

“Knowing that his siblings and family had natural talent in music, he’d thought why not form a choir group to serve in Church,” Melissa Angus said, adding that the task seemed impossible at first because some of them were once- or twice-a-year Catholics.

“Some of us only attend church once or twice for important occasions. We were at the peak of our careers. Our commitment and free time had been for personal activities.

“I remember when he approached us, we made so many excuses. But in the end, with his patience, determination, hard work and by the grace of God, more than half his siblings and their families are serving actively as choir members up to now at the Likas parish.”

From someone who didn’t read music notes or understood what sacred music was, he helped mould those under his guidance to be disciplined and committed.

“He definitely evangelised through music,” Melissa added.

James’ eldest sister, Maria, who was also one of the earliest choir members he taught, said he left “a great impact” on the choir members and those who had come to know him.

“I never liked to read notes, but looking back, he managed to get us to do it anyway and helped us sing better as a group,” Maria said, adding that the scolding from him was necessary to help them grow.  

Siblings Keith and Elvy were also called to serve.

“He was the one who encouraged me to sing in front of the congregation. I eventually developed my singing skills (pitching and diction) and overcame my stage fright,” Elvy said, adding that sometimes choir practice would go on to almost midnight.

“He was also like a father figure to me, a good listener, adviser, music teacher and never judged someone’s weaknesses.”

Her brother Keith added that he was not originally in the core group when he heard them sing the “Gift of Finest Wheat” hymn at one of the Sunset Masses at SHC.

It was sung in a way that moved him to later join the choir.

Adele, another sibling of the late Choir Master, said she always wanted to join the choir but lacked the confidence to.

“In 2005, he persisted in inviting me to join. I was happy but not confident enough, but he never gave up on me.

“In his own way he taught us to be the best version of ourselves,” she said.

Tracy Lim said she’s grateful he took her under his wings when she first started in the choir.

“His mentorship helped me to grow in faith. I discovered that my joy comes from serving others.

“This increased my faith in God when I have neglected God most of the time. My life changed, too. I am forever grateful to him,” she said.

Merging of the choirs in St Simon Likas

Fr Cosmas was instrumental in getting James and his team to merge with the choir at St Simon Likas, when it was in the process of becoming a parish.

It was a merger between SHC and St Simon Likas choirs, as well as some new dynamics of new recruits not affiliated to either group.

James Ansibin, standing far right, with the Morning Mass servers in St Simon Likas parish before the merger

With the Evening Mass servers after the merger

“The first time I met Uncle James was during a choir practice in St Simon,” said a former musician at St Simon Likas.

“He was the newly-appointed Choir Master and there was a merging of choir groups. Uncle James asked if I could help out with playing the keyboard,” Stephanie Lo said, adding that she had very basic chords and piano skills at the time.

“I told Uncle James that I was afraid of making mistakes when playing during mass. He was very supportive and asked me to play what I was able to play.

“He reassured me that there will be practices every Wednesday evening. So, that was how I started playing the keyboard for the group.”

She said among her memorable experiences with the choir was when they were invited to sing at resorts, hotels and radio station (RTM) during Christmas.

Two more choir members from the merger are Sylvia Willie and her son Brendan Lee who shared that they learnt a lot from James.

“I was a soprano with zero basic in reading music notes. He taught me the counting. It was difficult in the beginning. He was very strict and persistent and eventually I learned.

“Singing with music notes, you won’t go wrong,” she said.

Her son Brendan shared her sentiment.

“I had zero knowledge on reading music notes when I joined in 2010 as a baritone.

“After years of learning I moved on as a tenor and eventually proclaimed the Gospel Acclamation and Psalms,” he said, expressing his gratitude to his former mentor.

Another choir member said she was still suffering from the loss of her late husband when she joined the choir.

“After losing my late husband there was a kind of emptiness in my heart. But after joining the choir, I feel comfort in singing the hymns,” said Floria Kosumu.

“Even though I knew I was not good enough, I just persevered. I didn’t mind his critics because I knew it was for my own good.

“Having served with him, I finally know why the church uses the liturgical colours. I also understood the Mass Order, how to find the readings, gospels and psalms from the Sunday Missal.”

Sylvia Batin said James never stopped inviting her family to join the St Simon Likas choir some 10 years ago. 

“Finally, I said, ‘yes’. I believed that it was God calling me to serve Him again as I was also with the choir in St John’s Tuaran Church during my youth.

“To sing without notes is simply singing with limitations. But when you have to sing according to the notes, I had much to learn. Through my journey with the choir, I gained so much knowledge about singing for the Lord and serving Him. 

“My spiritual life began to grow. James reminded us that singing for the Lord doubled our prayers,” Sylvia said, adding that James was strict on matters related to choir practice like punctuality, attendance and commitment.

One of the youngsters who grew up in the choir is Christabel W Lai who said James was “quick to notice the potential in each of us”.

“One of the fondest memories I have of him would be when he told me to take the alto when I was 15. Back then, I thought it was too hard to cope with reading the notes and I sort of made a scene like a baby,” she recalled.

“But he was patient and allowed me to take my time until not too long after that, I managed to sing in alto. He told me, ‘You see, I knew you could do it. If not, I wouldn’t have asked’.”

Formation of Junior and Student choirs

The junior choir under the tutelage of James

The St Simon Likas parish celebrated its first Mass for Children and Young People on March 7, 2010, said the present Parish Pastoral Council Chairperson Anne Wong.

“Many people remember James as the Choir Master of the main choir, but I shall always remember him for our Junior Choir which included a psalmist to sing the Responsorial Psalm.

“Every member was auditioned and trained by James himself. The Junior Choir gather to train for every such Mass at St Simon, which is celebrated three times a year.

“James started the tradition and set the high standard for the Junior Choir to prepare and sing well at every children Mass, which his successor has continued until today,” Anne said.

One of the junior choir members, Samantha Sulit, said she was nine years old when she first met “Uncle James”.

“It was my first time joining the St Simon Junior Choir. My first impression of him, as a nine-year-old timid girl, was that he was a little scary and intimidating (although I do not mean this in a bad way).

“He was strict, of course, and always did his best to teach us kids the proper way of singing the hymns. Over time, changes were made, and the teaching of the hymns became the assistant’s responsibility, whereas Uncle James would come in during our last practice to check in on us.

“I remembered that his arrival was always a huge deal for us kids. We even had a routine where one kid would stand by the door and loudly announce ‘Uncle James is coming!’ whenever they saw him approaching from downstairs, and chaos would assume inside the room as everyone would scramble back to our seats, knocking into chairs and each other,” she said, adding that even though he was strict, they respected him and always looked forward to his visit.

“A few years later, I joined the main choir. There, I managed to see Uncle James through a new perspective. I don’t think I found him as scary as I did when I was younger.

“I admire Uncle James’ passion for music, and his strive to serve God and the church. I have learnt so much from him. I am thankful to have known him,” Samantha said.

A former leader of the Student Choir, Avril Lim, said she was “nothing” when she first joined the ministry.

“I was the weakest of all and yet he never gave up on me. I highly admire his patience and commitment. Sometimes I could see Christ in Him.

“Not only that, I wouldn’t be a musician if it wasn’t for him. He’d somehow instilled leadership quality in me when he first asked me to lead the Student Choir back in high school. Most importantly, he taught me to serve with courage and love.”

Avril also said she would always remember how James would quote St Augustine who said, “to sing is to pray twice”.

Musicians and new recruits

With the music ministry members on the newly-constructed choir loft

One of the first musicians at St Simon Likas, who joined in 2009/10, said she learnt a lot from him.

“I was not really familiar with the scores. Without his guidance, I don’t think I can play the keyboard well,” said Jennifer Chong. “He was patient to teach us how to sing, read and play the music scores.”

Jennifer later approached another musician friend, Judy Chang, in 2011.

“Jennifer approached me and asked if I was interested in helping the church to play the keyboard. I went on to serve the choir for about nine years,” Judy said.

“I learnt about patience under the guidance of our late Choir Master.

“As a musician, patience is important. We have to not only be patient in getting the notes right and coordinate with our hands, feet and brain, we have to be patient with the people around us and to comply with the expectations of the Church as well.

“He led me to serve in Church, to glorify God through music. I am truly grateful,” she said.

A new recruit from the family, Micheal, said his late brother had approached him many times.

“In March 2016, James was the first to encourage me to join the choir as a bass vocalist. I thank God that I am still here to this day as a choir member, all because of his persistence.

“After struggling with sight reading and the disciplining, I can only say I am where I am today due to his motivation.

“He did everything for free and expected nothing in return and had shown great leadership not only to me but to all of us.”

Meanwhile, Maclex Liew said James’ dedication was worth remembering as a “mentor, strict teacher and fatherly figure”.