The Loving Work of Father Hilber【Parent-Child Reading Guide】
Father Jakob Hilber from Switzerland
Father Jakob Hilber was born in the small town of Bichwil in northeast Switzerland in October 1917. He joined the Catholic Bethlehem Mission Society (Societas Missionaria de Bethlehem, SMB) at the age of 21 and briefly served as a missionary in China for two years starting from 1946, but returned to Switzerland because of the rise of the Communist Party. He remained there until he traveled to Taitung, Taiwan, in October 1953. He was appointed the first Father Superior of the Bethlehem Mission Society Taiwan Province and was responsible for the missions in Taitung.
Improving the Lives of the Aborigines
Fr. Hilber often traveled on a heavy motorcycle all over the mountains and the seaside of Taitung. He brought new priests to various aboriginal communities to preach and build churches, and distributed powdered milk and clothes to those in need. Fr. Hilber was self-disciplined and worked rigorously, but whenever he met children, he would stop the motorcycle, honk his horn, and yell, “Hello little friends!”, making the children laugh.
In order to improve the lives of the aborigines, Fr. Hilber led the local residents in building embankments to prevent the fields from being flooded by the river. They also dug wells to obtain spring water, which solved their lack of drinking water. He invited tailors from the outside to teach the aboriginal women how to sew, and asked Catholic sisters to come to take care of the sick. He even raised money to buy sheep for the aboriginals to graze and boats to fish with, but their attitude of lacking of perseverance made Fr. Hilber rather frustrated.
Gradually, Fr. Hilber discovered that only education could change the aboriginal people’s current state of poverty. When he traveled around on his motorcycle, he always encountered children who dropped out of school because their families could not afford tuition. He helped them back to school, put them in apprenticeships that he set up, and provided them with student dormitories around Taitung. This way, they could learn the skills necessary to make a living, without having to worry about commuting and other costs. Fr. Hilber also learned that some children went to private tutoring in the evening. The children told him that the extra studying gave them the only opportunity to enter a secondary school or university. Fr. Hilber thought that was very strange,“Was it not more important to learn a skill than to have a degree?”
Establishing St. Joseph Technical High School
Fr. Hilber had an idea, and presented it in a letter to the SMB mother house. After obtaining consent, he began to buy land to build a high school. In Mandarin, this school was called “Kung Tung”: “Kung” referred to the Roman Catholic Church, while “Tung” came from Taitung.
Fr. Hilber invited a young Swiss architect called Justus Dahinden to design a classroom block for St. Joseph Technical High School. The building’s concept echoed Noah’s Ark: it would sail forward like a big ship containing many fields of technology. Fr. Hilber led the aboriginal apprentices in building the four-story structure, which was the tallest in Taitung at that time. The first floor was a workshop; the second and third floors were student dormitories; and the fourth floor was a chapel with stained glass windows.
Fr. Hilber wrote to Catholic dioceses in the German-speaking parts of Europe, asking them to encourage young people with professional licenses to volunteer in Taiwan. In time, 21 foreign volunteers from Switzerland, Germany, and Austria came to the remote high school to teach carpentry, plumbing, electrical and mechanical works. The academic curriculum ran by the foreign teachers only came to an end after the high school began to have its local teachers.
Introducing the Swiss Apprenticeship System
St. Joseph Technical High School began enrolling students in 1960. Originally, Fr. Hilber had wanted the students to learn Swiss watch-making, but Taiwan’s humid climate made the idea impractical. Instead, he introduced precision woodworking along with the Swiss apprenticeship system to the high school. Fr. Hilber raised money to buy the latest machines, tools and equipment from Europe so that the students had everything they needed to work with their European teachers and learn solid skills.
At school, Fr. Hilber was very strict with his students. He taught them with all his Swiss seriousness and meticulosity. In his mind, approximations were never acceptable but everything had to be done with precision. With such rigorous training, St. Joseph’s students won medals for Taiwan in WorldSkills competitions from 1970 to 1985.
A Stern yet Loving Elder
Fr. Hilber was a stern yet loving elder to his students. He would let students from poor families work part-time at school, asking them to clean ditches, paint walls, or repair furniture, and paying them with what he earned from recycling. Fr. Hilber also took great care of the flowers and trees on campus. It would much irritate him if someone trampled on the plants or broke off a twig. Some naughty students therefore deliberately stepped on the grass so that Fr. Hilber would run after them.
The Strong Friendship with the Liu Family of the Qutjaqas Tribe
When Fr. Hilber first arrived in Taitung as a missionary, he received strong support from Liu Chang, the leader of the Qutjaqas tribe, and they became good friends. Before his death, the chieftain entitled Fr. Hilber to be one day buried in Liu’s family cemetery. Liu Chang had a grandson, Liu Te-Jen, who was born of an unblessed relationship. Forcibly separated from his mother at an early age, Te-Jen became what everyone called a hopeless “problem child”. At his father’s death, Te-Jen was entrusted to Fr. Hilber. Unlike everyone else, Fr. Hilber never gave up on Te-Jen, and took him everywhere he went.
One day, Fr. Hilber brought Te-Jen on his motorcycle to visit someone. They knocked on a door and a woman answered. She looked at Te-Jen for a while and suddenly cried and hugged him in excitement. Immediately, Te-Jen understood that this woman was his mother. Fr. Hilber reminded Te-Jen that he was never alone in this world. After that, Te-Jen came into his own, studied hard, and caused no more trouble.
A Foreign Land as One’s Home
In order to finance St. Joseph Technical High School, Fr. Hilber often returned to Switzerland to raise funds. One day, he stopped by a hospital for an examination and discovered that he had cancer. He ignored the doctor’s warning and still returned to the hometown of this heart, Taitung. He even donated the money that his younger brother, Anton Hilber, gave him for cancer treatment to the school to build a basketball court. The inscription commemorating Anton Hilber’s contribution can still be clearly seen on the court underneath the hoop.
Even when he was ill, Fr. Hilber was still up and about riding his motorcycle to visit students and church members, until he no longer had the strength to start it. St. Joseph Technical High School, which Fr. Hilber founded almost completely on his own, is to this day still creating high workmanship and cultivating talent for Taiwan.