Reminiscing with Uncle O'Keefe

On a souvenir plaque displayed on his cupboard top, I read the words in a warm message of appreciation addressed to retired Pastor Claude T. S. O’Keefe for his many years of service with the church.

Uncle O'Keefe with Florence Liew [Left] and I
on one of our food fellowship outings
Curious about the abbreviated names, I asked Pastor O’Keefe – whom we fondly call Uncle O’Keefe – what the letters “T. S.” stood for?

He promptly replied: T. was for Theobald as he was named after his Swedish grandfather – his mother’s father – the late Dr Marcus Theobald Foenander.

And S. was for Samuel, named after his Irish grandfather on his father’s side, the late Dr Samuel Arthur Edwards O’Keefe.

So, Claude Theobald Samuel O’Keefe was the son of Mr & Mrs Cyril Claude O’Keefe.

Even in his advancing age, Uncle O’Keefe, a former music lecturer, still has a vivid memory and enjoys recounting names of people and places along with interesting anecdotes and the connection with each one of us.

A we-fie with Uncle O'Keefe on a lunch outing.
In previous conversations with Uncle, he told me about their family home and described that was on Farquhar Street in Penang, next door to the Gospel Chapel.

The brethren assemblies in Malaysia started at the Farquhar Street Mission House and Chapel and this assembly continues to have fellowship in its premises at Burmah Road Gospel Hall in Penang.

My relationship with Uncle O’Keefe started from Elim Gospel Hall in Ipoh where Uncle was a church member as was my dad, who grew up in the Boys’ Home started by missionaries, Mr & Mrs George Wilson.

In the late 1960s Ms Phyllis Rose Wilson, daughter of Mr & Mrs Wilson, started an assembly in Johor Baru and established Johor Baru Gospel Chapel (JBGC).

Uncle O'Keefe [Center] with Lilian Kong-Liew [Right]
and my dad [Left] together for a meal...a long time ago
From the stories that dad shared with us about his growing-up years with the Wilson’s at Elim Gospel Hall, we learnt that Ms Wilson was like an older sister to him.

In the early years of JBGC, brethren formerly from Elim Gospel Hall who were based in JB, got involved with the work alongside Ms Wilson.

They included my dad who was the Treasurer, Ms Lilian Kong, who later became Mrs K P Liew, and Uncle O’Keefe who helped to play music on the piano/organ keyboard.

But before JBGC started a meeting in JB, our family used to join the meetings at Holy Light Church, a Presbyterian assembly.

Presenting Uncle with a copy
of My Johor Stories Book One
In the years while our parents were based in Masai for work, my sisters and I lived with our grandparents at Jalan Ngee Heng and we used to walk from grandfather’s house to Jalan Gertak Merah to attend weekly Sunday School and the Girls’ Brigade meetings there.

After my siblings and I moved to live with our parents in Masai and commuted to school in JB, our family attended the Sunday evening service at Holy Light Church until JBGC was established.

I was still a child when I met Uncle O’Keefe, who was then one of my Sunday School teachers in Holy Light Church.

While Uncle remained close to JBGC, he continued serving at Holy Light Church and later also served as Pastor.

Over the years, Florence, daughter of Mr & Mrs K P Liew, and I often had food fellowship with Uncle, and soon we learnt that he preferred dining on Western food and enjoyed a good cheesecake.

Last year, Uncle was unwell and after undergoing major surgery, he rested and recuperated in a care home.

Presenting Uncle with a copy of
My Johor Stories Book Two
So, whenever we visited Uncle, we did not fail to bring him a slice or two of cheesecake, for him to indulge his sweet tooth!

As he regained his strength, we were pleased that Uncle was ready to move back to live independently in his own home.

In October 2019, JBGC celebrated her 50th anniversary and it was a joyful reunion of brethren – including Uncle O’Keefe – who were familiar with this testimony in JB.

At this reunion, it was also my privilege to share my memories of my experience with Ms Wilson, the lady with a yielded heart who started this assembly in JB.

Among the things I shared about Ms Wilson was her retirement and return to New Zealand, and that I had the privilege to visit her in the care home to celebrate her birthday on October 1, 2002.

My visit was coordinated with Mrs Margaret Brown, who cared for Ms Wilson when she could no longer live independently, and Christine Goh, fondly known as one of “Ms Wilson’s girls” from among the girls in the Girls’ Home at Elim Gospel Hall.

Our copy of God of the Oasis, the souvenir book for
the Centennial celebration of Elim Gospel Hall, Ipoh
Less than a month after our visit, Ms Wilson was called home to the Lord.

Fast-forward to the Movement Control Order when we were advised to stay home to stay safe and to go out only for essential grocery shopping or medical needs.

During the Recovery Movement Control (RMCO) where conditions were more relaxed, Florence and I finally met again, and in our conversation, we discovered that among the people we thought about during this difficult time was Uncle O’Keefe.

It was interesting that Uncle was also thinking about us.

Uncle called to say that he just “saw me” from a photograph featured in God of the Oasis, the souvenir book published for the Centennial celebration of Elim Gospel Hall (1913 – 2013) and then he asked me, when I was going to visit him again.

Page opened to the top photo with Ms Wilson,
Margaret Brown, Christine Goh and I in 2002
[I attended the 90th Anniversary of Elim Gospel Hall with my parents and my brother’s family and for the 100th Anniversary, my brother and his wife attended the celebration on dad’s behalf as he was no longer able to travel to Ipoh.]

A copy of this souvenir book was presented to my brother for dad and it remains a treasured item in our home.

Aware that Uncle was ready for visitors again, Florence and I arranged to visit him and to bring along Western dishes for lunch, of course with his favourite cheesecake.

In normal circumstances, we would have taken Uncle out for a meal but in the current RMCO, it was wiser to stay home to enjoy a takeaway meal.

My mother and Ruby, our eldest sister, joined Florence and I on this visit.

Another we-fie with Uncle O'Keefe, my mother, my sister
Ruby and I, taken by Florence's capable we-fie skills! 
It was a joy to meet Uncle again, to see him looking hale and hearty, all set for some food fellowship and reminiscing about family and familiar people from Elim Gospel Hall and JBGC.

After our leisurely lunch, I followed Uncle’s specific instructions (it was his house after all!) on his way to do the washing-up and how to put the tea to brew.

When I emerged from the kitchen, Uncle had handed my mother his copy of the Elim Gospel Hall souvenir book, opened to the pages with the tribute written by Christine to Ms Wilson entitled, “The only mother I ever knew.”

I smiled when I observed that he had book-marked the book to the 2002 photo of Ms Wilson, Margaret Brown, Christine Goh and I, a shot that brought back fond memories and a wonderful time of reminiscing with Uncle O’Keefe.

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