Missionary to return to Holland after 56 years

 A young Vergeer.

A young Vergeer.

 Louis and Petronella Vergeer.

Louis and Petronella Vergeer.

Vergeer and his classmates from the Minor Seminary.

Vergeer and his classmates from the Minor Seminary.

Vergeer teaches an Iban catechist.

Vergeer teaches an Iban catechist.

Vergeer on his bicycle.

Vergeer on his bicycle.

Photo shows a hospital visit in 2008.

Photo shows a hospital visit in 2008.

Vergeer’s first posting was in Serian in 1959.

Vergeer’s first posting was in Serian in 1959.

Legionaries celebration at St Mary’s.

Legionaries celebration at St Mary’s.

Training catechists in 1971.

Training catechists in 1971.

Vergeer is seen at St Bernard’s School, Dalat in 1968.

Vergeer is seen at St Bernard’s School, Dalat in 1968.

SIBU: Mill Hill missionary Reverend Father Ferdinand Vergeer will leave Sarawak for Holland on Aug 7 after serving in the state for 56 years.

Throughout his time, he said his happiest moments were seeing the joyful faces of the people.

“I am going to miss a lot of things and even more so the people. So many people have become friends in many parishes. I like so many things about Sarawak, it is a very beautiful place; just plenty of colours.

“But what I like even more is the people are very friendly and hospitable. You go to villages and longhouses, and the people put out a mat for you to sit on and give you some tea or coffee. Before you even have the chance to say what you are coming for, they first make you feel at home,” he said.

Having spent most of his life in Sarawak with the locals, especially the Iban community, Vergeer considers himself more Sarawakian than Dutch.

The priest, who first arrived in the state in 1959, has been very much involved with Sarawakians and speaks Bidayuh, Iban and Melanau.

“This is how to be with the people and converse with the people, you would have to learn their language otherwise you are still a distance away.

“I picked up new languages every time I was appointed to new places. I learned from the stories in the Bible that had already been translated and I went out to the children to talk to them and used what little vocabulary and they were quite free to tell you what mistakes you made and how to say this and that. In fact, I learned very much from the children,” he recalled.

Vergeer said his joy comes from serving the community, which he feels is an opportunity for him to love God more.

“I hope for the future that we would have enough priests, especially Iban priests, which we have none of right now. I hope that young people would come forward,” he said.

He also hoped that the ideas of Sibu Diocese Bishop Joseph Hii to have lay people stand on their own feet to take more responsibility in spreading the faith would materialise.

Now aged 82, Vergeer is returning to his homeland due to age and some medical troubles.

On July 29, there will be a farewell celebration at Sacred Heart Secondary School together with the 30th Priestly Ordination of Reverend Monsignor Michael Lee and 30th Anniversary and Rededication of Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Vergeer was ordained as a priest on July 13, 1958 in London, when he was about to turn 25.

His first posting was actually Sudan, Africa, but as he was unable to get a visa, he was reassigned to serve in Sarawak.

A few days after Christmas, he boarded a cargo ship and arrived in Kuching at the end of January 1959.

His first appointment was in Serian, where he served for three years, then to Bau before being transferred to Song in 1964.

In 1965, he returned to Bau where he served until 1967.

In 1968, he attended a one-year pastoral diploma course in Manila, the Philippines and upon his return was appointed as rector of Dalat.

He then trained catechists in Marudi Catechetical Centre from 1971 to 1974 before moving to Sacred Heart Church, where he set up the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine to teach faith to the children and youths.

Vergeer then served in Kanowit from 1978 until 1983, where he started an eight-week course for longhouse prayer leaders.

On July 16, 1983, after 25 years of priestly service, he was awarded a knighthood.

He returned to serve in Sibu from 1983 until 1988, when he was appointed parish priest at St Francis Xavier Church until 2005.

After that, he served for a year in Sarikei and in 2006 returned to Sibu.

Vergeer has published two books — ‘A Hundred Holy Names’ and ‘Reasons For The Death of Jesus’ in four languages.

Born in the little village of Alphen on June 15, 1933, Vergeer was the fifth child among 10 boys and one girl – the eldest.

His parents, Louis and Petronella were farmers with 50 cows, 30 pigs and about 40 sheep, who brought their children up in a very spiritual and religious environment.

The world was at war when Vergeer was barely a week into primary school.

“Holland was very much affected by the war at that time. The German war planes dropped bombs here and there, and one fell on the house next to the school.

“People became very hungry and in the end there was nothing to eat any more, especially during the last winter in 1944. They were roaming all around the country to buy some food from the farmers or to steal just to keep alive,” he said.

Despite the war, he and his siblings still walked 30 minutes to school, which started at 9am after daily mass at 8am.

Sometimes, the school had to close because there was not enough coal to warm the classroom.

This would continue for five years and although the country had to endure the difficulties of war, the Vergeer family was blessed with animals on the farm.

“We had our animals and that was a great thing of course; we always had milk and sold milk and meat as well in exchange for wheat or corn to make bread.

“My mother would make her own bread. That way, we managed pretty well. Difficult times of course, but we were all right,” he said.

He found inspiration in leaflets titled ‘Heroes of the Mission Field’ — stories of missionaries in faraway countries preaching the Gospel, living and dying among headhunters in a strange land called Sarawak.

“I thought I could be the hero of the mission field also and these poor people (headhunters), they would go to hell unless we did something about it. So I decided to go and convert the headhunters,” he recalled.

He then entered Minor Seminary, a decision that pleased his parents, where he learned English, German, French, Latin and Greek.

After six years, he entered the Major Seminary where he studied Philosophy, Theology and other subjects such as the Liturgy and Bible.

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