Work of Evangelisation –
Witness: Bl. Peter Donders
Peter Donders was born in this house on 27 October 1809. His father, a home-based weaver, was very poor. He lost three wives, including Peter’s mother, and several children to early death. Peter had one brother, disabled by scoliosis. Until a few years ago, we did not know that Peter, too, suffered from this. He never seemed to have complained about it. His father took care of him in a special way. Peter Donders’ schoolteacher told how, when it was raining, the father carried Peter to school in just a sack on his back – to protect him from the rain. For Peter, as for many at that time, his schooling ended when he was twelve years old. Until he was 21, Peter Donders worked here at the loom, but the quality of the cloth woven by him was not high. He prayed while doing manual work. He dreamed of a different future: he wanted to become a priest.
When he finally found his parish priest willing to arrange admission for him to the minor seminary, that did not mean that his vocation was now recognised. On the contrary: a servant was needed, and that is what Peter Donders was allowed to be. He had to study in his spare time.
And, he was no longer 12 years old, but already 21, and had been rejected for military service due to his physical weakness. Nevertheless, he did the physical work, endured patiently the bullying of the much younger students and he showed such effort that he in the end was allowed to join in with instruction in class. But even six years later his vocation has not been recognised by the established institutions, and he was, always for different reason, not admitted to any of the three missionary religious institutes to which he applied, including that of the Redemptorists.
Even though he was not progressing equally well in all courses, he completed his studies to become diocesan priest in the set time. He even was ordained to priesthood early, because he – as alone among the seminarians – was willing to go to the mission in Surinam which was ravaged by tropical diseases. In 1842, 33 years old, Peter Donders left his home country, never to return. One of the most famous quotations of Peter Donders is an expression of his abhorrence of slavery in a letter dated December 1846: “Oh, would that people here care as much for the wellbeing and the state of the slaves, as they do in Europe for animals, then things would be so much better […]. Alas for Surinam, on the day of final judgment. Alas, alas, yes a thousand times alas for the Europeans, the plantation slave owners, the administrators, the directors and the white officers! Unhappy people, who enrich themselves with the blood and tears of poor slaves;
they will find no defenders before God.” In 1856 Peter Donders was assigned to the leper colony, the ‘hell of Batavia’, a place of indescribable misery, that anyone who has not seen it, can hardly imagine. Batavia was hermetically sealed off by the river and jungles. It is said Peter Donders volunteered for this place, his predecessor having been poisoned by a leper. After the mission in Surinam was entrusted in 1865 to the Redemptorists, Peter Donders and the only other priest left in 1866 joined this Congregation, the very congregation which had rejected him thirty years earlier as being “too weak for religious life”. The formation of Peter Donders as a Redemptorist had finally been shortened, amongst other reasons because of his already proven virtue!
He expressed his gratitude in a letter to his superior, saying “How happy we are, dear Father, that the good Lord has called us to his service in the Congregation.
I commend myself and all those entrusted to my care, the Indians and Bush Negroes, in your prayers.” Peter Donders returned to Batavia accompanied by a confrere. From then on he also travelled by boat into the bush to convert the indigenous people. He had learned to play the harmonium. He brought the instrument with him, and the music attracted the natives whom he instructed with the help of pictures from the Bible. He taught them to say the Lord’s Prayer in their own language. With the Maroons he was less successful. They had many bad experiences at the hands of white people, and thus they took a negative view of the faith of the Europeans.
Added to this, Peter Donders destroyed their sacred ‘pagan’ objects. In this, he was a child of his times. At the same time he continued to take care of the lepers at Batavia where he continued to practise all seven of the classical works of mercy. The lepers lived like prisoners. They did not have the option of residing where they wanted. Worse than being abandoned, as ‘living dead’ they were expelled from society. Returning to the inhabited world was not open to them. Peter Donders did not just visit them, he shared their lives for 27 years. He helped them to eat and to drink, because this was difficult for people whose fingers were eaten away by leprosy. He engaged in providing better food for those who could no longer produce their own food themselves. He took care of the sick and helped them to dress. Peter Donders, who on his arrival in Surinam had been welcomed enthusiastically, negotiated for better housing for the lepers at Batavia. These at first did not have wooden floors in their huts and were therefore often literally sitting in the mud. He accompanied many of those who died to the graveyard where he too was ultimately to be buried. Through his dedication, Peter Donders brought suffering people to God and to peace. “This good man is a sign of the good God”, they said. Towards the end of his life, the bishop relieved Peter Donders of his ministry at Batavia, following complaints from a few lepers who wanted to get rid of him because he had criticized their anti-social behaviour.
They said that his sermons were no longer understandable because he had no more teeth left in his mouth. He said in a sermon “We are all under the authority of the bishop, and we must obey. Yet, although the bishop has moved me from here, I promise you, in the name of God, that I will die in your midst. On the day of the resurrection I will be among the lepers, waiting for God’s judgment.” And, indeed, in 1885 Peter Donders returned to Batavia where he died on 14 January 1887, in an even poorer hut than the one he had left in Tilburg 45 years before. In his testament he wrote “I have no resources, give no orders, have nothing to say.
You can bury me wherever you want. I ask the faithful for forgiveness if I have offended them in some way.” Peter Donders died 133 years ago. He still is honoured, in Surinam as the first white person who did not take, but gave, as well as here in Tilburg, in the chapel in the Peerke Donders Park. Why can Peter Donders be an inspiring example to us today? Because: He emphasized the goodness of God, addressed him as a “good God”, who will provide what is needed. He inspires us to receive and pass on everything we have as a gift, gratuitously. He saw what others were in need of, what served them for redemption – and he provided it, as far as it was in his power –
practically, creatively, unconventionally, non-academically. He acknowledged his fellow human beings as human beings, told them that they had a right to be, that they can accept themselves,
that God called them to live. He was there for the poorest, the most abandoned, the marginalized, the expelled. He never asked for privileges in life, but really shared the life of the poor. He did not mind dirtying his hands. The life of Peter Donders was characterised by humble manual work – by which he paid for his studies and cared for the lepers – and his perseverance, his awareness of being called by God – in the face of his alleged physical weakness and his rejection by ecclesiastical institutions. In all this he presents a very challenging example to us. In serving others Peter Donders did not discriminate by status, class, race, origin or religion. To our multi-cultural society he gives an example of tolerance, of living together peacefully.
Peter Donders let people experience the abundance of God’s redemption. Saint Clement once wrote: “Have courage! God is the Lord! He guides everything for His glory and for our good and nothing is able to oppose Him. All human plans, even if designed in the greatest detail, serve only for the fulfilment of His will … I have left myself entirely to his will. I notice that verything that seems to be made to hurt us, leads us there, where the Lord wants … Let us be guided by God and all will be well.” This could have been written by Blessed Peter Donders who would fit so well into the existing group of Redemptorist saints!
Author: Claudia Peters – Vice Postulator of the Cause
for the Canonization of Blessed Peter Donders
Music from https://filmmusic.io
“Imagefilm 034” by Sascha Ende (https://www.sascha-ende.de)
License: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)