Saint of the Day – 14 January – Blessed Petrus/Peter Donders C.Ss.R. (1807-1887) Religious Priest, Missionary, Evangeliser, Social reformer and Leper Colony worker, Writer. Blessed Peter was born on 27 October 1805 at Tilburg, North Brabant, Netherlands and he died on 14 January 1887 at Batavia, Saramacca, Surinam of natural causes. He is buried there. He was Beatified on 23 May 1982 by St Pope John Paul II. O n 11 April 1978, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared miraculous the cure of Louis John Westland from Osteomyelitis by Blessed Peter’s intercession.
Peter Donders was a loser – all his life he was a loser. He was born in 1809 in the town of Tilburg in Holland, the son of poor weavers, who lived in a one-roomed house with an earthen floor on which sat the family loom. Peter had to leave school at the age of twelve – his parents needed the money. He was a devout boy who wanted to be a priest but everything was against him: poverty, delicate health and, to tell the truth, he was not that clever. Peter’s was the original impossible dream. As a weaver, he was not a great success. You see, he prayed while he weaved which did nothing at all for the quality of the cloth.
For health reasons, Peter was rejected for military service, which was to his advantage. Through the good offices of his kindly parish priest, he got into the seminary, not as a clerical student – but as a domestic servant, but he was allowed to study as best he could in the evenings. At the age of twenty-nine he was eventually admitted to the seminary to study for the priesthood. In his last year of study the Vicar Apostolic of Surinam, known then as Dutch Guyana, visited the seminary. He wanted young priests to go there. Peter was the only one who volunteered.
A year later, after a sea voyage of one and a half months, Peter disembarked at Paramaribo where behind the opulence of this colonial seaport lay a cess pit of social misery and moral decay. Here he worked for fourteen years. Apart from a few rich whites, his parishioners consisted of between seven and eight thousand slaves living in horrendous conditions.
Inland from the town, there were vast tracts of steaming tropical land owned by four hundred planters and worked by forty thousand slaves – human beasts of burden. On seeing their living conditions Peter remarked: “If only here they had the same care for the health and well being of the slaves as they have in Europe for the animals, things would be so much better.” The fact that he could do little or nothing to alleviate the suffering of these poor people broke Peter’s heart. Patiently he tried to teach them the basic truths of the faith but was met with indifference, hatred and hostility. But he persevered in preaching the gospel.
Peter’s next appointment was as parish priest of the leper colony at Batavia, where no priest had lasted more than three years and where one had been murdered. The four hundred lepers were without a doctor or nurse or any kind of sanitation. They slept on the packed earth so that the pus from their festering sores could drain into the ground. Again, there was little that Peter could do for them. He provided beds for those still living and burial for those who died. He did bring them food but the authorities frowned on this. In prolonging their lives he was, according to them, prolonging public expense.
In the year 1866 a band of Redemptorist Fathers landed in Surinam to assist the four diocesan priests already there. On their arrival two of the four priests decided to return to Holland; the other two became Redemptorists. Peter Donders was one of them. As a Redemptorist Peter set out to preach to the native Indians, who, among other things, practised polygamy and worshipped spirits. But the Indians were more interested in liquor than in liturgy. He preached there for eighteen years with little success. He himself put it this way: “It pleased God to offer to the till now neglected Indians … the possibility of knowing and loving Him. But sadly expectations were never fulfilled.”
Despite the lack of progress in all his apostolic endeavours, Peter never lost faith in God nor in his vocation. He did admit, however, that his mission was not all that it could have been, adding quickly: “But God is all powerful; Mary, the refuge of sinners, is also their mother; from the day on which Christ died souls must be bought by blood. If only, by sacrificing my own life, I could bring all people to know and love God as he deserves. But let God’s holy will be done in all things.”
In the end, Peter Donders did sacrifice his own life. After working in Surinam for forty years and having reached the age of seventy-four, his superiors ordered him to rest. He tried but without success. By that time he was himself a leper and so he chose to return to the leper colony where he died and was buried in 1887.
As has already been said, Peter Donders, or should I say Blessed Peter Donders, as he now is, was a loser but then didn’t Jesus say on more than one occasion: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mk. 8:34-35). Blessed Peter Donders was happy to lose his life for Christ’s sake. So also should we.