The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Peter Donders

Blessed Petrus DondersDutch Guiana, with its tropic heats, its fever-laden air, its mosquito plague, and its varied and unsympathetic population has little attraction for civilized men. We must, therefore, the more admire the fortitude of the missionary who without any consideration of earthly reward but for love of the souls of this ill-sorted people alone voluntarily chose this inhospitable land as his adopted country. It needed the strength and courage of a saint to cultivate this vineyard for forty-five years with such unflagging zeal, such never-halting energy and constant cheerfulness as did the Dutch Redemptorist Peter Donders. The Church will reward him by numbering him in the ranks of the blessed.

Peter Donders, born 27 October 1809, at Tilburg in North Brabant, was obliged to spend his boyhood in privation and self-denial. From his very early years his heart was drawn toward the priesthood. But three considerable obstacles stood in the way; viz., his parents were very poor, he had poor health, and possessed but little talent. So much the greater, therefore, were Peter’s piety, his purity of morals, and his confidence in God. To help his parents he learned the weaver’s trade. When he was twenty-two he was received into the boys’ seminary at Saint Michiels-Gastel as a servant, with permission to avail himself of whatever instruction he could get. It was no small humiliation for a student who was so much older than his fellows to be almost last in everything; but his strong will and his confidence in prayer won him the victory over all difficulties. Twice he asked admission into a religious body and was each time refused. After six years he was admitted into the priests’ seminary.

Some years after his ordination to the priesthood his desire to work as a missionary in foreign lands was gratified. On 2 September 1842, he landed at Paramaribo, capital of Dutch Guiana, which mission was then in the care of Dutch secular priests. Great patience and self-sacrifice was required to protect the 4000 Catholics scattered throughout the colony from the dangers which threatened their faith and morals in consequence of their heathen environment and the enervating climate. Donders paid special attention to the young, rightly foreseeing that it is easier to protect them from vice than to reclaim them when once in its power. When yellow fever raged at Paramaribo in 1851, he won the admiration of the whole colony by his heroism, in caring for both the spiritual and the corporal welfare of the sick, nearly falling a victim of his vocation.

Batavia, a remote place in the colony, had been set apart by the government for the residence of lepers. In 1856 Donders undertook the pastoral care of this difficult post, and persevered here for thirty years, shirking no sacrifice to be all things to his poor flock and to win all to Christ. When the mission of Dutch Guiana was adopted by the Redemptorists in 1865, Donders asked to be received into the Congregation. What was denied to the young petitioner thirty years before was gladly granted to the deserving and saintly missionary. After a year of noviceship at Paramaribo he took up again his post at Batavia.

“There was never a prince, perhaps,” we read in a sketch of his life, “who, crowned with fame and splendid success, entered his capital in triumph after his victories and found so great an overflow of joy and happiness as did Donders when, surrounded by his beloved lepers, he again directed his steps to his poor little church.”

He went forth to his work with renewed courage and energy. At last, seventy-seven years of age, he laid down his arms to receive, on 6 January 1887, the reward of his holy and mortified life.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916