Fr Vergeer to celebrate 80th birthday and 55th priesthood anniversary

SIBU –  His ready availability, his optimism and good cheer has made an indelible impression on many a people.

His hearty “Come in!” and his jovial “Oh, I am always free!” to anyone asking for his time even when he can be very busy shows his trademark approachability.

Eighty years old he may be this year but the sprightly Fr Ferdinand Vergeer still carries himself with a ramrod military bearing. He still drives like he is in his 20s, maneuvering his way skillfully on his four-wheel drive along the sinking, patchy, bumpy roads of Sibu.

I have no complaint healthwise. Several things are getting down and down,” he said, bending forward and his hand making a downward gesture, “but I am still quite mobile, I can walk, cycle and drive.

Born in Holland on 15th June 1933, Fr Vergeer is the 5th in his family of 10 boys and one girl.

Only a few hours after I saw the light of day, my father quickly got our horse and cart ready to bring me to the parish church for baptism, and they gave me the solemn name of Ferdinandus Antonius,” he said.

He said as a little boy, leaflets distributed in school about missionaries who had gone to far away countries to preach the Gospel, who lived and died among headhunters in that strange land called Sarawak fired his imagination and adventurism.

Already blessed with a prayerful Christian atmosphere at home, the young Ferdinand felt drawn to go for catechism classes in primary school three times a week.

One fine day I went to the secondary school which was a Minor Seminary, to start the long road to the priesthood.

Fr Vergeer was originally assigned to Sudan, Africa, after his ordination on 13 July 1958, but the visa was not forthcoming.

So he was given a new appointment to Sarawak!

After a month’s voyage at the end of Jan 1959, he arrived in Kuching to his first appointment in Serian and the interiors like Bunan, Tebedu, Gahat etc. He was later made headmaster of the mission school and after a stint to Bau and Song thereafter, Fr Vergeer went for a year’s pastoral diploma course in Manila in 1968. Upon returning he was appointed Rector of Dalat.

Wanting to put what he learned in Manila to full use, he trained catechists in Sarawak from 1971 – 1974 at the Marudi Catechetical Centre.

It was in 1974 that Fr Vergeer came to Sacred Heart Cathedral where he wasted no time in setting up the CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) to teach the faith and starting “Religious Instruction by Mail’ for  youths in other parishes.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Fr Vergeer also started 8-week courses for longhouse prayer leaders, in between visiting the longhouses (more than 100) in the difficult but beautiful terrain when he was assigned to Kanowit from 1978-1981.

Then it was back to Sibu until  1988. “The Charismatic Movement exploded with a bang, and set the whole diocese on fire for some years. Sorry to say, it went slowly down again.” This time also marked the making of the Sibu Diocese in 1986.

From Sibu, Fr Vergeer was sent once more to Kanowit as parish priest for some 17 years, then to Sarikei for a year, before getting posted back to Sibu in 2006 where he is currently based.

In the course of this half a century, Fr Vergeer has written three books, one of which is in  Iban – Mending Ka Tuhan (Listen to the Lord)– which is meditation on the Gospel of St Mark in 1996. This was followed by ‘A Hundred Holy Names’ –  prayer of a hundred names & titles of Jesus taken from the Bible; and the third, ‘Fruits From The Cross of Christ ‘– reasons for the death of Jesus.

Fully immersed in pastoral and catechetical work, Fr Vergeer quipped: “Like the priests here in Sarawak, I have my finger in many, too many pies”.

As parish catechetical director, it gives me a good bit of work to impart the teaching of the Catholic faith. The other half of my time is spent in pastoral work, such as the liturgy here in the church,  hospital and prison visits and community Masses in homes.

 

He finds fulfillment in all these works.

 

While some people like to goyang kaki and  have an easy time, that is not my cup of tea. I am 100 percent happy, and I find it exciting and interesting to be priest.

On concerns and challenges, the first thought that comes to mind is the ‘Allah’ issue. He also spoke of the lack of vocations to the priesthood, especially among the Ibans, saying that more should be done to promote vocations.

I remember as  a boy, the priests used to come to our school and share with us the experience of their missionary work,” he said, also calling on parents to be more appreciative of the vocation instead of discouraging it.

He is also concerned about the many Ibans who settle down in the town but drift away from their faith.

What is most significant of what he has learned over the years?

He said: “One of them is I have learned to respect the lay people as being the church. There is the responsibility of the lay people. We, priests, tend to think ourselves as the clever ones. I learn more and more that they are the church. Therefore the laity shouldn’t ask everything from the rector or the bishop the things they can do themselves.

Over the years, one of the things that struck him was “to let go and let God” instead of trying to do everything by yourself. My favourite word is ‘Emmanuel’ –God is with  us.”

What are his plans for the future?

I will stay if the Lord is willing, for one or two years, depending on my health situation,” said Fr Vergeer who is always mindful of the many blessings in his life and thanking God for them unceasingly.

I am happy with my priestly life. Maybe this is also because we as priests haven’t got a family with all the family problems. We can give more time for all the people of God – commitment for the whole family of God.

It is a happy life. I can certainly recommend it to the young people!

There will be a Thanksgiving Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral on the occasion of the 55th Ordination Jubilee & 80th Birthday of Rev. Father Ferdinand Vergeer cum The Golden Ordination Jubilee of Rev. Father Thomas Connors on 3 July 2013 at 5:30pm to be followed by a Grand Dinner Reception at 7:15pm the same evening at Kingwood Hotel.

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Fr Ferdinand Vergeer giving a catechism course to Iban catechists. Fr Ferdinand Vergeer in his office.
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A familiar cycling figure around town – Fr Ferdinand Vergeer on his bicycle
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Fr Ferdinand Vergeer speaking at the Inter-denominational Easter Joy Celebration 2013. With leaders of other churches in Sibu lighting the candle at the 2012 Inter-denomination Christmas Procession.
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Fr Vergeer in his younger days
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In his early priesthood days