For Paramaribo, a native son again

After almost 18 months, Paramaribo and the entire country of Suriname will once more have a bishop, and for only the second time in its almost 200-year history, the bishop is a native son.

Father Karel Choennie, pictured below with Apostolic Administrator Fr. Antonius te Dorshorst and episcopal vicar Fr. Esteban Kross at today’s press conference announcing his appointment, was vicar general under the diocese’s previous bishop, Dutchman Wim de Bekker, who retired in May of 2014.

Choennie

Bishop-elect Choennie was born in Suriname in 1958, He studied pedagogy at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and subsequently at the minor seminary in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He received his licentiate in pastoral theology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1985. He served in various parishes in Paramaribo, became a member of the diocesan curia in 2001 and vicar general in 2005. This office was suspended upon the retirement of Bishop de Bekker in 2014.

The diocese reports that the new bishop will be consecrated in early 2016. According to canon law this must take place within three months after the appointment, in this case before 11 February. The identity of the main consecrator is unknown at this time, but it is a safe bet that emeritus Bishop de Bekker will be the one. After his retirement he remained in Suriname, living in the town of Groningen, west of Paramaribo.

Bishop-elect Choennie, as mentioned above, is the second bishop of Paramaribo born in Suriname. The first native bishop of Paramaribo was Msgr. Aloysius Zichem, who is now 82. He was bishop from 1971 to 2003. All other ordinaries have been Dutch, reflecting the colonial history of Suriname.

The Diocese of Paramaribo, which covers all of Suriname, is a suffragan diocese of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. It was established in 1817 as  the Apostolic Prefecture of Dutch Guyana-Suriname, promoted to an Apostolic Vicariate in 1842 and became the modern diocese in 1958.

Photo credit: Gino Rozenblad

Time for a native son? – Dutch bishop of Paramaribo retires

On Saturday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Wilhelmus de Bekker of Paramaribo. The Dutch-born prelate turned  75 on 27 April and has been the bishop of Suriname’s sole diocese for almost ten years. Father Antonius te Dorshorst has been appointed as Apostolic Administrator until a new bishop has been appointed. Like the retired bishop, Fr. Toon, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is also Dutch. But after 46 years in Suriname, he says, “I feel more Surinamese than Dutch.” He admits surprise at having been chosen as Administrator, considering his age (71). “I thought, I am 100 per cent safe.”

father te dorshorst, bishop de bekker

^Fr. te Dorshort and Bishop de Bekker.

Bishop de Bekker, born in Helmond in 1939, is a teacher by training. In the 1970’s he travelled to Suriname, where he studied theology and was ordained in 1985. He worked as a parish priest in Paramaribo and was appointed as the diocese’s vicar general in 1995. Upon the retirement of Bishop Aloysius van Zichem in 2003, Msgr. de Bekker became Apostolic Administrator, and a year later, in 2004, he was appointed as the new bishop. Bishop Ad van Luyn, then of Rotterdam, was the main consecrator. Archbishops Edward Gilbert of Port-of-Spain and Lawrence Burke of Kingston in Jamaica were co-consecrators.

It will be interesting to see if the successor of Bishop de Bekker will be a native son of Suriname, or, once again, a Dutch priest. Paramaribo has been a diocese since 1958 and was the Apostolic Vicariate of Dutch Guyana-Suriname between 1842 and 1958. Nine of the ten bishops and vicars apostolic who headed the Church in modern Suriname over that period were Dutch. The sole exception is Bishop de Bekker’s predecessor, Bishop van Zichem, who is now 81.

Bishop de Bekker will remain in Suriname, ready to assist the Apostolic Administrator and, presumable, the new bishop as well. He will take up residence in Groningen, which lies about 30 kilometers west of Paramaribo.

There are now two Dutch bishops active abroad: Bishop Joseph Oudeman, auxiliary of Brisbane in Australia; and Archbishop Bert van Megen, Apostolic Nuncio to Sudan.

Photo credit: Jason Leysner

“A real missionary” – Dutch bishop in Brazil retires

Yesterday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the bishop of Almenara in Brazil. Bishop Hugo van Steekelenburg reached the retirement age of 75 in October of last year, and was one of four Dutch bishops serving in foreign dioceses*.

Bishop van Steekelenburg was born near The Hague and come to Brazil in 1964, as a Franciscan missionary. Of this time he recalled in a 2011 interview:

“Most of us came to Brazil as missionaries. Almost all left for the interior. They worked there on the request of the local bishop and took on every task. I remember I felt like a real missionary. Electricity was still unknown and the roads were impassable. Almost everything had to be done by horse. There were already many Franciscans active in the area where I am now a bishop. No missionaries came from the Netherlands after about 1968. An increasing number of parishes were transferred to local clergy.”

The same interview mentions that virtually no retired missionaries choose to return to their native Netherlands. After 49 years in Brazil, and 14 as a bishop, “Dom Hugo” may decide to stay as well, in the country and among the people that he took on as his own.

Mgr_%20Steekelenburg-2722

In the final months before his retirement, Bishop Hugo (pictured above at left during a November 5 meeting with Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz) and the Diocese of Almenara were looking forward to the arrival of a group of Dutch pilgrims who will spend a week there, before travelling to Brazil for the World Youth Day. In the style of the retired bishop, the pilgrims will be participating in a “missionary week”, visiting several diocesan projects – schools, land reclamation projects, care centres and hospitals – and cultural events. Bishop emeritus van Steekelenburg will most likely still participate in the scheduled meeting with the pilgrims, as his successor, Dom José Carlos Brandão Cabral, will probably not have been consecrated before then.

*The remaining three are Bishop Willem de Bekker of Paramaribo, Suriname; Bishop Joseph Oudeman, auxiliary bishop of Brisbane, Australia; and Bishop Theo van Ruijven, Vicar Apostolic of Nekemte, Ethiopia.

“Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19)

In the aftermath of my post on Bishop Schilder, I wondered how many other Dutch bishops are serving abroad, or, at least, are still alive. In a twist of irony, the Netherlands was at one time something of an exporter of missionary priests and religious and some of those ended up climbing the ranks to become bishops of a diocese on another continent.

A glance at the unrivaled repository of all things bishop that is Catholic-Hierarchy, I found a list of all living bishops who in some way have something to do with the Netherlands. Among them the bishops who were born here but who put on the mitre somewhere else. There are twelve of them. Eight have already retired, and four are still active.

They are the following:

  • Monsignor Everardus Antonius M. Baaij, S.C.I. 89 years old. Emeritus Bishop of Aliwal, South Africa. Ordinary from 1973 to 1981
  • Monsignor Wilhelmus Josephus Adrianus Maria de Bekker. 71 years old. Bishop of Paramaribo, Suriname. Ordinary since 2004.
  • Monsignor Wilhelmus Joannes Demarteau, M.S.F. 94 years old. Emeritus Bishop of Banjarmasin, Indonesia. Ordinary from 1961 to 1983. From 1954 to 1961 he was the Vicar Apostolic of Banjarmasin, then not yet a diocese.
  • Monsignor Henk Kronenberg, S.M. 76 years old. Emeritus Bishop of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Ordinary from 1999 to 2009.
  • Monsignor Herman Ferdinandus Maria Münninghoff, O.F.M. 89 years old. Emeritus Bishop of Jayapura, Indonesia. Ordinary from 1972 to 1997.
  • Monsignor Joseph John Oudeman, O.F.M. Cap. 69 years old (exactly 69 today, by the way). Auxiliary Bishop of Brisbane, Australia. Auxiliary since 2002.
  • Monsignor Cornelius Schilder, M.H.M. 69 years old. Emeritus Bishop of Ngong, Kenya. Ordinary from 2002 to 2009.
  • Monsignor Andreas Peter Cornelius Sol, M.S.C. 95 years old. Emeritus Bishop of Amboina, Indonesia. Appointed Coadjutor Bishop in 1963, ordinary from 1965 to 1994.
  • Bishop van Steekelenburg

    Monsignor Johannes Henricus J. Te Maarssen, S.V.D. 77 years old. Emeritus Bishop of Kundiawa, Papua New Guinea. Ordinary from 2000 to 2009.

  • Monsignor Theodorus van Ruijven, C.M. 72 years old. Vicar Apostolic of Nekemte, Ethiopia. Appointed Prefect of Jimma-Bonga in 1998, Vicar Apostolic of Nekemte since 2009.
  • Monsignor Hugo María van Steekelenburg, O.F.M. 73 years old. Bishop of Almenara, Brazil. Ordinary since 1999.
  • Monsignor Vital João Geraldo Wilderink, O. Carm. 79 years old. Emeritus Bishop of Itaguaí, Brazil. Appointed Auxiliary BIshop of Barra do Piraí-Volta Redonda in 1978, ordinary of Itaguaí from 1980 to 1998.

All but one of these bishops belong to religious orders or congregations, indicated by the abbreviations behind their names, evidence that all of them once joined the mission as priests. The twelve also represented at least two distinct generations. The first in the late 80s and 90s, and the second, still serving for the most part, in their 60s and 70s. The youngest, Bishop Oudeman, being 69, does show that this Dutch presence among the bishops of other nations is slowly coming to an end. After all, it is not unheard of that priests in their 40s or 50s are appointed bishops, but these men are well beyond that age. Besides, most of the countries named above are now ‘homegrowing’ their own bishops, so there is less need to fall back on the mission.

But, as it is, these twelve men of God remind us of a part of the recent history of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands which seems quite unusual to our modern eyes.

“The cathedral has been resurrected”

Words from Bishop Wim de Bekker of Paramaribo, Suriname, during the reconsecration of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, yesterday. The cathedral, which is the largest all-wood church in the world, had been out of use for 25 years after dry-rot, termites and ground settlement had rendered it unsafe for use. With the exterior renovated, the cathedral is once again ready to fulfill its role as the church of Suriname’s only diocese.

The warm colours of the Paramaribo cathedral. Much of the interior still awaits renovation.

As part of the renovation efforts, the remains of Blessed Petrus Donders, a Dutch priest who worked as a missionary among the lepers in the nineteenth century, was entombed in a specially-designed chapel.

Representing the Netherlands, of which Suriname was a colony until 1975, was Bishop Ad van Luyn of Rotterdam, who presented a silver-embossed Evangeliarium and consecrated the altar dedicated to Blessed Petrus Donders. Also present was the nuncio to many of the smaller central American and Caribbean countries, Archbishop Thomas Gullickson. He consecrated the Mary altar, while Bishop de Bekker consecrated the main altar.

Bishop de Bekker proudly shows the key to the cathedral

Photo credit: Lidy Peters (1, 2)

The Church in Suriname

Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond is visiting the diocese of Paramaribo in Suriname. Monsignor Wierts has been making work visits to different countries each year in January, to show the variety and scope of the world Church. In Suriname he’ll visit pastoral centres, schools, seminaries and various projects which his own diocese supports financially. He’ll also meet with various religious leaders and will administer the sacrament of Confirmation in two small villages in the west of the country.

Just before the trip the diocesan magazine of Roermond had an interview with the bishop of Paramaribo, the Dutch-born Msgr. Wim de Bekker.

An interesting look at a diocese that is both far away and closely connected to the Netherlands.

By Frans van Galen

Bishop Wiertz and Vicar Storcken of mission affairs are currently visiting the diocese of Paramaribo in Suriname. It is the country’s only diocese and consists of thirty parishes. Some 20 priests minister to about 110,000 people: a quarter of the population. The diocese is 51 years old and is led by Bishop Wim de Bekker (70), born in Helmond. Before Bishop Wiertz’s visit to his diocese, Bishop de Bekker was kind enough to give an impression of the state of the Church in Suriname.

What does the Church that they will meet look like?

“Luckily the Church in Suriname is not grey as we have sadly seen in the Netherlands. There is a lot happening on our diocese, which obviously pleases me greatly. There is a major focus on youth work, and this year we gained a special apostolate by the establishment of the cathedral choir school, consisting of some 60 children. A very special result of that is that a number of parishes now have their own youth choirs. In the coming year we’ll increasingly promote formation days for school children. Our diocese obviously also cares for the sick and elderly and provides Catholic education. The interior of Suriname is a separate chapter. We work with a large number of catechists who have followed a 5-year course, and who have an annual week of refresher courses. They are responsible for Church life in the villages. Msgr. Wiertz will be meeting a number of them when we go to western Suriname for the Confirmations.”

Are there striking differences between the Dutch and Surinam Church or also similarities?

“The Church is alive here. That is largely due to the fact that we cherish social contacts. And the participation of children and young people in the Masses should also not go unmentioned. The message of peace during the Eucharist is always a very warm moment. And of course there are differences in music and song. But there is still an inhertiance from the past, in the form of the familiar Dutch songs which often jar somewhat with the lighter and more rhythmic intonation of the Surinam an Caribean music. Because of the climate our churches are open to the wind, which also brings in street noises which can be a little disruptive, but we are used to it. We also have a shortage of priests. At the moment there are twenty for the entire country, and their average age is high. We have four Redemptorists from Brazil, a priest from Nigeria, two Belgian brother priests, a few Dutchmen and seven priests from Suriname. Too few to be able to be everywhere.”

What is the place of the Catholic Church in Surinam society?

“We are there. The Church has a solid place and is often consulted. I try to be present at special events as much as possible and people appreciate that. Radio and television take the word of the Church into account.”

How is the relationship with other denominations?

“The relationship with other denominations is good. The Roman Catholic Church takes part in the Committee of Christian Churches, and ecumenical cooperation with the Moravian Church, the Dutch Reformed Church in Suriname, the Lutheran church, the Anglican church and the Salvation Army. The committee was established in 1942 and therefore older than the World Council of Churches, and we’re quite proud of that. The Roman Catholic Church also works as part of the Interreligious Council in Suriname, which consists of two Muslim organisation, two Hindu organisations and the Catholic Church. Both groups meet monthly. We’re also trying to established some cooperation between them in the area of social problems. The upcoming elections play a part in that, but HIV and AIDS also demand our shared attention. Next year we want to create a chaplaincy for sailors.”

Are their specific new projects which require your attention?

The youth needs special attention. We want to modernise our formation center. When the accomodation is welcoming, the message can be brought across better and people will have good memories of it. The upgrading of our education institutes requires special attention now. We want to establish a polytechnic, and that is a lot of work. In January we are starting a second course for the diaconate and the classes for parish assistants.”

How about the support from your native country?

“I think we should speak of my former country instead of my native country. It is about Suriname and not my random connection to the Netherlands as a Dutchman. There are many needs, especially for the schools in the interior where a lot must be improved. There is a major shortage of housing for teachers and some schools need renovations. Sadly, education in Suriname is not equal, and faith-based schools get only limited grants from the government. Improvements and restorations are possible only through aid.”