My father’s life story (2)

As told in my previous post, my father came from a family with links to Christian mission work in Indonesia (or “the Dutch East Indies” in those colonial times).

During their long engagement, my parents dreamt of their church commissioning them for work there, probably in Central Java or Sumba, the regions allocated to their branch of the Christian Church.  Whether Dad was interested because of his family connections, because of a more personal commitment to Christian missions, or whether it was my mother who would have liked this option after her hope of medical studies fell through, I’ll never know.

What I do know is that the Depression, World War 2 and Indonesian independence meant the demise of my parents’ dream.  But God had something else for them!  The post-War migration of hundreds of thousands of Dutch people to countries of “the new world” created a new option for adventurous-minded dominees (as the Dutch call their Protestant ministers).  The Christian (in fact Protestant) Migration Committee in the Netherlands and my parents consulted – and Dad and three colleagues in the two largest Protestant church bodies were appointed to serve in the reception, guidance and pastoral care of Dutch Reformed migrants in Australia: two went to Melbourne and Dad and another went to Sydney.  Several Dutch Catholic priests were also sent to various Australian cities.

My family arrived in Sydney in May 1951 and Dad’s parish extended across New South Wales (NSW), from southern Queensland (including Brisbane for some time) to the Victorian border and west to the border of South Australia.  The ministers in Melbourne were supposed to look after the rest of Australia.

It would be an understatement to say that the first years were especially hard going.  The receiving church in Sydney was supposed to find a house but didn’t.  Our family was sent to a 3 bedroom house in western Sydney with 23 others.  The planned “assimilation” of raw Dutch migrants into a rather Scottish, ultra small and very conservative Presbyterian denomination didn’t work.

Our shared home for the first months in Sydney

Dutch “dominees” travelled their compact parishes on bicycles, which is how most Dutchies still travel in their compact cities and towns.  Dad covered his new 900,000 sq km parish by suburban electric and country steam train, his heavy Dutch pushbike, and sometimes hitchhiking – I still remember Dad taking me along (age 6) when he pedalled 10 km to Sydney Airport and back again.  His last Dutch church passed a hat around to let him to buy a 2nd hand car.

Dutch Protestant migrants continued to arrive and Dad did his best to invite, bring and hold them together.  He would meet the Dutch migrant ships arriving in Sydney  to assist new arrivals.  Dutch people can be outspoken and stubborn, and in the early 1950s they belonged to any of five large and myriad smaller church traditions, with numerous sub-groups reflecting the Netherlands’ provincial, social and church constituency.  Dad led worship in three centres in Greater Sydney every Sunday, met regularly with local leaders and pastoral carers all over Sydney and in several centres in rural NSW, taught groups and individuals, prepared couples for marriage, visited the sick, maintained a weekly newsletter, soon a monthly national magazine, and also a mountain of inter-personal and church correspondence, while Mum kept in touch with the Dutch family writing several weekly airletters.

Within several years the work had developed so that many churches had been organised: first in Brisbane, then a handful across Greater Sydney, as well as others in Canberra, Orange, Gosford and Newcastle.  Dad was also joined almost every year by new co-workers, mostly from the home-country.

Three things happened in the mid-1950’s –

1                    In April 1956 the Dutch Government and Queen recognised the pioneering work of the church workers representing the three main Dutch Church streams among Dutch migrants in Australia: Dad became a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau, and wore the Order’s orange, white and blue ribbon proudly for the rest of his life.

2                    About the same time, Dad’s amazing and punishing workload caught up with him.  I remember he had several car accidents caused by fatigue, and had to take a driver with him on Sundays.  In 1956 he spent two months with old friends in Adelaide, and Mum had to write a pleading letter to him to come home and try to get back to his work.

Dad and his family at home in Sydney early 1957

3                    In 1957 he took leave for 7 months for more positive reasons; the Netherlands Government had decided to do more to support people like Dad.  It set up a periodic leave scheme, enabling Dutch ministers and priests working overseas to take furlough supposedly every 5 years.  These clergy would travel on migrant ships where they served as a chaplain, and while in the home country they were interviewed by the media and conducted meetings in the provincial cities to inform prospective and interested migrants, especially about life and work in “their” new country.
In 1957 the ignorance between the Netherlands and Australia was huge.  The Dutch imagined our family would have kangaroos hopping down our suburban street, and in 1957 somebody asked Dad (living in Sydney) to drop off a small parcel to a relative living in Perth (4,000 km to the west).

Dad and the rest of our family returned to Sydney late in 1957 and to a more normal work routine.  By now he was looking after just two congregations and his parish was just 1/3rd of the Sydney region.

Four years later, towards the end of 1961, Dad made the move to southern Tasmania and the last church with which he worked – and to which he belonged.

Some memories of Dad in Tassie next time.

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