‘No, no, not that paradise, but my paradise on Mauke,’ Father John exclaimed, with a big smile.
By next year, the 87-year-old priest will have spent 30 years on Mauke, half the size of Rarotonga and 50 minutes’ flight time to the northwest of Rarotonga. Though officially he retired 17 years ago when he turned 70, Father John is still involved with the church on Mauke and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Every couple of months he visits Rarotonga to spend some time with his lifelong friend Father Damien Marinus, but he is always keen to get back to his island home. The two have known each other since they were 12 year old schoolboys in southern Holland during World War Two and both have made a huge contribution to the Catholic mission in the Cook Islands since they first arrived in Rarotonga in 1957. Last year both were honoured for 60 years of service.
Father John entered the religious community of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and officially became a member in 1949. He was ordained on August 29, 1954.
The Congregation had been sending priests to the Pacific Islands since 1827, but the islands certainly weren’t on Father John’s mind when his Father Superior informed him about his first posting.
“He said, ‘where do you hope to go, John?’
“I had been thinking of going to Indonesia. There were lots of Dutch priests there and my uncle was one of them.
“But my superior said ‘no’. There were also lots of Dutch Fathers in Brazil, so I said, ‘I’ll go to South America, to Brazil’.
“But he said, ‘no, you’ve been appointed for the Cook Islands.”
I said, “Oh, Father Superior I don’t like that - the Cook Islands. There you live on an island all by your own and I like to have company and a social life and be with people.
“Then I said ‘Ok, I’ll go, but if after a year I don’t fit in, can I come back?”
“And he agreed with that, and now I thank the Lord that he appointed me to the Cook Islands,” says Father John, a huge smile on his face.
In preparation for his new job he was sent to London for four months and New Zealand for six months to learn English.
“Father Damien and I arrived in Rarotonga in 1957 on the ship Maui Pomare. The trip took seven days.
There were no planes in those days, the old days – the good olden days.
“We landed at Avarua Harbour, not Avatiu. The boat stayed outside the reef and you were lowered in a basket into a lighter.”
The two young priests had not yet learned where in the Cook Islands they would be assigned, but soon received the news from the Bishop.
“He said, where do you think you will go?” says Father John.
“Damien said, ‘I think I will go to Atiu and John to Mauke’. The Bishop said, ‘Ah, you’re wrong it’s just the opposite’.
“So I went to Atiu. I was there from 1957 and then I was asked to go to Mangaia in 1958 to replace a Dutch Father who had left there.
“The only unhappy thing in those days was the friction between the Catholics and the Protestants.
I remember when I was in Mangaia I had a pushbike and on Sundays, people were saying, ‘if you see someone riding a bike and wearing a black cassock, run away quickly!
“What a big change we have now. Even on Atiu when I was first there, there was a lot of friction between the Catholics and the Protestants. That has totally changed and it’s the nicest thing I have seen in the Cook Islands. My greatest friends in Mauke now are the Cook Islands Christian Church pastors.”
After a year on Mangaia, Father John returned to Atiu.
“When I first went there people were still living in kikau huts – they were nice and cool. One or two people were living in what we called papa’a houses. There was no hot running water, no electricity, but we were happy. Life was very simple.
“We have seen a lot of changes, Father Damien and I, but life was happy back then. There were far more people on the islands. On Atiu there were well over 1000 people.”
In 1965, having served eight years in the Cook Islands, Father John returned to Holland for a holiday.
“It was the first time I had been on a plane. I flew from Rarotonga on a DC8 to Samoa and then Fiji and on from there.
“Rarotonga was different in those days to what it is now. There was no road entirely around the island, only just between the villages. No cars, no hotels, no bars. If you wanted a bottle of whisky or something you had to go to the Government Bond store which is now the Bounty Bookstore. But first you had to go to the doctor and get a prescription. I remember that – it was the good olden days. You needed a prescription to get a bottle of drink. Oh boy!”
In 1966 Father John was sent back to Mauke. From 1970 he was appointed Vicar General, then became director of the Sacred Hearts Fathers in The Cook Islands. He had another holiday in Holland with family in 1973 and when he returned to Rarotonga was assigned to St Mary’s Parish at Arorangi.
It was here that he became involved in his first major building project.
Though he has never had any training, he says he has been involved in a fair bit of building over the years. “You learn by experience.” The new church replaced tiny one that occupied what is now a raised area by the roadside. Along with a team of local men he was also responsible for building a new presbytery. Both projects called for a fair bit of ingenuity when it came to acquiring building materials. “The airport was being built at the time. A lot of cement was being shipped in for the airport but the constructors weren’t allowed to use broken bags of cement. So when the ships arrived, the big boss of the project would call and say, ‘you come with your boys’.
“One of them was Joe Wichman who was still a young man then. We came in a truck and we got all the broken bags. That’s why you see so much cement here. It was very cheap! The Lord has been very good to me, always.”
From 1978-79 Father John studied at the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila, the Philippines, then in the 1980s, was appointed Vicar General of the Diocese and rebuilt the church in Rakahanga in 1984.
It was a year he remembers fondly.
“I went back to Holland to celebrate my parents’ 60 years of marriage and then I came back and the Bishop appointed me to go to Rakahanga in 1985. I spent nearly a year there – a good life with the lagoon and plenty of fish. Oh boy, I really enjoyed that year!
In 1986 he was appointed to Mauke and continued with his building projects, building a much-needed new presbytery complete with the new luxury of hot running water. The house was blessed by Bishop Connell in July 2011.
Looking back over the years, Father John, a fluent speaker of Cook Islands Maori, says God has looked after him very, very well.
“If I couldn’t speak the Maori language I wouldn’t have lasted. Meetings with the island council and the Religious Advisory Council and the church – they were all in Maori.
“The best teachers for me were the kids.
On Atiu the adults told me ‘Father you are doing very well with your Maori language’, but it was the kids at the Catholic school who I learned from.
If I said something wrong, or my pronunciation was wrong and they would say, ‘No, father!’”
“In those olden days I travelled a lot by boat. I enjoyed it. I was never seasick.
I remember all the old boats and the captains – Bill Boyd, Don Silk, Pickering, Dickie Brown even. The first boat I ever went on was with Dickie Brown. It was owned by the CITC, I think.”
Father John will return to his beloved Mauke this week after a busy week gathering supplies. He hasn’t had to use a shopping list, because after decades of living in isolated locations where supply boats are few and far between, he has the process well sorted.
“It’s a quiet life on Mauke. The only sad thing now is there are hardly any kids. The school has about 59 children.
The rest of the people are mostly old age pensioners, I think.”
On a parting note, CI News has one more question for Father John: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in a lifetime of working as a priest in the Cook Islands? The answer comes with no hesitation.
‘Have faith in the Lord, and he will look after you.’