Father John Kersten, 1915-2012
Pioneering missionary faced conflict in Europe, Asia and North America
Father John Kersten, SVD, 96, the first missionary in the land that is now the Archdiocese of Kupang in Indonesia, passed away on Friday, April 20.
"The story of John’s priesthood unfolded like a history book, filled with social and political unrest," said Father Paul Gootee, SVD, who worked with the elder priest in Timor, an island that is now in southern Indonesia. "He had firsthand experience of World War II, the Communist infiltration of West Timor and the racial tension that marked the southern United States in the 1960s."
Born in Amersfoort, Netherlands, in 1915, Father Kersten was the eldest of Johannes and Geertruida (nee Van Amersfoort) Kersten’s 10 children. He began his studies with the Divine Word Missionaries in 1927, professed vows in 1936 and was ordained to the priesthood in August 1940, four months after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.
Unable to go abroad because of the war, he was assigned as a chaplain for a Dutch teachers’ training college, where he taught religion for six years. As soon as travel for missionaries was restored in 1946, the Society of the Divine Word sent him to Kupang on the western edge of Timor. To reach the nearest fellow priest, he had to drive eight hours by Jeep. About 400 miles north of Australia, Timor was then part of the Dutch East Indies.
"He was a methodical missionary in the forefront of everything. All by himself, he laid the foundation of the area which is now the Archdiocese of Kupang," Father Gootee once wrote of his mentor. "Singlehandedly, he budgeted his time, moving through a vast area, leaving books for catechists, confronting marriage problems with his pen, and last of all brave to the extent of sacrificing himself for a confrere."
In 1958, Father Kersten came to the aid of a priest whom the Communist military suspected of political activities on behalf of the Dutch. While Father Kersten was trying to secure safe passage out of the country for the man, the priest escaped, leaving Father Kersten in the lurch. A Communist military commander placed Father Kersten under house arrest for 14 months before expelling him from the country.
The missionary then volunteered for pastoral ministry in Mississippi and worked in the southern United States from 1960 until the1990s. Here too, he knew conflict. During the 1960s, he encouraged and was host to biracial parish meetings, a practice that the Ku Klux Klan violently opposed. In 1964, the Klan set fire to the parish hall at Rosary Catholic Mission in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Father Kersten’s pastoral work in the southern United States took him to various parts of Mississippi, including Jackson, Hattiesburg, Meridian and Bay St. Louis, as well as Bell Chasse, La., and New Orleans. He also authored several catechetical books.
He had retired to the Divine Word Residence in Bay St. Louis, Miss., but the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 forced him to move to Techny, Ill., where he received the care that he needed in his final years.
Father Kersten is survived by seven siblings: Corry, Mary, Wim, Adriaan, Joop, Anton and Truus. His wake took place on Thursday, April 26, at the Divine Word Residence at Techny. His funeral Mass was on Friday, April 27, in the chapel of the residence. He was buried at St. Mary Cemetery at Techny.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in the name of Father Kersten can be made for the care of retired missionaries and may be sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Road, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.