By Jack Mariano
When the Reverend Father John Van Der Paer was informed earlier this year that he was retiring, for the second time in his ministry vocation, he was not happy. After all, at 93 years young, there was still so much work to be done. There remain so many people who have yet to be “touched” by this man of God.
No sir, he wasn’t pleased when he found out that he would be leaving Parkesburg and the Philadelphia area to ‘settle in” with other members of his order in Arlington, Virginia but, as he accepted many assignments throughout his great career, this life change was handled with class and grace.
We who know him personally wouldn’t expect anything else.
Father John was born in Antwerp, Belgium on November 29, 1920. He describes himself as a “city boy” and he grew up in typical western European fashion. He attended elementary school and finished high school just around the time that Adolf Hitler was coming into power in Germany.
As a young lad, Father John didn’t pay much attention to the German soldiers who were gradually entering his country and into cities like Antwerp. By 1940, German Troops and even Nazi flags were making an increasing presence in his hometown.
The distance from Berlin, Germany to Antwerp, Belgium is 726 Kilometers (or about 450 miles) which is about the same distance as Philadelphia is From Cleveland, Ohio. This is about a six and a half hour drive and yet, the stories about what was beginning in Germany were only trickling out as far as Belgium’s port city. After all most folks believed that after the decimation of World War I, it would take the Germans many, many years to rise from the ashes.
They really weren’t an immediate concern. In fact, some of Father John’s classmates traveled to Nurenburg to hear some of the speeches that were given and to attend some of the rallies that were being held at the time, and they came back enthused about what they thought were going to be changes for the good. As the Nazi regime grew, some of the German soldiers were caught up in the movement but “not all German soldiers were Nazis”.
I asked Father John if he feared for his life or safety and he replied: “not really, as long as you followed the rules and did not travel outside (without a permit) during the curfew hours 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., they pretty much left you alone.”
In Antwerp, the Polish Army served as a battalion under the German Army and those soldiers had to register within the country under their religious beliefs, Catholic.
According to the rules, these soldiers were compelled to attend mass on Sundays and they would actually march to church singing.
While in high school, John became interested in the realm of missionary work and the spirit of the priests who staffed the Catholic high school and joined the school sponsored “Mission Support Group.”
A year after he graduated, the young man joined the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (C.I.C.M.), a missionary congregation. John Van Der Paer was accepted into the C.I.C.M. in 1940 and spent time studying Novitiate for one year, then two years of philosophy in Brussels and finally, four years of Theology in Leuven, Belgium. He was ordained a priest in Belgium in 1947.
Father John recalls that around Christmas of 1944, he was traveling to Brussels to meet his mother, who survived both World Wars, and his brother to travel back to Antwerp for the holidays. This was a period in time when the Germans had just been defeated by the Canadian Army, with the help of the British in the Battle of the Scheldt.
The port of Antwerp was very important to the Allies for shipping food and supplies into the European Theater. The Germans outnumbered the Allied Troops 90,000 to 60,000 and yet were beaten; losing 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers; over 41,000 Germans were captured. The battle raged from October 2nd until November 8th with the Allies losing 6,387 soldiers. Both sides of the river had to be cleared to open up shipping lanes.
Father John remembers some of the bombings that were occurring during these times in fact one of these “burst Bombs” exploded only a block away from their home. He recounts that he and his brother were sleeping in one bed with a mattress over top of them. They knew that they could not survive a direct hit but a miss that would cause objects in the room and plaster to fall on them could be softened by the protective covering.
Diocesan seminarians were compelled by the Germans to work in a factory for one year. Some of his fellows were amused to think that these men would have to live like “working men” for a year. The C.I.C.M. seminarians were not compelled to follow these rules and were actually free to practice their beliefs. Father John remembered, “The Germans had some pretty strange rules”. Occasionally, he recalled, they would hear stories of priests who were thought to be spies, being executed but no one in his area ever experienced that.
Coming to America
After his ordination, C.I.C.M. superior sent him to (Missionhurst in U.S.A) in 1947 and in February of 1948, Fr. John found himself as an assistant at St. Cyprian parish in Columbus Ohio. St. Cyprian was the only African American parish in Columbus. “This was before the Civil Rights Movement and it was a wonderful experience. As a newcomer, I did not know anything. The people (there) were my teachers.”
Arthur Lee now 80, and still lives in Columbus remembers the ‘wonderful “Godly” man’ very well as does Rosemary McBride, who now lives in Cleveland. “I was the first student father John met. “ says Rosemary. She was then, a fourth grade student at St. Cyprian School. He took us on outings, taught us how to play games and really made us feel good about ourselves.”
“We were very poor,” she added, “but we grew with his guidance.” “When we transferred into high school at St. Mary’s” she continued,
“we were the only black kids in the school. We had to get along with children from Italian and German families and so, we worked harder. Father taught us that. Many of us actually excelled due to our experiences with him.”
Both Lee and McBride recalled games of “deck tennis” not played with a racket and a ball but with rings. Arthur Lee adds “Father John created a better life for us”. He took us on picnics and outings and we enjoyed being around him. “Father would set up concerts with live bands and occasionally, as in any city, the kids could get a little rough and Father John was always in the middle playing peacemaker.”
Integration was looked down upon in those days but Father knew about civil rights really before anyone did”.
As is his history, father John Van Der Paer, looked into the basement and didn’t see darkness rather, he painted that basement, illuminated it and converted it into a skating rink for the kids. “I would compare him to St. Joseph “the carpenter” adds Lee.
Today, Arthur Lee, who has attended two universities, is very much active as a real estate broker, helping out his sons who have taken over the business. “We couldn’t understand him when he first came, he spoke very little English but we, as kids taught him that, just like he taught us.”
Lee, who continues to communicate with Father John hopes that he will remain active in his retirement.
Moving to Philadelphia
On November 12, 1952 Father John was appointed to St. Charles Borromeo parish located on Montrose St. near 20th in South Philadelphia. He served as assistant pastor until 1980 and as pastor until 1995 when he reached full retirement age.
Again, father says, “the people were my teachers.” One of his best friends Charles Major who has continued to keep contact through Farther John’s “Parkesburg years” and now in Virginia said that Father John corrected things that were “wrong” using any means necessary and like his days in Columbus, the priest fixed up and opened a skating ring for the kids.
But the resourceful minister didn’t stop there, he purchased an old Greyhound 3751 tour bus and in 1967, that bus and a station wagon made the trip to Canada for the World Expo, in Montreal, loaded with kids from all denominations. To Father John, a kid was a kid, it didn’t matter what religion he or she believed, and they were all the same in his eyes.
With many single parent families and no male presence in the home, Father John urged men in the parish to help with these young folks…and they did. Soon, the tour buses numbered four and five which landed the priest in a bit of hot water with the archdiocese.
Father John had a meeting. When Father John “called a meeting”, it was important and “everybody attended” This time, it was decided that a group of people led by Mr. Major would take control of the bus company.
Father John literally helped Charles Major start a bus company, which he still owns and operates. Said Major recalling the experience 50 years later, “Father John helped several people start their own businesses.” He had that air of respect because folks knew that he was there to help them.
“20th and Carpenter was one of the most dangerous intersections in the world, everyone knows that but when Father John van Der Paer walked into that intersection, everything ceased……..because they trusted him”.
Quite often as in Columbus, Father would find himself in the center of police versus civil disturbances; he could always help calm things down. [Of course, the man grew up just on the outskirts of the Nazis in World War II with bombs exploding in his neighborhood…..THAT was HIS training ground]
At 75, Father John had reached retirement age but he was not really prepared to retire. Catholic Church rules indicate that when a “servant of God” reaches retirement age, he must return to his order. Perhaps though in some people’s eyes, the minister and civil rights advocate wasn’t leading his flock in the exact, precise direction that church hierarchy preferred. Perhaps his message of Christianity coupled with gentrification was rubbing some leaders the wrong way.
Whatever the reason, Father John found out about his retirement from a worshiper from another denomination as he was walking down the street. She said, “Father, I am so sorry to hear that you will be leaving the area.” It is the first he had heard of this (in his own words to me). When he returned to his rectory and inquired, his departure was confirmed.
From Philadelphia to Parkesburg
A funny thing happened on his way to retirement at Missionhurst in Arlington – Parkesburg, in western Chester County.
Upon hearing the news that his friend (and a mentor) was ‘setting out to pasture’, The Reverend Victor Eschbach would have nothing of this “retirement” by his friend that he came to know and love in his “Philly years.”
Father Victor, who had recently been transferred to Our Lady Of Consolation from a closed Catholic congregation in North Philadelphia petitioned the superiors to allow Father John to forgo his retirement and to help him run the three worship sites within the Parkesburg parish, under Father Eschbach’s careful eye and guidance of course.
So in January 1996, Father John found himself in a life changing situation: “city boy to country boy”; “from an all black church to an all white church” and again, “the people there helped me, made me feel at home.”
It didn’t take long for the locals to become endeared to the “presider of masses, weddings and funerals” and despite trying to understand his thick European accent (he never really lost it), “we” ‘got’ his messages of love and respectful reverence of our fellow man. When Father said, “and now….we rrrrise” we arose from our seats, when Father told us to join hands with one another, even across the aisle, we did that too and when Father John implored us not only to “pray for those who couldn’t come” (to mass) but also for those “who don’t want to come,” we heeded his request.
Saint Malachi in Doe Run – “I often dreamed about a real ‘people’s church’, St. Malachi filled that bill!”. But Father John not only loved and ministered in that church building, built in the 1700s, he transformed it.
Father took that historic building on as a personal project, removing and refinishing the large wooden front doors, installed the building’s first restroom (before John, there was no “john” – if you had to go to the rest room, you had to travel to one of the neighboring residences or…find a tree). He was instrumental in getting the building retro fitted with a heating system and an air conditioning system and I am sure there were many other improvements to the location he materialized.
Father John turned out to be a pretty nifty carpenter.
What would interest a once “retired” priest moving out into the relaxed country setting to conjure up and put into action the opening of a roller skating rink in Parkesburg? “Father Victor talked me into it” and for four years (1998 to 2001) the Schneider parish center was transformed weekly from worship site to roller rink so that area youth might have a venue to learn and craft their skating skills but mostly, for fellowship.
Father did much of the renovation himself, installing removable rails around the skating floor. “I consider this a way to get involved in community service”, he recalled. It is not that he didn’t have experience, Father John helped operate a skating rink at St. Charles for 38 years!
One of my personal recollections of one of my many encounters with Father John was the time I asked him if he had seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ.” Father John retorted, “I don’t watch movies about things that are in the bible…Hollywood uses too much drama,” he added: “It’s better to read books.”
When I initially interviewed Farther John, I asked him who he was rooting for in the recent FIFA World Cup soccer game pitting the U.S.A. against his native Belgium. his answer was, “both”.
Several people from Parkesburg and Philadelphia make their way to Arlington weekly, to visit the “retired” priest. He will continue to be a part of all who know him…. And, even those who don’t even beyond his days on earth. Hopefully, those days are a long way off as there remains so much work for him to do.