Fr. Nick de Groot SVD.
My story starts in the city of The Hague, in the Netherlands in 1943. I am the third born of ten children, -- five boys and five girls. In 1953 my family, -- Dad, Mum, Grandma and 8 children -- migrated to Brisbane, Australia because the war had destroyed so much of our country. At first it was a shock coming to such a different country where people spoke a different language, played different kinds of football and Christmas was the hottest time of the year. I started learning English in grade 6 and caught up with my class mates, to pass scholarship (grade 8) in 1956. For High School, I bicycled about 10 kilometres each day to Marist Brothers College, Ashgrove, finishing with senior in 1960. It was during this senior year that the vocations’ director from the Divine Word Missionaries (SVDs) came to visit the school and I expressed interest in becoming a missionary priest. I had been inspired by the story of Fr. Damien, the leper of Molokai when I was in grade two. When the parish priest, whose altar boy I had been for 5 years, found out I wanted to be a missionary priest, he was not too happy because he wanted me to become a diocesan priest and study at Banyo.
I entered the Society of the Divine Word at Marburg on 2nd of February, 1961 and made my First Vows on the 2nd of February, 1963. Because the SVD Society did not have its own major seminary in Australia yet, I and three class mates were sent by boat and bus to Chicago, where I studied two years Philosophy and four years Theology. I came back to Brisbane for my ordination on 1st of July, 1969. Shortly before ordination, I was asked which mission country I wanted to volunteer for or what I wanted to do in the SVD society. I was always interested in studying Moral Theology, so I received permission from the Superior General to go to Rome for higher studies in the field of Moral Theology, from 1969 to 1972. I not only had to learn Italian and how to eat spaghetti, but also more Latin, French, German, Greek and Hebrew. I graduated with a Licentiate in Moral Theology from the Alfonsianum University.
It was during the last year of study in Rome that I received my first mission appointment to teach in the major seminary in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. When I got there in April of 1972, I told my local superior that I was ready to teach the subject but that I did not know too much about the people, the customs or language of the students, so please, could I have the rest of the year in some bush parishes of PNG before I start teaching. That was probably one of the best things I did because it brought me so much closer to the students when I was teaching. I learned Melanesian Tok Pidgin and also took a Cultural Orientation course offered by the Melanesian Institute (more about this later).
I taught at the Holy Spirit Seminary in Port Moresby for 6 years and was then called back to Australia to become Novice Master in the same place where I had started myself, Marburg, 50 km west of Brisbane. I had had a good mission experience, I had also been involved with Spiritual Formation when teaching in the seminary in PNG, but I did not feel ready to be Novice Master without some extra help, because Moral Theology is not the same as teaching Spirituality and Vows and Community life. So I asked for one extra year of studies in Spirituality which I did at the Loyola University in Chicago. I graduated in 1979 and began my new task in January 1980. I was Novice Master for 6 years and then handed over to the next person who had been prepared for this task.
I was ready to go back to teaching Moral Theology. In 1986, President Marcos of the Philippines had been overthrown by a non-violent revolution and the Catholic church had played a major part in this. That looked very interesting, so when the request came in 1987 for me to teach Moral Theology in the major seminary in Tagaytay, the Philippines, with a student body of over 350, I said yes. It was another experience of a new culture and language studies. By this time I had already moved to five different cultures and had studied 9 languages. Some people say that once you have studied one other language, others get easier, but I did not find that true when one gets older. I was 44 at the time. I did learn enough Tagalog to be able to say Mass and do the readings and sacraments, but never was very fluent in it because my daily teaching in the seminary was done in English. There was a growing Nationalism in the Philippines and the local language was more and more in use. By this time I had also spend about 20 years of my life in teaching in the seminary and was ready for a change.
In 1989, a veteran Divine Word Missionary friend from PNG came to the Philippines and asked me to return to PNG and help with the training of young PNG men and women to do cultural research for the Melanesian Institute. So after my three year contract was finished in the Philippines, I returned to PNG in 1990 to join the Melanesian Institute. Because I personally had had such a journey of different cultures and languages, my work at the Melanesian Institute suited me just fine. The Melanesian Institute (MI) was established in 1970 to do research and promotion of the traditional cultures in PNG so as to provide books and courses for any newcomers to the country of PNG. The work was fascinating and challenging. The MI is an ecumenical Institution with the staff coming from the Anglican, Lutheran, United and Catholic churches. We were called upon to do research on family life, on youth, on women’s issues, on land, on politics and the last study done was on the affects of AIDS in PNG society. I was Assistant Director for four years and Director of the Institute for 12 years. It had been the longest stay in any place I had even been. In this position I had gotten to know all the Bishops and most of the priests and sisters of the Catholic Church in PNG, the leaders of the other three churches, and many other significant people.
As for many other priests everywhere, one hardly ever wears one hat. During my time at the MI, I was chosen to be Chairman of the Board for the Divine Word University in Madang for 6 years; a member of the SVD Provincial Council for 8 years, with one year as Provincial when he became incapacitated; Director of the PNG Pontifical Mission Societies for 6 years and Chairman of the Board of Word Publishing Company for 10 years. Thank God, these were not all simultaneous, so I juggled life as best I could.
In 2006, after 16 years at the Melanesian Institute, I resigned as its Director, and the President of the PNG Bishops Conference asked me to become the General Secretary for the Catholic Bishops Conference. I was reluctant to take that position because I felt I needed a bit of a break, but they insisted and I finally accepted. I signed a contract for three years. From 2006 to 2009 I was at the Bishops Conference centre in Port Moresby so I was there for the World Youth Days’ event. About 1500 Papua New Guineans went to Australia in July of 2008 and virtually all paper work had to go through my office – Birth Certificates, PNG Passports, Australian Visas, Registration in Sydney, Airline tickets, and further assignments and travel in Australia and back. It was a nightmare, but miracle of miracles, 99% of those who wanted to go got there safely and came back safely. The remainder did not get their passports in time so could not go. All in all, it was a wonderful and unforgettable experience to see the happy faces when they came back through Port Moresby and back to their own towns and villages of PNG.
After three years as General Secretary, I decided not to renew my contract with the Bishops Conference. I was of retirement age, I lost complete hearing of my left ear, (I think, due to anti malaria medicine), and I wanted to do some Parish work rather than be in administration which I had done for so long. I returned to Brisbane Australia in September of 2009 to try to settle back into my adopted country and the place where all of my family lives. Not long after, my SVD superior in Australia informed me that there was a beautiful place in the Rockhampton Diocese that could do with some help. Fr. Rod De la Rosa SVD had just been there for some months, but he was moving to Alice Spring, and Yeppoon was still open for an Assistant priest. I had never been to Yeppoon, but everyone who heard about it said, take it, it is a wonderful place, I am sure you will like it.
So here I am in Yeppoon and Emu Park, settling into the parish work and re-learning the Australian culture and its wonderful ways. The hospitality, the fun loving ways, the love of sport and a cold drink when you are thirsty, suits me to the ground. Thank you for having me here and I will try to do my best in sharing my life and supporting Christ’s life in my new community.
Fr. Nick de Groot SVD.