Ahead by a century

“Your uncle would have been a product of his time.”

The statement weighs heavy as the last line of my notes from an afternoon of conversation with Fr. Cor Schilder, appointed as our host on a visit to Mission House Vrijland, a retirement home for Dutch Mill Hill missionaries in Oosterbeek, the Netherlands.

Fr. Kees de Cock was ordained July 6, 1947 in the immediate post war period, his studies interrupted by the German invasion of the Netherlands. An earnest young man, eldest son of a weaver, living in row housing adjacent to the textile factories of working class Tilburg, his only window to another world through the teachings of textbooks and priests, one would expect his views to reflect those of the immediate elders and surroundings.

Yet, I don’t know. How do I write about a life of which I have little understanding, about a time period distant and foreign or about a person who I met last as an eleven year old?

My attempt to delve into the mind of Uncle Kees has been informed indirectly through the experience and voices of his extended family in the Netherlands, of his fellow seminarians and priests, of people who worked with him in Uganda, of his parishioners from the church in Kamuli, and of archival documents buried in the libraries of the remaining Mill Hill holdings.

Fr. Herman Hofte was a classmate of my Uncle at the seminary and travelled with him to Uganda in December 1947. I stumbled upon an interview with Fr. Hofte as part of an oral history project of Dutch missionaries housed at Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Eventually I was able to acquire the 180 minute recording conducted entirely in Dutch, a dilemma since my level of understanding the language is rudimentary. Through another fortunate encounter, I have befriended Dr. Cees van Deursen, now retired, living in the Netherlands, whose first assignment as a young physician was to work in the mission hospital in Kamuli from February 1978 to March 1981. Cees agreed to listen and translate.

On the accompanying permission form, Fr. Hofte questions his own importance and wonders why the interest in his experience: You may skip me, it seems all very scholar like. I have not done anything special. I have no idea what to tell you in 4 – 6 hours. I am sure you can use your time in a better way. When asked, he could not formulate a concise reason for becoming a missionary, appearing to have evolved into the vocation after an initial feeling, recalling visitations and presentations from returning priests at his school. His attraction to Mill HIll was the apparent freedom in comparison to monastic orders. Once in Uganda, Fr. Hofte described the missionary work as conveying the message by example, being there when needed. His was a “welcoming” church to anyone interested. The teaching of the catechism did not focus on the moralistic but more about loving one’s neighbour. In his teaching and his actions, Fr. Hofte concerned himself more to the intention rather than the letter of the rules. Fr. Hofte’s own spiritual life was enhanced through the work of a practical person who put his trust in God.

In an earlier letter exchange with Cees, I had asked what he recalled as my Uncle’s approach to Catholic theology. Dr. van Deursen couldn’t answer directly except to compare Fr. de Cock’s approach to his own uncle. A Benedictine monk, he preferred working to praying, adapting St. Benedictine’s adage, “ora et labora” (pray and work) to ‘my working is praying”. My Uncle, according to Cees, operated in the same manner.

“I hope you enjoy reading this translation/summary [of Fr. Hofte’s recording] and that it helps you to picture your uncle, Fr. Dikoko. I think an interview with him would have been quite similar.”

In describing his own motivation for priesthood, Fr. Cor Schilder talked of his attraction to adventure, with a desire to get away from home, be heroic and save people from going to hell. Even when he was ordained, he still believed the best way to heaven is to be a Catholic. God, he said, has strange and different ways of attracting people, eventually molded them into His word. Clearly Fr. Schilder’s own thoughts about Catholicism were enlightened by his experience and listening to him expound on an alternative way of approaching religion made one believe again in the power of faith.

Fr. Schilder was very much impressed with letter from Fr. Joseph Willigers, the bishop, announcing my Uncle’s death in 1981. Fr. Schilder responded saying Fr. de Cock was a “hero” in the ordinary, in the everyday, reflecting the future of the church, less of a spectacle, more to being of the people.

Uncle Kees would have been a 100 years old 2022. Memory is what we want it to be, so I wonder how my ongoing research will alter the existing images. For now, however, I will think of him as being ahead by a century.

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