November 18, 2016
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
As a newly ordained priest, who was doing further studies in Canon Law and Theology, as well as serving as a stenographer at the First Vatican Council, Fr. Leo Dehon reflected on the scripture passage, I am comforted by the arrival of Titus [II Corinthians 7:6]. “If our friendships are holy,” he reasoned, “they will be eternal, and the absence of friends will be less noticeable because they will be present to us in the Heart of Jesus.” Perhaps he was already missing the comradery of some of his seminary classmates who had already begun their ministries.
In an interesting parallel toward the end of his life, Dehon reflects on the physical absence, but felt presence of significant individuals. “This month I am reading a beautiful book by Bishop Chollet on Our Dead. It is a great help for my interior life, it is allowing me to live in heaven with my relatives, friends, [spiritual] directors, and colleagues. They are busy praising God, but all of them were also kind and helpful to me. The memory of them is revived, and I feel as if they are present. I am praying to them and I have confidence in their intercession; they will not allow my soul to be lost. They had loved me, and they love me still, and they will draw me to them.
Daily Notes, January 19, 1870, and March 1924
Lived and Shared: contemporary expressions of Dehonian spirituality
John Van Wezel (pictured at right) was one of four scholastics handpicked by Fr. Govaart in the early 1930’s for university studies. Govaart, then provincial of the Dutch Province, recognized that the growing Province required some well-placed members with a higher education. When Govaart became Superior General, two of them were assigned to Canada [Van Buuren and Van Wezel]; one more came later [Karskans], and Puts went to England.
John was an intelligent and practical visionary. When he arrived in Canada in 1950 he was assigned to minister to the Catholic immigrants arriving from Holland. He developed a system which remained in place until the 1960’s. He acquired a house in London where new arrivals lived until a residence was found; he made contact with local farmers who welcomed the Dutch families as workers on their farms.
At that time farms were being abandoned in favour of urban life. Recognizing the need for financing when immigrant families wished to buy farms from aging owners, John proceeded to establish a credit union which exists to this day.
Somehow, Cardinal Leger of Montreal heard of John’s ministry and John was summoned to Montreal. I recall his description of sitting in the audience room of the cardinal’s palace in what he described as a chair similar to a student’s desk, while the cardinal sat on his throne, two steps above him, his dark eyes fixed on John. Cardinal Leger proceeded to berate John for settling Catholic immigrants in Protestant Ontario instead of Catholic Quebec.
Not knowing what would become of his ministry, John decided to tell Cardinal McGuigan of Toronto about his experience. In Toronto he also met with the director of Catholic Charities, who affirmed him and his ministry, and convinced him to carry on and let the two Cardinals battle it out. John then went to Ottawa where the house on 192 Daly Avenue was purchased as an immigrant hostel and the immigration ministry continued to grow, covering the dioceses of London, Toronto, and Ottawa.
As others took over the ministry to the immigrants, John moved to parish pastoral ministry. He became the treasurer of the Canadian region, part of the North American Province, and when his health began to fail he returned to Holland.
I loved to hear John’s stories about his first ministry assignment to sailors at the Apostolate of the Sea in Rotterdam. He was there during the war years. He recalled that one day he heard his mother had taken ill and he wanted to visit her. To do so he had to get through enemy lines. He told how one of the sailors connected with the underground got him a Nazi uniform and he boarded a boat to get to his mother’s city. All he had to rely on was his knowledge of German and a few pointers from the sailors who assisted him. He managed to get to his mother without incident.
John had an extremely important ministry after WW II. He was hired by the Dutch Ministry of Justice to help in the resettlement of political prisoners who were innocent but imprisoned during the war, oftentimes because they had a German spouse or became suspect because of a complaint. I believe he was chosen for this sensitive ministry because of his good judgement and compassion.
I visited John in Holland a few times after his retirement and always felt that he had so much wisdom to offer about Church, faith, religious life, and the world we live in. My relationship with him left me grateful and enriched.
Jim Casper, SCJ (pictured at left)
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
In your kindness throughout the coming week and during the month of November, please lift up the memory of your deceased loved ones in prayer. You may find the following prayer helpful.
your Heart lovingly holds the relationships
that nurture and challenge us
to be faithful collaborators
in building your reign among all people.
Whether on Earth or in heaven
those who love us
remain present and helpful,
offering us wisdom to navigate
a world in need of your transforming grace.
May we cherish these holy friendships
by staying wholly united to you.
Each week reflections and prayers based in the Dehonian charism are published on the Dehonian Spirituality page of the U.S. Province website of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. This is an email version of that update.
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