Feast: January 14
In many ways, Peter Donders was ahead of his time. He was the kind of person who could pull into action the resources of the state in order to support those most in need. This is exactly what he did on behalf of the Batavian lepers among whom he lived and worked.
Peter was sent to Batavia in 1856. There he would spend most of the next 31 years.
When he arrived at the leper colony, Peter Donders had been ordained 15 years, but he was not as yet a Redemptorist. It was ten years later in 1866 that the Redemptorists first arrived to co-ordinate the mission in Surinam. Only then did Fr Donders and one of his fellow priests apply for admission to the congregation.
The two candidates made their novitiate under the Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Johan Baptist Winkels. After his profession as a Redemptorist on June 24, 1867, Peter Donders returned promptly to Batavia.
Since he now had assistance in working among the lepers, he was able to reach out to the indigenous peoples of Surinam, a dream he had held for many a year. He continued in this work which was previously neglected because of a lack of manpower. He also began to learn the native languages and to instruct the local peoples in the Christian faith.
Fr Donders was born in Tilburg, Holland, on October 27, 1809. His parents were Arnold Denis Donders and Petronella van den Brekel. Their home was poor, so Peter and his brother had little schooling as they worked to support the family.
As a youngster, Peter was interested in becoming a priest, and with the generosity of a group of local clergy behind him, he was able to begin his studies. He was ordained in 1841, at 29 years of age.
Even before ordination, Blessed Peter Donders was being guided by the seminary leaders towards the missions in the Dutch colony of Surinam. He arrived in Paramaribo in 1842. He made regular visits through the plantations along the colony’s rivers preaching and celebrating the sacraments. Many of the people were slaves. Peter’s letters express his indignation at the harsh treatment of the African peoples forced to work on the plantations.
When he was sent to the leper station in 1856, he preached among the lepers and celebrated the sacraments with them. Peter also tended the lepers personally with their many needs, and at the same time, ensured that the authorities provided much-needed nursing facilities. By bringing the leper’s needs to the attention of the colonial authorities, he was in many ways able to improve their conditions. He was tireless in these efforts.
With increasingly weakening health, his labours slowed over the last years of his life. He died on January 14, 1887. The significance of his life was well known in Surinam and spread also back to Holland, the land of his birth. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982.