Tearful Papuans bid farewell to their 'salt and light'

Elderly Dutch Franciscan missionary returns home to spend his final years
Tearful Papuans bid farewell to their 'salt and light'

Franciscan Father Frans Lieshout relaxes on his flight back to the Netherlands. (Photo supplied)

Papuans were in tears as they bid farewell to a Dutch missionary who had to return to his home country after devoting himself to the region for 56 years.

Franciscan Father Frans Lieshout, 84, had accomplished his mission in the region and flew to the Netherlands on Nov. 2. He plans to spend the rest of his life at the order’s convent in Amsterdam and to receive specialist treatment for prostate cancer.

The provincial of Franciscans in Papua, Father Gabriel Ngga, told ucanews that during his missionary work in the easternmost region the Dutch priest had unselfishly helped indigenous Papuans from remote areas, particularly in the field of education.

He said Father Lieshout would especially be remembered for his work as principal of Teruna Bakti School, one of the best academic institutions in Jayapura Diocese, where he helped many Papuan youths. “Now they continue [his work] as teachers, priests, nuns and activists,” he said.

Markus Haluk, a layman, said: “Physically he has suffered but the enthusiasm and the legacy he left behind remain alive within us.”

Haluk, a political activist, added: “We will always cherish it. He has become our salt and light in the land of Papua and has prepared thousands of children to safeguard this land.”

 

Father Frans Lieshout at his farewell party with Papuans on Oct. 26. (Photo supplied)

Respect for local culture

Arriving in Papua in 1963, Father Lieshout was then assigned to Lemba Baliem and Wamena and was part of the early generation who preached the Gospel in the area.

He became fluent in the local language, highly appreciated the local culture and strived for inculturation in worship. He also wrote a book on the history of the Catholic Church in Lembah Baliem, a book on Hubula tribe culture, which was published this year, and a dictionary of the local language.

Socrates Sofyan Yoman, president of the Papuan Baptist Churches, said it was not only Catholics who felt his presence.

“His books have inspired me. He has indeed been a gift from God to the people in Papua,” he said. “He brought many souls to Christ, including me, because we believe in the same Christ.”

In his farewell ceremony with Papuans on Oct. 26, attended by thousands of people, Father Lieshout said that since his arrival in the region he had always shown respect for the cultural richness and character of the people he served.

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However, he said, he was saddened by what had happened recently, particularly the riots in Wamena on Sept. 23 in which 35 people died.

“His pastoral approach was always culture-based. We will continue that spirit in our work,” said Father Ngga.

The priest said Father Lieshout had been part of the last generation of Dutch missionaries, out of hundreds who had worked in Papua since the first missionaries came in 1935. Some had died in Papua, while others returned home.

His departure means there are only two Dutch Franciscan priests left in Papua and both are 80 years old: Father Nico Syukur Dister, who is still active as philosophy professor at the Fajar Timur School of Philosophy and Theology, and Brother Jan Sjerps, who is enjoying his retirement in the town of Sentani. 

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