During the month of November the lives of several deceased SCJs are being highlighted in Dehonian Spirituality, a weekly publication of the Dehonian Associates Office of the US Province. The November 18th issue featured a reflection written by Fr. Jim Casper about Fr. John Van Wezel who served in Canada for many years:
John Van Wezel 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.