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Dutch missionary Joannes Demarteau remembered as a pioneer

Catholics mark long life of Borneo bishop

Dutch missionary Joannes Demarteau remembered as a pioneer
Bishop Demarteau is laid to rest in Banjarbaru, South Kalimantan
Dionisius AP Santosa, Banjarmasin

December 12, 2012

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When Wilhelmus Joannes Demarteau left the small Dutch village of Horn in 1947 and traveled thousands of kilometers to southern Borneo, the town of Banjarmasin was barely on the map – especially in a Catholic sense.

Four years later, Demarteau committed himself to Indonesia in becoming a national of the country where he died last week, aged 95.

In 1961, he became the first bishop of Banjarmasin after it was elevated to a diocese.

“Bishop Demarteau was interested in working in Borneo from when he was a child,” Bishop Petrus Boddeng Timang of Banjarmasin, the man who currently holds the position Demarteau pioneered, said in his homily at Saturday's funeral.

Today, Catholics in Banjarmasin diocese number more than 22,000 people out of a total population of 3.3 million in South Kalimantan province.

During his many years in the area, Bishop Demarteau not only helped to establish Catholicism in the area, he was also involved in a number of community projects, setting up Suaka Insan Hospital.

Sister Maria Regina Djogo, one of the few nuns who has worked at the hospital since day one, said in the beginning it was filled with crosses and other Christian images.

However, Bishop Demarteau instructed their removal to make people of all faiths feel at home.

“So now there are no more crosses seen at the hospital,” said Sr Djogo. “The only Catholic attribute left is the presence of SPC [Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres] nuns with white clothes.”

It was to be the hospital in which Bishop Demarteau eventually passed away. He had many near-death experiences beforehand, says Father Herman Stahlhacke, a former Missionaries of the Holy Family Superior for the Kalimantan region.

“The bishop once fell from a bamboo raft into a big river. Fortunately someone saved him,” he recalled. “He also once fell onto a rock while mooring his boat and often got injured while walking along slopes and slippery river banks.”

Those that knew his work said he spent periods visiting people in remotest Borneo, once for a period of six months during which time he traveled extensively by boat.

When back in his adopted home town of Banjarmasin, though, he was famous for riding an old motorbike.

“He greeted anyone he met on the street, especially the children,” said deputy mayor of Banjarbaru, Ogi Fajar Nuzuli, speaking at Saturday's funeral service.

Although still known as the pioneering bishop in Banjarmasin, Demarteau retired from his posting nearly 30 years ago at the age of 66.

“Once I asked him why he resigned early, not at 75 like other bishops,” said Petrus Kolin, a former catechist.

One of the reasons he gave was that he wanted to be a leader for Indonesians within the community, he added.

Demarteau then became a priest at St. Mary’s Church in Barjarbaru, a town about an hour’s drive from Banjarmasin, and the place where this pioneering Dutch missionary was finally laid to rest on Saturday in the presence of about 1,500 Catholics and non-Catholics.

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