Still mourning a murdered missionary, 63 years on

The presence of a Dutch priest horribly cut down in 1956 continues to haunt the Indonesian island of Lembata
Still mourning a murdered missionary, 63 years on

Many Catholics go daily to this prayer park to pray for Father Beeker's intercession. (Photo by Handrianus Atagoran/ucanews.com) 

Every Tuesday morning, 87-year-old Maria Gelu Ladjar visits the prayer park grave of Dutch Divine Word missionary Father Hendricus Coenradus Beeker, who was killed more than 60 years ago.

The park is managed by the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in the village of Lerek on Lembata Island in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara province.

For her, the priest is a saint who played a major role in her life and the local people.

One of the things that Maria remembers is that the priest foresaw what would happen to her family — and it came true.

“He once told me, ‘Maria, one of your children will become a priest one day,’” she told ucanews.com. 

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Father Beeker also appeared again after he died in her dream, where he said the same thing. “It encouraged me to continuously pray for his guidance and what he said came true,” she added.

One of her sons, Hengki Tobotani, was ordained a priest in 1986 and now works in Kalimantan.

Another woman, Lusia Selaka Lebao, 69, coordinator of the parish-based St. Ana prayer group, said she routinely prayed at the priest’s tomb and felt something mystical when they visited the site.

“When we pray at the tomb, we smell the fragrance,” Lebao said. The group believes it is a sign of Father Beeker’s presence.

She said some people even occasionally saw the priest walking around the chapel and the prayer park while holding a breviarya daily prayer book for religious people.

Because of that, she said, parents in the village forbade their children from playing in the prayer park in the afternoon. “The people believe that [afternoon] is the time for Father Beeker to pray,” said Lebao.

‘Thou shall not steal’

Father Beeker died miserably on April 19, 1956, at the age of 44. He was killed by a young man named Bernadus Baha Luga, whom he had previously helped to take up a skills course.

The priest was killed after he had reprimanded Luga for stealing items belonging to a missionary brother.

Piter Ata Tukan, a village leader in their community of Watuwawer and a child when the incident happened, told ucanews.com what happened.  

“Father Beeker was praying at the time,” he said.  “Suddenly Luga knocked on the door and when it opened, he shook the priest’s hand and slashed him with a machete.” Father Beeker immediately collapsed, covered with blood, he said.

The murder happened just as Catholics in the village were preparing for the first communion of their children.

The death left a deep sorrow in the community. “Even until now, the stigma of murder is closely attached to the people of Watuwawer because of Luga’s heinous actions,” said Tukan.

The priest’s body was taken to Larantuka on Flores Island, the center of the diocese, by traditional boat, accompanied by thousands of weeping parishioners. He was buried by Bishop Gabriel Manek, the second native Indonesian bishop, who was also the founder of the Reinha Rosari Sisters congregation.

After killing the priest, Luga fled, but he returned to his homeland in 1999 and had to undergo the traditional ceremony of glete kera, a symbol of cleansing oneself from grave sins.

Because of people’s love for Father Beeker, parishioners of the Sacred Heart Church built a prayer park in 1996 and erected his statue to coincide with the 40th anniversary of his death. Ten years later, the priest’s remains were returned to the park.

“With this park, it is possible for future generations to feel the presence of Father Beeker,” said Tukan.

Maria Gelu Ladjar, 87, says Father Beeker played a major role in her life. (Photo by Handrianus Atagoran/ucanews.com)

 

Empowering early Catholics

Father Beeker went to Lembata in 1940, five years before Indonesia’s independence, and helped develop local people’s skills and education.

He sent a number of young people to Larantuka to study carpentry in church-run workshops and established elementary schools, first in Watuwawer in 1948 and then in nearby Atawolo in 1954. Many children still study there.

To manage these schools, he sent some youngsters to teacher-training institutions. Later, they became the foremost force in carrying out the Church’s mission in education and spreading Catholic values to the locals, who at the time believed in animism and superstitions.

“At that time, local people saw God’s presence through Father Beeker,” said Tukan. “He also spoke our local language very fluently.”

The East Nusa Tenggara provincial government and Lembata district administration have included Father Beeker’s grave in the list of religious tourism destinations.

Father Pius Laba Buri, the parish priest of Sacred Heart Church, said the spirit of Father Beeker continued to live in the community. “He is a martyr. His bloodshed has been a strong foundation for Catholic faith among local people,” he said.

Because of his role in laying the foundations of Catholicism in the parish, he always prayed before visiting mission stations for the priest’s help, said Father Buri.  

Martin Breok Lamak, 35, a parishioner, said that although he did not know Father Beeker personally, the stories about the priest made him feel close to him.

“I am increasingly convinced that this prayer park is sacred and Father Beeker is still present in this land,” said Lamak, who also regularly prays there.

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