It is important to recover the history of our first SVD Brothers who accompanied our founder from the beginning. Men full of faith, they trusted in the missionary project of Fr. Arnold and consecrated themselves in our Society.
He took me over the small hill, now our park. When we reached the front part, where the playing field starts, he turned around and pointed to our house. “Now, what do you think?” he asked. “Would you be able to live there?” When I replied with “Yes,” he said, “Then come.”
Brother Martinus SVD, Johannes Hermann Jürgens, was born in Hemsen by Meppen (Emsland), Germany, on September 30, 1855. After attending elementary school, he worked for ten years as a laborer in local farming communities. A Sister of Divine Providence, who was teaching near his home village, drew his attention to the Mission House in Steyl that had opened in 1875.
On October 20, 1879, at the age of 24, Johannes Hermann entered the mission seminary as a postulant. In the register of Brothers, he appears as the 13th candidate to join Steyl as a Brother. Only four of these thirteen remained in the Society until they died. They are Heinrich Elskemper (Bro. Marcolinus), Rudolf Schwertfeger (Bro. Bernardus), Matthias Götten (Bro. Damian), and Hermann Jürgens (Bro. Martinus). They bound themselves to the Society of the Divine Word for life through their final vows on October 25, 1891.
Bro. Martinus remembers his first meeting with Fr. Arnold Janssen. He recalls their exchange; “In answer to my question as to when I should come, he said, “As soon as you can.” – “And what do I have to bring with me?” I asked. “You have clothes. Just bring them with you.”
In Steyl, Martinus Jürgens first helped in the garden, printing press, and house services. He also took care of transporting the mail between Steyl and Kaldenkirchen. On March 25, 1881, Arnold Janssen assigned him to the typesetting department of the Mission Press. He worked for 40 years without a break, first as an apprentice and later as a master. Over the years, he trained many professional workers for Steyl and the many missions of the Society worldwide.
Brother Martinus soon became one of Arnold Janssen’s trusted men, and for 40 years he was the “Senior” of the Brothers. The younger SVD membership knows little or nothing about the importance of “Brother Senior” at the time. Bro. Martinus was something of a link between the Founder and the Brothers.
August Kugelmeier expressed it in this way in an article on Br. Martinus’ golden jubilee: “In those days, everything depended on the Rector and the Brother Senior.” “What Secretary of State Pacelli is to the Pope was for us ‘Brother Senior’ Martinus to the Blessed Founder. He was the Rector’s eye. He is not merely a half-winked eye, but a wide-open one. On the side of the priests and students was the Rector Arnold Janssen. On the side of the working young men (Brother postulants), was Brother Senior Martinus Jürgens.”
After forty years of typesetting work, Bro. Martinus took on various lighter tasks in the house before he left Steyl in 1929. For ten years, the then 66-year-old took on a doorman job in the newly inaugurated Mission House St. Arnold by Rheine. The humility of Bro. Martinus was manifested since he just wrapped up his great responsibility as a Senior Brother and head of the typesetting department. Now he was assuming the role of a doorman. In 1939 he returned to Steyl, where he spent the remaining three years at St. Gregory’s House. He died on March 20, 1942.
Bro. Martinus was a very lovable person. He had a shiny soul that lit up with love for all people that came across him. As a Senior Brother and responsible for the typesetting department, Bro. Martinus knew how to balance firmness and kindness with those under his supervision. In that position, he always set an excellent example by guiding the Brothers in their work, prayer, formation, and recreation.
The Mission House in Steyl and all the work that has to be done at that time did not restrain Bro. Martinus from going out and meeting the people of the village. The language was not a barrier for him, even though he did not know Dutch. All of the people of Steyl got to know, appreciate, and love him.
Without a doubt, Bro. Martinus made a significant contribution to our Society, doing his typesetting work at the mission printing press. He became an apostle of printed materials. Printing and typesetting had to provide resources for thousands in our SVD houses. At the same time, in doing his work, he read all kinds of religious and scientific matters, which prepared him for his most significant contribution to our Society, writing his memoirs. Fr. Friedrich Bornemann, whose judgment was often cautious and critical, considered Brother Martinus’ memoirs, compared to others of that kind, as “probably unusually valuable.”
For all SVD missionaries, but especially for those who have joined recently, it is essential to read the Memoirs of Bro. Martinus to know the beginning of our Society in Steyl. Nowadays, 145 years after its foundation, our Society is a large international society with a presence in more than 80 countries and the necessary means and channels to carry out its mission. Who of us would imagine that it was so poor that it was essential to beg for food in the beginning? When one reads the Memoirs, it is possible to acknowledge the enormous contribution of those who preceded us, and be grateful and committed to continue their task with the same PDF version (English) at our official website: svdcuria.org
Regarding the importance of the beginning of our Society, let me conclude this article quoting the words of Pope Francis addressed to the Capitulars of our 18th General Chapter during their audience with him. The Pope, addressing the Capitulars, said, “Two things. The first thing, the origins. Origins are not just a history; they are not a thing; they are not abstract spirituality. The origins are roots, and for the root to give life, we must take care of it, we must water it. You have to look at it and love it. I told you that you are rooted in the origins, that your origins are the root that makes you grow.”
Pope Francis continued, ” The second thing is not a gloomy thought. Think of cemeteries, cemeteries from distant regions, in Asia, in Africa, in Amazonia. Many of you are there, and on their tombstones, you read that they died young, because they gave life and risked themselves for each other’s lives. Roots and cemetery are also roots for you. May God bless you, pray for me, and do not forget: roots and cemetery.”
Bro. Carlos Ferrada, SVD Assistant General for Brothers’ Formation and Education
Arnoldus Nota October 2020
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