We celebrate great men and women in the field of science but rarely do we attribute significance progress in the work of great men and women who sacrifice and continue to do so for the sake of their missionary work.
Many leave behind the good life back home to trek in harsh weather, diseases and poor road networks for the sake of God’s kingdom. To really appreciate the work of missionaries, one needs to visit one of these African parishes where the missionary has to trek for days to arrive at his destination. They have to bear the language barrier because most often the indigenous can’t communicate in any language apart from the their local dialects. The missionary will face the real challenge of not only preaching the word of God but also to provide infrastructure and the daily needs to parishiners who are bound by poverty caused by poor governance. These missionaries become the only person that the people look to in times of need, be they Christians or non-Christians.
I was a little boy when Father Nicholas Groot came to Nchang, a locality in Mamfe-Cameroon. He was the the pillar of the entire village and the diocese of Buea at the time. He acted as a spiritual father for many in Cameroon especially to my Nchang people. He marked his presence on every church occasion in the St Mary’s Catholic Church Nchang where he was the local pastor. He encouraged the Christians to get involved in the liturgy. He cordinated the choir, readers’ group, altar servers, Catholic Women Association (CWA) Christian Family Movement (CMF,) etc.
Father also took an interest in education, building many Catholic primary schools and churches in the area. He constructed the Saint John’s College Nchang Chapel with benches. He also estabished the poultry farms, a project entrusted to the Catholic Women’s Association of Nchang and its environs. Another project organized by him was the wheelbarrows render. He bought several wheelbarrows and distributed them to the Catholic Women. The wheelbarrows were to help generate income for the women’s association.
He was a blessing for my community. He set a good example for the people to follow. He was a real missionary, per excellence.
Father Groot worked and died in Cameroon as a hero. Cameroon was his first assignment as a missionary and he stayed until his death. His remains were buried at the Small Soppo Cathdedral Buea in Cameroon. Father’s death was a big blow to the communities in Cameroon. His requiem mass at the Soppo Cathedral was a testimony of how people loved this man for all he did for them. The people of Nchang, Mbonge, Sasse College, Wum and the entire Buea Diocese at the time all missed him and everything for he did for our communities. Though death, he lives. I am proud to say Father Groot is a saint of God.
We had all noticed that he started ageing. But we, who knew his energy and strong desire to live on, would have expected to see him live for quite a few more happy years.
In a letter dated 18 September, 1987, addressed to the parish priest of Westwoud, his home parish, Father Nicholas wrote: “Here I am, a modern missionary of my age. Moratorium? But who will be staying behind to make the handover possible both for our men and for the local clergy? I am one of them who stays behind. Instead of a European, an African Bishop. I will no longer be a member of the Bishop’s council. I am now under an African layperson, who is the director of the college where I now work, who also pays my salary. At the same time I am involved in parish work under again an African priest. And in the end I will have to show how Christians die.”
Father Nicholas had attained the ideal missionary age. He worked to make the church of Cameroon stand on its own legs.That goal he had reached now. But he stayed on, in order through his example to let the handover from a missionary church to a local church take place in an easy way.
He had done a lot of development work and kept doing so through the way in which he worked in a college. He had always been first and foremost a priest. That’s why he kept doing parishwork. And he hoped to die among the people for whom he had worked more than 40 years. And that happened on New Year’s day in his “bungalow” in Nchang.
Father Nicholas was born in 1921 in Hoogkarspel, the parish of Westwoud. He enjoyed talking about Westfriesland, and often mentioned that one quarter of the Dutch Mill Hill Missionaries originated in that small part of Holland. After his ordination to the priesthood he left for the mission territory of Cameroon, where he worked for the rest of his life. His first appointment was to teach in St. Joseph’s college Sasse, Buea at that time one of the best colleges in Cameroon. His next appointment was to Wum, where he got to know the bush mission. This was a territory very much left behind, where hardly anything had been happening in a missionary way so far. It was there that he got to know the spiritual and temporary needs of the people. This was an experience which he used for the rest of his life.
Already at the beginning of this truly missionary work he saw the necessity of development work as the way to free the people from their poverty and isolation. And there and then he made sure that he joined the projects through which he developed the people in material ways with the building of small churches where he brought the same people together to teach them spiritual ways.
The fact that he built churches for all the communities where he worked, caused the Bishop to send him all over the diocese to build not only churches, but also presbyteries and schools. He built so much and mostly for others that after some time he could not stand cement any more!
In Mbonge parish, where he worked for 20 years, he realised his ideal: He managed through starting palm plantations and credit unions to convince the young people not to leave for townships, but to stay in their villages and work together to save money. And also here he joined the material and spiritual progress of his people. The same young men and women whom he had convinced not to leave for townships, also became the leading personalities in the church councils and committees.
Father Nicholas dreamt about a new heaven and a new earth, where every church is a house of God among the people, and where in every community and in every house the faithful will form God’s people, and He – God with them – their God. Father Nicholas has seen most of that dream come true after his 40 years of missionary work. Now that God has taken him away from that great dream of his, he is able to see in reality the One for whom he has always been working so hard.
Father Groot left a legacy in Cameroon. He spent his entire youth in Africa as a missionary, teacher and a developer. The people of Cameroon especially those of Nchang, Mbonge and the diocese of Buea can’t thank the Mill Hill Congregation enough and the Netherlands for the gift of Father Groot. We celebrate his life every day.