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Fr James Nielen MHM Lovingly Remembered


(A father, a mentor, a role model: more memories, gone at a ripe age, gone to glory, gone to rest from restlessness).

Once Padre Pio of Pietrelcina was asked what he would like written on his tombstone, he said effortlessly, “here lies a man who prayed”. He wanted to be remembered as a man of prayer.  Not many good people get to say how they would like to be remembered.  Many are told about and remembered by their nicknames or legacies.  Jaap Nielen’s was and still is FATHER CHARITY, and ST AUGUSTINE’S COLLEGE for a tombstone.

Following my “90 FOR NIELEN” tribute in January 2018 prior to his death, many other tributes poured into facebook, google and others were simply profound oral recollections, not uncommon though of many who the world and people’s lives better.  Here are some more memories . As one reads them, one goes beyond marvelling, to wonder in prayerful contemplation how the pandemic and the Anglophone crisis, for which the Lake Nyos disaster, the poverty and illiteracy of the late 20th Century which Fr Jaap and many missionaries attended to was only an antiphone, is matched with the same selflessness and benevolence or are we both overwhelmed and understaffed; and is he and many like him praying for us and enthusing us.

Saint Augustine’s College also known as SAC Nso and the “City of God” first opened its doors on January 9, 1964, with less than 50 students all male with the efforts of Father James Neillen (1st Principal).  Today, SAC Nso is more than a half Century Old in the work of providing quality moral, social, spiritual, disciplinary and academic education to its student. For the past 50 yrs of its existence, SAC Nso has formed more than 5000 students and people in the world. Among these are nowadays politicians, doctors, engineers to name a few and from many nationalities like Germans, Americans, Nigerians etc…  Notwithstanding its Academics merits yearned all around the world it has received more than once Awards from the Government and many organisations both national an International.  (source: google)

Father Charity Goes Home with Happy Memories

The death of an indefatigable pastor at 90 should not take anyone by surprise. But I was taken unawares when I heard Fr. James Nielen had passed on to glory on Friday 23 February 2018. Perhaps it was because I was still hoping to get him to write a preface to my vocation story. Or is it the happy memory of his life that makes me to think he still had to live long? I still have to come to terms to the fact that he is no more.

Father Charity, as fondly called by those who shared his life, has a special place in the hearts of the Batch 4 Students of St. Augustine’s College, Nso… Today many will honour him as a visionary with technical education being held with high esteem. It seemed too ambitious at the time to have in one single institution, intended primarily for a normal Grammar School, Technical Education, Animal Husbandry, Crafts and Agriculture that he propelled and today are booming high in the world market. Those who got City and Guilds Certificates were self employed before anyone else…     

Even that relief did not favour all the poor of the land. He got from his homeland, Holland, and across the globe, scholarships, and valuable equipments such as beds, mattresses, pullovers, and foodstuffs such as fodder, milk, Quaker oats, that supplemented our diet and requirements. With these the school fees were the lowest in the whole country, and so the poor of the poor enjoyed free education.

Since breaking the news of his death in our WhatsApp Forum, praises have been pouring in without number. Very startling is the revelation from my classmates that the majority would never have seen the four walls of a secondary school had they not benefited from the largesse of this Good Samaritan.

Although I had some inkling of my vocation before being admitted into this singular institution with a difference, it all blossomed with the flare of this saintly priest. The foundation was so formidable that the deluge after his departure only bolstered it. If the hallo is the privilege of those still on earth, then he had it all over his face. Of course, Moses had it. Why not him too? You needed to look at his countenance when he entered the room to quail before any uprising. Holy anger was all visible. What more of when he was in the chapel? It was intuitive and impelling.

Six priests to his credit from our class alone was no accident. He was a great inspiration to those called to service. His humility was so inviting. His prayer mood was so compelling. The tone and vibration of his voice were very soothing to the ear and uplifted the heart. It is no exaggeration to say that, apart from the minor seminary, no other college in our ecclesiastical province has produced priests and the consecrated persons like this City of God.   

The very sight of him pacing up and down with his breviary along the corridors called the disturbing students immediately to order. At night he would not go to sleep until the last child gets into bed. The wellbeing of his children kept him worried until all was at rest. His omnipresence was not unexpected or a threat. His gentle but convincing voice commanded respect and discipline. It lulled to sleep even to those who always wanted to be noticed or heard in the splendor of the night.

When he taught the Social Teachings of the Church in the major seminary he told us that money was a tainted thing, ‘Satan he shit’ (devil’s excrement). But back in the parish he pasted this notice on his door: ‘Do you want money? Come in’. Wherever he worked, it was almost impossible for the next priest to manage the parish or institution with regard to money. With his numerous benefactors and an open-hearted nature some Christians were lured to be beggars all their life and to believe falsely that the Church is rich. He basically spoilt those who were living from hand to mouth.

Despite the amount of riches at his disposal he remained a selfless and simple priest. He understood his role as a caretaker of goods that belong to the poor. That might have made him look mean and queer among his co-workers. In reality it was rather his sense of dedication and compassion that pricked the consciences of profiteers in God’s vineyard. His simple lifestyle was a reproach to most of those who benefited from his charities. He had nothing on for himself but it was all reflected on others.       

As a great missionary it was his fervent wish to be buried among the people he had served in his primetime. It was equally the moment to relinquish all earthly attachments and succumb to the directives of his superiors. We all missed him when he bade farewell to his beloved people and cherished mission but we knew he needed special care as the countdown to the final end drew to a close. From the moment he gave up the ghost the impact has provoked prayers and Masses offered for his peaceful repose. His legacy will remain fresh in the minds of those he touched with his insightful sermons. His charity that has given hope to all and sundry goes with him to open the gates of heaven for he had been all things to all men.    (Fr. Moses Tazoh).

I first heard of Fr. Nielen before I met him. In the minor seminary we always talked about priests who were heroes. Those who knew him highlighted his love of God, down to earth sermons and love of the poor.  Fr. Nielen belongs to a generation of legendary missionaries who  created the character of the church that exists in Bamenda. I was very unfortunate to work in Bafmeng soon after he left. I could not fit into his shoes. Every action of mine was put through the Nielen Microscope. I was constantly reminded that Fr. Nielen would have done better. This made me curious and I tried to find out why he was such a great missionary.  He ambidextrous. He was a principal, a chaplain of the prison, a parish priest, a curate and non of the positions changed his approach. He was deeply rooted in Christ and thus acquired a consistency character  He knew each of his Christians. One lady told me she met Father 30 years after she left school. He looked at her, smiled and called her, ‘Hilda’. Their conversation was skilfully directed towards her sacramental life. That is just who he was. A friend leading his flock to Christ.  He was spontaneous. What he could say in truth would have been avoided by others in prudence. This instead endeared him because his truthfulness revealed depth simplicity.  Lastly he was hard on himself and very understanding of the weakness of others. He could live with any one of us local priests. We are grateful we knew him, learnt from him and we know his presence will always be with us. (Fr Ernest Timchia)

Fr Nielen had left an indelible mark on the lives of the entire Bafmeng community without prejudice to religion…  Fr Nielen was an extremely generous and charitable man. While the world spoke of a Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the people of the archdiocese of Bamenda had a Fr Nielen.  In seeking to discern the secret to Fr Nielen’s charity, I found the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta quite apt and resonant with the spirit he engendered. Cardinal Sarah describes this in his seminal work, The Power of Silence. Mother Teresa shared her secret thus:

“Do you think that I could practice charity if I did not ask Jesus every day to fill my heart with his love? Do you think that I could go through the streets looking for the poor if Jesus did not communicate the fire of his charity to my heart? Without God, we are too poor to be able to help the poor!”

Fr Nielen was not a social worker but a missionary and never lost sight of He who sent him. He brought the poor to God and brought God to the poor. True charity is an expression of genuine prayer. Fr Nielen’s first act of charity lies in his acceptance of God’s call to bring the Gospel to Cameroon. Being a missionary is undoubtedly a great act of charity. Most Mill Hill Missionaries went above and beyond to also cater for the material needs of their missions. Fr Nielen took this to a whole different level…

One could hardly tell that this soft spoken priest had a doctorate in Philosophy. His demeanor did not betray his intellectual prowess. He did not speak of the Metaphysics of Being or the epistemological provenance of the Truth or any of the esoteric accoutrements of the philosophical disciplines. In fact if one could hazard a guess, one would have thought he had bagged a terminal degree in Spirituality. Nego! This philosopher drew from the rich treasury of 40 years of the priesthood as a missionary to Africa. He spoke from the heart and reeked of the odor of his sheep: “The Anawims of Yahweh – the poorest of the poor.” He exhorted us to make our ministry that of and for the poor. Dr Nielen’s doctorate in philosophy rather became a doctorate of poverty.  The endearing lesson of this retreat animated the students that years after one of the retreatant, signs off all his emails with the inspirational words of Fr Nielen: “It is not what you do that is important but the love with which you do it.”  (Lambert Mbom)

Fr Nielen baptised me and I saw God during his time.  Where do I find him please? (Gabriel Kelo).

I was so elated when he recited again to me and translated the same latin antiphone that he always said between the Altar and the Tabernacle each time during Mass when he went to preserve the Blessed Sacrament: O sacrum convivium! in quo Christus sumitur: recolitur memoria passionis eius: mens impletur gratia: et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. (O sacred banquet! in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory to us is given.)  The woman with child at his 90th birthday, married to his nephew or so, gave birth on the day he died. What a joy to the family.  The mystery lives on. (Fr Emmanuel Nuh).

“Faith of our fathers, living still, In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword; Oh, how our hearts beat high with joy, Whene’er we hear that glorious Word!  Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.”

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