Under Foreign Skies: Father John Visser

This programme is part of the series Under Foreign Skies
Father John Visser
Father John Visser (©Eric Beauchemin)

“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people doing remarkable work abroad.

When Father John Visser met Silesian priests at the end of World War II, he knew that he too wanted to become a Silesian of Don Bosco, an organisation dedicated to helping young people. “I didn’t want to become just a priest,” says Father John. “From the very beginning, I wanted to be a Silesian of Don Bosco, an organisation dedicated to helping young people, especially those in need.” That’s exactly what 72-year-old Father John has been doing for the past half a century in Thailand and now in Cambodia.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: June 14, 2006


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Under Foreign Skies – Portraits of Dutch people doing remarkable work abroad”. The programme is presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Father John Visser is a member of the Silesian Society, a worldwide organization founded by St. John Bosco in 1859. It’s the world’s third largest Catholic religious order, with over 40,000 priests, brothers and sisters. The Silesians’ goal is to give kids in need a chance to lead a full life. That’s exactly what Father John has been doing for the past 50 years in Thailand and now Cambodia. The 72-year-old priest, who was born and raised in Friesland in the north of The Netherlands, knew even as a young boy that he wanted to enter a religious order.

I met Silesians when I was a young boy at 10, 11 at the end of the war in 1944, 1945 in a town called Sint-Niklaas also in Friesland where these fathers and brothers came and the Silesian way we like to gather young people of whole a village of whole a town and play with them, make them play, make them enjoy themselves and give them some advice in case it’s needed. I was attracted by them from the very moment. EB: So you went to study at a seminary? I went to study at the seminary of the Silesians of Don Bosco and after in 1953, I made my religious formation, which I did in Deventer, where I also made my philosophical studies. After that, it was 1956, I asked to go to what then was called the mission. And I was assigned to Thailand. At that moment, I must say I didn’t know where Thailand was because in our geography books we studied about Siam, not Thailand. It’s a new name for that country. Of course, that was quickly established where Thailand was of course, and I went to Thailand in 1956. So it is now about 50 years ago. So I’m not that young anymore. EB: And when you arrived in Thailand, what did you find? Thailand in 1956, it was a complete different country than what it is now. At that time, Bangkok had 1 million inhabitants. You still saw the canals. It was called at that time the Venice of the East. Of course, that has all changed. Now Bangkok is a city of 10 who knows how many millions of people. All the canals have become roads and… EB: roads that are congested too. Yeah, congested roads too. And also I think in 1956, there were 25 million Thais. Now there are more than 60 million and it has become like a modern country. EB: So you arrived there as a missionary. What did you do? When I arrived I was not yet a priest. We as Silesians after our philosophical study, we stop and we do practical training. My practical training I did in Ban Pong. It’s about 100 kilometres south of Bangkok where the Silesians had a big school of 2000 children and also a boarding school of over 300 children and I became in charge of the boarding of these 300 children and that was my practical training to work with them. EB: When you say work with them, what did that entail? Of course teaching, teaching in the school, and then when teaching was finished in the evening I would supervise them, play with them, make them play, also preparing feasts because when you are with children, young people it’s of importance to do a lot of activities to make them grow and grow for young people, for children, games and activities has a big place. EB: You say you had to teach them, but when you first arrived, you obviously didn’t speak Thai, so how did you manage? In fact when I came, I came in December 1956, but the school year started again on the 16th of May 1957, then I was ready to teach English and also chemistry. I never felt a problem with languages. Of course I had a teacher, but I taught English to one of the teachers and the other teacher taught me Thai. Moreover, when you are with boys, it was a boarding school for boys, you learn greatly. Moreover I was the only Dutch. So for me to speak Thai, it was better than to speak English. So I learned quickly. EB: And who were the children who were at this school? The children at the school mostly came from Bangkok, were children from every strata of society because that school has become quite a famous school. It’s called the Saint Joseph college of Ban Pong. So people like to go there to have their children, especially those families who are merchants who had no time to look after their children, they asked their children to be in a boarding house. There was always… So many people wanted to be there, you could only place 1 in 2. And after that in 1960, I did my perpetual vows as it is called: it means I decided to be a Silesian. I wanted to be a Silesian and then I went for my theological studies. It means the direct preparation for the priesthood. EB: That was in Thailand? That was not in Thailand, that was in India. So I have been in India for almost 2.5 years in Chittagong at the time it was the state of Assam. And I did that for 2.5 years. EB: But why did they send you to India? Why didn’t they send you back to The Netherlands or to some other city in Thailand for your studies? I wanted to be in a mission country. So India was very attractive to me. Moreover the Silesian congregation is a very big congregation. We have theological and philosophical study houses in many places in the world. So Chittagong, India was very attractive to me because it is in the mountains. It is in the Himalayan mountains, about 1800 metres above sea level and among the tribal people. The tribal people in Chittagong are called the Cassis. Moreover, during holidays I could go with the missionaries also deep into the mountains, always walking because there were no roads at that time. And every Saturday and Sunday, or when we didn’t have classes, we conducted youth movements all over the place. Also there we did a lot for young people.

In 1963, he left for Germany and finished his theological studies in Bavaria. He was ordained a priest there in the summer of 1964 in the presence of his parents and other relatives. He describes it as the biggest event in his life. Afterwards, the newly-ordained priest immediately returned to Thailand.

Thailand already from the very first moment and perhaps because you are Dutch, you are Frisian, it was my first love and I have always considered that as my second fatherland so to say. So I went back at once and I came back straight away to my old school, Saint Joseph College of Bampong where I became the study leader for all the school which I did for three years. EB: What is a study leader? Arranging, actually in charge of all the teachers of the curriculum, also teaching of course, looking after the school. You can imagine 2000 children, over 100 teachers. It was a big work. I did it for three years. Then I went to the south of Thailand in Hat Yai, which is the third biggest town in Thailand, near the Malaysian frontier. Also there we had a college… EB: Was it your choice to go there? No. We as Silesians of Don Bosco we are religious, so as a religious you vow the vow of poverty, of obedience and chastity. Chastity means you will not marry. Obedience means you will obey your superiors: where they will send you, you will go. Of course, there’s always a question of dialogue, but if your superior wants you to go somewhere, he can ask you, you go. But I was very willing to go. In Hat Yai, I became what we call the economer or the vicar of that house. EB: So you were responsible for religious teaching. Yeah. But in Hat Yai, I had my first, I could do my first contact with the embassy, the Dutch embassy in Bangkok and proposed, asked them to help this school and my first project with the Dutch government. And we built there a college of 36 classrooms, a kind of gymnasium. That was my first aid project with the Dutch government. EB: So you built this school with 36 classrooms. How did you get the children to sign up to go to the school? In our school, in most Catholic schools in Thailand, also here in Cambodia, if you open a school, tomorrow it is full. Everybody wants to go to these kind of schools. Also Hat Yai is a big city. EB: Is part of the philosophy behind the school to convert the children to Catholicism? No, it is not. Our philosophy, our Silesian philosophy is to make good citizens, good citizens for country and for God. Of course we give values, human values especially, also religious values, but in case they are not Christian, and the number of Christians both in Thailand and Cambodia is very small. What matters is to impart good human values and that’s what we do in our schools, impart good human values. EB: So there are no religious classes at all. There are religious classes for the Catholic children. Also there is not a religious class but a moral class. Actually also the Thai government in its curriculum wants to have at every school moral classes. And we have of course written our own textbooks for morals but it is not a religious class. It is a moral class.

You’re listening to Under Foreign Skies from Radio Netherlands. Father John remained in Hat Yai until 1973. Then his superiors decided they wanted him to take on greater responsibilities. They sent him to Rome for two years where he did a degree in spiritual theology. Afterwards, he again returned to Thailand.

The superior asked me to become the director of the Don Bosco Technical School in Bangkok. At that time it was a school that was very much in disrepair. Actually they thought of closing the school because all the machinery was outdated and there was much difficulty. So from ’75 onwards, we tried and we could rebuild Don Bosco Technical School Bangkok to become again what it was before, a very good school. And also our technical school we do mostly for poor youth to give them skills training and I have been a rector there from ’75 till ’81. EB: Were you surprised by the confidence that your superiors had in you? Sure. For us of course we obey. Actually nobody wanted this job. When they said you made a good job in Hat Yai, perhaps you could possibly help the Don Bosco Technical School Bangkok. I said if you want me to do it, I will try. And I tried and succeeded, actually so much. One of the highlights of that school was the visit of the King and Queen of Thailand to Don Bosco Technical School at the end of 1976. When the king and the queen of Thailand go anywhere else, it means that school is made for life. That’s what happened and the school became famous after that and even today it is one of the best technical schools. It has many past pupils who have succeeded very well in life, who have their own factories. Many of them are self-made men coming from very poor backgrounds, but our technical schools, we want our young people to like work. So it doesn’t matter which subject you take: if you are electrician or if you are a mechanic or an auto mechanic, if you are printer or an electronic man, you must like your work. Laziness is the worst thing which can happen in your life. And that we impart in these schools, the love for work, and the love of being an honest person. Why do you think that you have had so much success? I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know. Yeah, of course, you become older. I’m not young any more if you may say the word. Actually Mr. Jan Everts who was here 2 weeks ago, he told me he was at Don Bosco Technical School Bangkok and all these people there, they asked him, how is it Father John is so successful also here in Cambodia. He himself said it’s because Father John is very open. So the people, they trust him and they see also that the money that they give is well spent. Perhaps it then goes from mouth to mouth. It may be one of the reasons. I have no special talent so to say. I’m just an ordinary priest who likes children a lot. EB: As the director in all these places, or in most of the places you talked about so far, you were the director. Did you actually have contact with the children? Ah, that is the most important thing. Building up buildings is one thing, but buildings is something material, something to be lived in, but it needs the human contact. So the human contact with your teachers, with your instructors, with your own personnel and with your students is actually the most important part of education, of training. There would not pass a day when I would not be amongst them, either teacher, but of course, slowly it’s impossible, you don’t find the time anymore to teach because of the many people who come to see you, the many projects you have to follow and the many times you have to go abroad or to here and there, so it would be disruptive for the students for you to teach. Teaching students is of course the best way to be with them. But I will be on the playground playing with them, not now anymore, but up to almost 70 I have been playing football, basketball, volleyball especially. And there you know what they are worth. To be amongst them is the most important part of education. EB: What was the satisfaction that you found in being with children, in helping these children? Now to see them succeed in life of course. Whilst in Bangkok, there was the difficulty of finding instructors, also because being a school for the poor, the salaries for the teachers was good but not excessive. But with the help of the Dutch government at that time, there was the programme studio in de region so, studying in the region, so I received the help from studying in the region for people 200 students, from 1976 till ’90, and through this programme, so many of your past pupils could become instructors and could become technicians and even they could become the directors of technical schools. Because of this it was possible that we opened other technical schools.

Statue in the centre of the Don Bosco compound in Poipet
Statue in the centre of the Don Bosco compound in Poipet, Cambodia (©Eric Beauchemin)

In the 1980’s, Father John also set up technical centres for Cambodians who had fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and were living in Thailand. Despite Father John’s love for Thailand, in the early 1990’s, his superiors decided to send him to neighbouring Cambodia to set up schools there.

It is difficult to leave a place of course. I told my superiors, we went to Cambodia for the first time in January ’92, actually to buy 11 hectares of land which at the moment houses the Don Bosco Technical School Phnom Penh, but we were the technical commission in Thailand, and when my superior, it’s called the provincial actually, the provincial called me and said actually we would like you to go and to direct the Silesian work in Cambodia. I told them, actually you should send a younger man. I was almost 60 at that time and more energetic, but if you want me to go, I think every Silesian will go because here in Cambodia, we have already seen, the children have so few chances in education. Technical schools there are none. There are no skilled training. There are no skilled people. So I think, if you give me the obedience and say please go, I will go. I will obey of course. When I went, of course I felt sorry, but only one day. EB: Only one day? Yeah, only one day. The day I went there and started my work in Phnom Penh. There was not a lot of time to think very much about the past. You have always to look forward and there was a lot of work to do. EB: So you said you set up a technical school, but there was actually no real need for it because the young people didn’t have enough education because of what happened with the Pol Pot regime and the Vietnamese occupation and everything else. Our programmes are informal, but slowly since we take with our priority we take the young people from the orphanages. So in the Don Bosco Technical School Phnom Penh, we get all the orphans of Cambodia. And the orphan directors when there is the time of enrollment, they come with all their orphans. There are so many children, so many children. And I led Don Bosco in 2001 for Sihanoukville, but I remember we had 3240 applications for 230 places, so 1 in 11. There are so many young people. We select them first for the social factor, so orphans have the priority, but of course there must be the motivation. Sometimes orphans are lazy. They go there because the orphanage director sends them and that’s not enough for us of course. They must want it. If the motivation, if the level of studies is sufficient to follow the programme, we accept them. And then other poor kids, especially. There are of course in Cambodia as elsewhere, the head of the family is the mother, the woman. Either the husband has died or has left, and she has 3, 4, 5 children, but these women are really courageous women. They try to make up a living selling things here and there, and want their children to study. It’s really marvellous how these children actually are the best. It’s a true they have had a tough life but they have seen their mother working hard and they also want to work hard, and they are the best students. EB: Is it difficult for you, the fact that you have to turn so many children away because you said that in Phnom Penh, you could only take 1 in 11. Yeah. It’s very tough of course. To tell you the truth, the day when we put up the notice of those who can enter – we don’t put those who can’t enter – I’m not there. You cannot be there because there are so many people who go away crying. It’s very tough. That’s why we have founded a second technical school in the southwest in Sihanoukville. So together in these two schools we have now about 900 students. And here for this section we have now about 100. And when you say this section here: we’re in Poi Pet which is a city neighbouring Thailand. Also here it is even tougher in Phnom Penh and in Sihanoukville because here the level of studies is extremely low. Life here in Poipet is a question of survival. Also we do a programme for the morning and a programme for the afternoon so as to give them an occasion to work half a day and to study half a day.

Don Bosco centre in Poipet
Don Bosco centre in Poipet (©Eric Beauchemin)

EB: So those students who come, they are really motivated. They want, but at the same time they also have to work for their families. Usually it’s going to Thailand with a cart and to bring any goods, but they have to work to help their families to make a living because here more than anywhere else in Cambodia, life is really tough. EB: Do the children have to pay for the studies? If you ask, do you have something to pay, they will say they have no money. I think of the 100 we have here, there might be one who could pay a bit perhaps. All of them come from those huts. If you see them. Just now, I paid a bill of 800 baht for a student who had very bad teeth. 800 baht. $18. I asked the teacher to the people, see if they can contribute something. He came back, father, they have six children, and they haven’t even rice for tomorrow. EB: What do you want? How long do you plan to continue doing this work? Of course, many of your family, your relatives who come often also here, they ask you the same question. I say as long as I have strength, if I have health, I will go on. As long as I can do something useful, I will go on. If the time comes that the forces diminish and that you need health care, you will stop or you will do less. EB: And will you go back then to Holland? I never have thought about that. I go back often of course, also for the projects, also because of the many groups who support these works. So sometimes they ask you to come and they say it’s already a year that you have not been there, we want to see your face. And then I say, if you want to see the monkey, I will go. EB: Is that what you consider yourself, a monkey? Oh no, you must also see the humouristic side of life. So I say, if you want to see the monkey, you will have to give two coconuts [chuckle]. They are good people. Actually everything we’re doing in Cambodia, those many works which we have been able to put up and are going ahead day by day, also the many schools in Thailand, they have all come into being through them. I always say to my children, my young people, actually the Don Bosco happening consists of about three groups: that is you, young people, for whom everything is directed and built up. There are your teachers, your superiors, your brothers who assist you, and the third group is the donors, the sponsors. If one of the groups falls away, the Don Bosco Foundation of Cambodia doesn’t exist, or the Silesian Foundation of Thailand.

Don Bosco vehicle
Don Bosco vehicle (©Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Do you consider that your life has been very rich? What is rich? I have never considered many for myself important. Of course everybody needs money. You do things, you buy things, you construct things with money. So I must have spent millions and millions of dollars but it’s not an issue for me. We use the money for the needs of the young people. EB: But do you feel that you have fulfilled yourself? Yeah surely, it is a very fulfilling life, especially when you see so many of your past pupils who come. When they come, they just come with their pants on and nothing else. And after one year, when they have left the school, they come back with a motorcycle, and the second year they come back with a ring, with nice clothes, the third year they come back with their girlfriend. And perhaps after 5 years they come back with their first child. It’s very fulfilling when you see they want to come back, they want to meet you, and they want to say they are living a good life. That’s nice. And that happens of course. So even now, though we are now 13 years in Cambodia, wherever you go you meet your pupils as if you live in a village because you meet your people. If you go to the casino, you see one of yours and they come and greet you and they’re happy. That’s like that.

Father John Visser in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. “Under Foreign Skies” is a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.

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