Few in Sabah will now remember Father Willem Roetenberg, but he was, together with Br. Ben Snoeren and Br John Hoekstra, the founder of Bundu Tuhan Mission station, a place that was his first love as a missionary priest and the place that he longed to return to for the rest of his life, but was not able to.
Father Roetenberg was born in Holland in 1921 and, after formation in Mill Hill Colleges, he was ordained in 1946 and appointed to Sabah, which, at that time, was called: “the Prefecture of North Borneo” and served there for eighteen years. In 1955, he set out with the two Mill Hill brothers, to establish Bundu Tuhan as a mission station, travelling most of the way on foot. Father Roetenberg was a big man in many ways, for not only did he establish the Parish of Pius X, but also began, together with the two brothers, a cooperative agricultural development scheme which helped the local people to learn new methods of farming and better marketing practice. Moreover, while helping make this a success, he turned his attention to the fight against tuberculosis, which was causing serious trouble throughout Sabah. Together with others, he helped found what became a flourishing anti-tuberculosis programme and then went on to help found the Jesselton TB Hospital and resthouse for out-patients.
Because of these remarkable achievements, in 1964 his Mill Hill Superiors invited him to obtain an MA in sociological studies in Washington, USA, so as to better serve the people of Sabah. This he did, but on completion of his studies, the political situation in Sabah had radically changed and new visa regulations did not allow him to return to the place he loved. So he joined Catholic Relief Services in USA, where he worked until 1971, when he was seconded to the office of Human Development of Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC) in the Far East based in Manila, The Philippines. However, his heart was still in pastoral ministry, and because Sabah was closed to him, in 1981 he returned to Holland and worked in parishes there until his retirement in 1997.
Fr Roetenberg, as a newly ordained priest, once broke through a window to get into Mill Hill, when he had inadvertently been locked out. This, Bishop Cornelius de Wit, his classmate said, symbolised his approach to the missionary life. If the gospel could not be preached in an ordinary way, then he would preach it in an extra-ordinary way. His life story shows how he broke through and widened the horizons of what a missionary life means. Or, as another saying about Mill Hillers goes, “A Mill Hill man can do anything – if he has to!”
He died peacefully on 19th July 2014
May he rest in peace.