Br. Donatus Vervoort (2005)

Br. Donatus Vervoort (2005)

November 17, 2014

Smiles filled his voice as Father Shayne Craig chuckled, "I used to call him the Flying Dutchman because he was all over the place."

The man he was referring to was Brother Donatus Vervoort who died Oct. 28 at 83 years of age.

For decades, Donatus' lively passion for liturgical music and Church history enriched students at Newman Theological College and St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta. Added to that was a love for gardening, which provided tonnes of food for the hungry over the years.

But what local Catholics will most remember about "the Flying Dutchman" was his awesome levels of energy and generosity.

A member of the Brothers of Our Lady of Lourdes, Donatus was born in Holland into a devout Catholic family of 12 children. They lived on a small farm with 250 chickens and two cows. Mom stayed home to look after her brood while dad worked in a linen factory.

Donatus' brother tried for the priesthood, but that did not work out. That was when their father and a friend decided that it should be Donatus who took the spiritual path and become a brother.

Given the scant wages and number of children, the suggestion that he go to school and not work was unusual. Blessed with a brilliant mind, Donatus studied for seven years – education and psychiatric nursing.

After the young graduate took his final vows with the Brothers of Our Lady of Lourdes and taught for several years, he felt the urge to go to Canada. In 1961, he found himself teaching in a school in Taber, Alta. He journeyed north to the

U of A to earn a bachelor of education and master of arts in mediaeval history.

He sought more education and went to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana for a master's degree in liturgy.

When he returned to Edmonton, Donatus became chaplain at St. Joseph's College and earned yet another master's degree in theology, this time focusing on liturgy. With his strong educational background, he became registrar at Newman College and taught theology and Church history.


But memories of his rural childhood came back, and he took a master gardener class at the U of A Botanical University. Shovel and rake in hand, he created a huge fertile vegetable garden behind Newman College when the college was located near St. Albert.

The produce? It went to the Edmonton food bank. Such actions show his love for other people and also that he knows what it is like to be hungry. It also shows one never loses their family roots.

"He was a really fascinating man," said Craig, who studied as a seminarian under Donatus. "Like a number of Dutch people, he loved the land. He loved his garden. He lived in his garden; he had a huge garden with an unbelievable amount of produce, all of which he gave to the soup kitchen.

Br. Donatus Vervoort, a lover of liturgical music, is shown here directing the choir at a 1980 archdiocesan celebration of Alberta's 75th anniversary at Northlands Coliseum.


Br. Donatus Vervoort, a lover of liturgical music, is shown here directing the choir at a 1980 archdiocesan celebration of Alberta's 75th anniversary at Northlands Coliseum.

"So you have this almost simple farmer kind of guy, coupled with this great scholar who just loved history. For a reading course, he was absolutely wonderful because he would know all the books about a subject and which ones you should read and for what, and he could really direct you that way.

"He was a passionate enthusiast of Church history. In class, he was similarly passionate. He would get one idea and it would take him off in one direction and then take him off in another direction."

Hence the nickname Flying Dutchman.

In class, Craig found Donatus to be delightful. He would say something outrageous and then follow it up with a hurried "Don't write that down."


His great love of teaching was enjoyed by those at the seminary and St. Joseph's College.

"He was impassioned for liturgical music," remembered Craig. "When I was a seminarian he came and did practice with us. He taught us all kinds of melodies with the Liturgy of the Hours that we didn't know.

"They had been lost and he revivified them. Because of him, I was able to come into the seminary formation later on and pass on all that knowledge he had given me to a whole new generation of seminarians."

His faith was profound. When interviewed when he was secretary of the Edmonton Liturgy Commission 25 years ago, he told the reporter: "Liturgy should be an expression of growing faith. How can liturgy accomplish this if it is dull and unimaginative?"

Certainly, Donatus himself was never dull nor unimaginative.

When he lived in the seminary, it was in the same wing as Craig and Msgr. Frank Patsula.

"I used to meet him downstairs when he was putting on this really strong Dutch coffee. I mean unbelievable coffee with a jolt. I used to put a little bit of salt in it to take off the bitterness or else it would be undrinkable. It was wonderful.

"Donatus would meet me down around the coffee urn with his breviary which meant he had been praying. And then he would be off for early Mass with Msgr. Patsula, But he never drew attention to the fact that he was super, super pious.

"He was very faithful in keeping his promise to pray. He was very humble about that, but he was very faithful. That really touched me, you know."

He could also be a dear friend. Patricia Johnson began working at Newman Theological College in 2009. The two became devoted friends and eventually Donatus became a friend to her family.


"He would come to dinner," said Johnson, "and we would go to coffee quite often. He really befriended my son. He became a real mentor to him. He gave my son all his Church history books. He was so pleased to have someone who wanted to read them and they would go to someone who would cherish them."

Asked about Donatus' nature, Johnson's reply is instant. "He was a kind, loving man. He was very bright and very strong in his faith. He called a spade a spade."

"He would come down the hall humming and I would come out with the words. It could be anything from a Sound of Music song to a hymn, or he would be humming along and I would sing the words."

Johnson's husband and son went up and sat with Donatus in the last days of his life as cancer made its inexorable way through his body.

"He was heavily medicated for the pain and they would sit with him just so he was not alone."

A Mass of Christian burial was held Oct. 31 at St. Albert Catholic Parish. Donatus' remains were interred in Holy Cross Cemetery.

Memorial donations, not surprisingly, can be made to the Edmonton Food Bank.