Leaving home: a missionary act

Article by Hubert HM Janssen, Partner in Mission,
Province of Europe-BFMN.


In 2014, fifteen Dutch sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd vacated their last convent in the Netherlands on the Dennenheuvel Estate to move into a residential care home.

For over 90 years, the sisters had been present in Bloemendaal. For the first 60 years, they lived and worked with girls and women in residence and then, for the final decades, with (vulnerable) older people. The beautiful surrounding landscape and nature, the convent building, and all people present were a gift they lovingly cared for. For months, all the sisters jointly discussed their future in an open process of dialogue and discernment. The final decision to leave was wise, faithful, and undoubtedly painful, but it included a vision for the future in line with the values and mission of the Congregation. From leaving this sacred place, a new mission was born.

Together with the Leadership Team of Europe BFMN and Dutch staff, the sisters started a process to reshape the estate (in Dutch*). Everyone who wanted to participate was welcomed to share their wisdom and ideas: neighbors, politicians, architects, teachers, partners in mission, sisters, and others all worked together. A plan grew from scratch, step by step.

A few strict conditions were given in advance: preserve nature, exclude no one, include 30% social housing, integrate a project for vulnerable people, facilitate the new residents to create a contemporary community, ensure processes and results are sustainable, and commit financial benefits to the global mission of the Congregation. This way, essential values and principles from Laudato Si' and of good stewardship are included too.

The four remaining sisters with partners in mission (Hubert H.M. Janssen to the left).

Planning a project like Dennenheuvel is complex; it takes a long time and requires solid business partners and consultants. And the sisters were able to create such an excellent team. In the meantime, old buildings were to be used in the best possible way and in line with the mission.

Therefore, the sisters temporarily handed over the former convent to the city of Bloemendaal and opened it for migrants, mainly from Syria, Ethiopia, and other war zones. Hundreds of them have lived at Dennenheuvel over the past six years. Some stayed a few months, others for years. When migrant numbers have decreased, we have welcomed women and their children who were victims of domestic violence or the homeless. In addition, young people longing for a place to live have been provided with housing. In return, they assisted the migrants in adapting to life in the Netherlands and learning the difficult language. Today, we welcome refugees from Ukraine.

The remaining four sisters stay connected and still offer inspiration, although they face limitations because of their advanced age. They feel proud and are grateful to see the results of the hard work of so many people. In 2015, Dennenheuvel Estate became home to a new L'Arche Community in the Netherlands, where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together and celebrate their lives, trusting in God. Their home is called 'Pelletier House'. Members of this community and neighbors work together in the large vegetable garden and harvest what the earth has to offer. Sisters, partners in mission, and L'Arche community members meet several times a year and celebrate life together.

L'Arche community members and partners in mission work together in the large vegetable garden and harvest what the earth has to offer.

Next year, in 2023, the old buildings will be demolished, and a new square complex of 78 units will be built. There will be houses and apartments for sale and rent, social housing, facilities for the L'Arche community, and community space for all residents, such as a restaurant, multi-functional meeting rooms, and workspaces. The surrounding landscape, playground, park, forest, and vegetable garden are to be shared by all.

From the start, community building will be accompanied. The heritage and mission of the Congregation will become part of a new reality. Hopefully, by the winter of 2025-2026, Dennenheuvel Estate will welcome a new mixed community to celebrate life together for many years. Leaving home became a missionary act for the sisters.

Four sisters, an inspiring leadership team, and partners in mission working together in the spirit of the Gospel and our founders, in the spirit of all people who live the mission day after day, wherever they may be across the globe. Deo Gratias!

*For further information in English, French, or Spanish, please email directie@zustersdegoedeherder.nl.