He survived the bombs of World War II, mission work in the bush country of Papua New Guinea, and for more than a decade, he worked among the stacks of the Divine Word College library. Fr. John Tra, SVD, library director at DWC from 1975 to 1986, died in his native Holland, on January 22.
Fr. Joe McDermott, SVD—who was stationed in Papua New Guinea at the same time as Fr. John, though they never met—remembers him from their later days at DWC, during the 1990s and early 2000s.
“He was a well educated man, so multifaceted, and he loved people,” Fr. Joe said. “He was very warm, easy to get to know, and if you met him once, he had you on his list and he knew you. You’d be getting a Christmas card from him.”
Fr. John was born in Goirle, Holland on Nov. 7, 1919, the fourth of 13 children. He entered an SVD minor seminary in 1932, and following a two-year novitiate, took his first vows in September 1940 as World War II swept into his country. After two years, the German invaders forced the seminarians to move from their mission house in Teteringen, to Steyl, founding home of the SVD. He was ordained there on July 30, 1944, though the Germans had occupied the SVD house, so his ordination took place in the nearby motherhouse of the SSpS sisters as the war thundered around them.
“For one-hundred days we lived in several basements. Hundreds of heavy shells fell on our buildings and gardens,” he wrote in a memoir of his life. “On March 1, 1945, we were set free by an American tank division.”
After the war, he was assigned to Papua New Guinea where, after a series of delays, he arrived on July 7, 1947 to take over as assistant pastor at Alexishafen and the surrounding bush stations. After a bout with dermatitis, the next year he was appointed pastor at Bogia, located on the Pacific Ocean, where he built a house and school and rebuilt its church. In 1955, he was asked to become pastor of Lae, which included nearby gold-mining towns in the parish and an ethnically diverse group of parishioners. In 1957, the bishop asked him to go to the United States to get a master’s degree in Education, which he earned from Loyola University, along with a teaching certificate. Back problems that resulted in surgery kept him in the U.S. for another year, but he returned to Papua New Guinea in March, 1960 and was assigned to build a teachers college at Megiar. In all, he was responsible for erecting 17 buildings in two years, including an elementary school, residences and a power plant to provide electricity.
Then on January 23, 1963, a tragic motorcycle accident temporarily paralyzed him from the neck down and he was forced to leave the country and head to the Netherlands for physical therapy. He recovered enough to return to his mission work, but only for a short while, when he had to go to the U.S. for additional physical therapy. While recuperating, he pursued a master’s degree in Library Science at Rosary College, in River Forest, Illinois.
In 1967, he was asked to join the staff of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (C.A.R.A.), in Washington, D.C., founded by Fr. Louis Luzbetak, SVD, who later became president at Divine Word College. In 1975, he was sent to DWC to work with Fr. Matthew Jacoby in the library. A year later he took over as library director, expanding its facilities. He took charge of the college’s Audio/Visual Department and did a great deal of photographic work for various departments. He also was active in a number of initiatives during his time at DWC, including work with the Accreditation Committee.
“I’m sure he did a lot for DWC,” Fr. Joe said. “If there ever was some kind of deal to be done, somebody to do a job well, it was John Tra.”
In 1986, Fr. John was asked to go to Rome to work for the SVD Generate where he established a documentation and information center. He collected everything from provincial newsletters to Vatican publications for easy access by the staff. An early proponent of computers, all the content was on the generalate’s network. At the end of 1989, as he turned 70 and his time in Rome was up, he was given a parting gift.
“By good fortune, and the good grace of Bishop Bilung, SVD, and the Vatican staff at Castel Gandolfo, I had a private audience with Pope John Paul II,” he wrote.
Fr. John retired to DWC in 1990, where he enjoyed the company of his fellow SVDs as well as the friendships he had developed over the years in the surrounding communities. In 2005, he returned to his home in the Netherlands-Belgium Province, where he spent his last years.
“He was a very talented gentleman and one that you could respect,” Fr. Joe said. “He was a wise man and he was much loved.”