Little Medjugorje of Curacao
An interview with Piet Campman
By Mary-Sue Eck,
When Mary Sue answered the phone the woman calling introduced herself as Hilda Campman, from Curaçao. “I’m calling to ask you and Larry to come to Curaçao. We’ll send you two tickets.”
“Where is Curaçao?” “It’s an island in the Caribbean.” “Why would we come there?” “To do an article on what we call our ‘Little Medjugorje’ here.”
How often do you get an invitation for a free trip to the Caribbean? Health problems prevent Mary Sue from traveling long distances, but Curaçao is less than three hours flying time from Miami, where we would change planes after a three-hour flight from Chicago. More than anything, however, we were curious about the shrine that Hilda’s father, Piet Campman, had built on the island. Within two days we decided to accept the invitation, Hilda then told us that Father Donald Calloway would also be a guest. He would be giving his testimony at various places around the island.
What an incredibly wonderful trip it was. The shrine and the grounds are magnificent. The island, only 40 miles in length and about ten miles in width, with its multicolored houses and buildings, all surrounded by the ocean, is breath-taking. But it was the Campman family who made our trip unforgettable.
In America we are all familiar with the typical “rags to riches” story. This family, however, not only traveled that journey to great wealth, but then deliberately decided to reverse directions. They went from “riches to rags.”
As a young man, Piet Campman left his homeland of Holland and journeyed to the Island of Curaçao. Almost fifty years have passed since that day in 1956. Piet had a contract to work there for three years with a Chevrolet dealer. After several months on the job, a young woman came in to buy a car. One look at her and Piet told himself that he would be the one to deliver that car to her home.
“I went to the garage and they agreed that I could deliver it,” Piet said, in this delightful Dutch accent. “Afterwards, I found out it was a car for somebody else. It didn’t matter because Carmen wasn’t home anyway. But now I had the opportunity to come back with the right car. And so we met and went out and about one and a half year later we married.”
Carmen was a midwife and as Piet put it, “She worked like a horse. In three years time, she helped birth several hundreds babies in Curacao. She worked day and night. Often I went with her because the street addresses in those days were hard to find. One house number didn’t necessarily follow the one next to it. She worked in one particular neighborhood more than any other and I had a police friend there who knew all the houses so he helped us when we needed it. Large families of ten or twelve children were common then, and the parents didn’t worry about taking care of them. After two years we had our own first baby, but Carmen continued to be a midwife for four or five years. She was also in politics for seven years, representing one of the parties here.”
Curaçao is one of the five islands of the Netherlands Antilles. There is also the French Antilles and the English Antilles in the Caribbean. They are groups of island that were once colonies of those countries. Curaçao has been independent since 1954. Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire are the three islands of the southern Antilles, just north of South America.
Piet started his own business in 1974. He made uniforms and overalls for the government, like policeman uniforms. That went bankrupt. Piet started another business, plastics business. All he needed was a place to retail the product from Holland. In those days the freight was free if packed in small containers. The first forty-foot container was all packed with small boxes to save the freight. Three months later it wasn’t free anymore. But that was the beginning of what Piet named “7-7 General Store.” They chose the name “General Store” because at that time Piet didn’t know what they were going to sell. They chose “7-7”because seven is the perfect number in the Bible: i.e. the world was created in seven days; we must forgive 7 times 77 times etc.
Piet chose the Biblical number not because he was all that religious but because, as he says, “I used religion when I could.” He had been raised in a very devout Catholic home, with ten brothers and one sister, twelve children in all. “I cannot say we were poor,” Piet related, “but we didn’t have one penny too much. My father would slice the bread and say ‘You get four slices; you get only three because you are smaller.’ That was the way it worked. My father was employed by the railroad and his salary wasn’t large, but we were happy. In the morning at 6.30 I would go to Mass as an altar boy. That was during the Second World War. We were in the bombing and I remember one day when my brother had to crawl through the window to get into the house. The glass was gone. The entire house next door was also gone. “
Piet’s first job after leaving school was with the Philips Company. It’s a huge company, employing 130,000 people today, all over the world. He remembers the first television set coming off assembly time at the factory. The company employed about 40,000 people then at the factory. Piet wanted to work out of the company so he made an application to a Dutch Banking company in Africa. ”They took me. But when I told my mother she said I was crazy. She said the Mau Mau tribe in Africa was eating all the foreigners. In those days, what my mother said was what we did. A brother of mine was a teacher here in Curaçao and my mother suggested I come here to be with him. So I got a job at the Chevrolet Dealership here and worked there for seventeen years. During that time, Carmen and I married and had three children. Today, our daughter, Hilda, lives here, along with one other daughter. Our third daughter lives in Holland and has two children”.
The 7-7 General Store began with selling plastics and then t-shirts. Piet decided to print the t-shirts himself, which they bought in China and shipped in. They did their own printing with a machine Piet purchased. Piet also sold ironing boards, buying a whole container full in Holland and selling them locally. “They sold like pancakes,” Piet declared, laughing.
“Little by little the store grew and the company grew. Today that first store building is the largest on the island.”
He next became the representative of Rubbermaid products. A year later the vice-president of the Rubbermaid Company came to Curaçao, because Piet was selling the most Rubbermaid products per capita. The store grew from plastic articles, glassware, toys to complete kitchens, furniture and everything in between. Piet expanded to three stores, with 12,000 square meters in total space [about 21,500 square feet].
All the while he was becoming a wealthy businessman his faith was put aside. “I had not been on the inside of a church for many years, until 1978. I was making money. I had no time for church. That’s how good a Catholic I was. However, I never neglected the poor. My wife, who founded the St. Vincent DePaul Foundation, made sure the poor were taken care of by distributing bags of food. She was a real Catholic.”
In 1990, the Dominican Nuns from a monastery on the island had to leave their place and they came to Piet for help. All but one of the sisters came from Spain and South America, so they all spoke Spanish. These Dominicans were contemplatives, meaning they lived within the enclosure of their monastery and didn’t come out. “The one nun who was not Spanish knew me,” Piet said. “She came from my childhood neighborhood in Holland. She said they had been given land and they needed 2,200,000 guilders to build. I asked her how much money they had and she said, ‘100,000 guilders.’ Where was she going to get the rest? ‘Providence will take care of it. ‘The nuns were very naïve. She said she had sent letters to many organizations but she collected very little. However, she had sent one letter to an organization in Germany by the name of Ad Veniat. It is a large Catholic organization that helps Catholic projects, especially in South America, but also all over the world. They have a lot of money. The Cardinal came from Germany to investigate the nun’s request for money. The nun asked me to meet with him for lunch. We went to a restaurant.
“I asked him, ‘What can you give us to build the monastery?’ He told me, ‘If the local church doesn’t give anything, we won’t help.’ I said, ‘Listen, whatever you put into this project I will match. So you can’t say the local church is doing nothing.’ He was quiet. After a few minutes I asked him, ‘What are you planning to invest in this?’ He said half a million Deutsch marks – the mark was then the same value as a dollar. I told him, ‘That’s okay. I’ll match it.’ I went home and told my girls and they said not to worry. They started working harder at the store. By the end of the year the store had done that much more business and the nuns had their new monastery.”
The nun from Piet’s neighborhood died soon after the monastery was built. One day she had said to Piet, “Where you are building those apartments, I saw a big cross.” So how did this charitable, good man finally find his way back to the Catholic Church?
“In 1978, my wife told me she was going to Trinidad.” Piet began.” A few days later she returned and said how wonderful it had been. So I went to Trinidad. I met a lady named Babsie Bleasdell. She has been a long-standing favorite on EWTN. I went with her two weeks to all the churches where she was speaking. When I left her I said, “From now on everything we make is for the Lord.” I gave her my wallet with all my money in it. When I left I could not pay the airport taxes because I had given away my wallet. However, this was before my business became successful. "That same year I asked my wife what she wanted for a present on her birthday. She said, ‘Go to Church this weekend with me.’ So I went to the church and it was filled with all these women raising their hands. I felt alone with all those Charismatic people. I told my wife, I went to church but I know I cannot go to Communion. I have to confess first.’ That Saturday I went to a church, planning on asking to see a priest. When I entered the church, I saw a priest on the far side saying his breviary. I confessed to him. Afterwards, it was like my head was against the roof of that church and that roof was high! [Piet’s way of saying his head was in the clouds). I came home and told my wife, ‘I forgot to tell the priest a lot.’ I went back to confession the next week. “After that the business began growing and growing. This entire area of the island was empty so I started building stores and apartments. I was now going to church on Sunday and giving money to the poor so I considered myself a Christian.
“This is how I went to Medjugorje. Hilda was organizing pilgrimages of about thirty to fifty people to take to Medjugorje. I was curious about it. In 1997, when I was in Frankfurt on business, I decided Medjugorje was close by and I would go on my own. I didn’t tell any of my family. I stayed in Medjugorje five days. What I saw there really caught my attention. When I arrived at airport in Split on the way to Medjugorje, the police called my name and handed me my wallet. I had dropped it on the airplane. The first thing that came into my mind when I saw it was that wallet I had given to Babsie Bleasdell in Trinidad, in 1978, and the promise I had made then, “From now on everything we make is for the Lord.’
“When I arrived at St. James Church I saw all the priests hearing confessions in many languages. But there was no priest who spoke Dutch. So I couldn’t go to confession. Instead, I went to Mass and stayed through four different Masses in four different languages.
“When I returned home I told my family. ‘Many people cannot afford to go to Medjugorje, so let’s bring Medjugorje to Curaçao,’ My wife said, ‘You build and I will pray.’ I wasn’t sure yet how to do that. After making some inquires and receiving the necessary information, I decided I wanted to build a Cross like the Cross on Mt. krizevac in Medjugorje. I was given the name of a man who was an architect and I contacted him. He knew everything about what Christians believe. He worked for two years on the cross. One night, before it was finished, he stopped in to see me and brought me drawings. We had some wine and cheese. At approximately half past nine he left for home. At half past ten his wife called me. He was dead; probably a heart attack. I believe he is with the Lord. He had done the will of God.”
Piet said he thought they would simply make a high hill and then set the concrete cross on top of it. But the architect had explained that no artificial hill could support such a heavy edifice. He had proposed they construct a huge concrete foundation under the cross. Months later, when the hill and the foot of the Cross were ready, 400 trucks of concrete, 200 for the hill and 200 for the base of the Cross, were brought in. The entire edifice was finished in the year 2000. The hill is 7 meters high and the Cross is 12 meters high. In total, 19 meters [over 62 feet tall].
Piet then built the church and the rosary garden and finally he built a guest house. He didn’t know it would become a retreat house until a group of priests asked if they could come there on retreat, followed by more priests from the Caribbean. So now it’s called a Guest and Retreat House.
Everything was finished but the Adoration Chapel that Piet wanted to build onto the retreat house. The walk to the Church on the property is not far, just across the large parking lot, but it’s quit far to walk during the night for a guest who wants to spend time with the Lord. An Adoration Chapel in the Retreat House would be close and available night and day. There was just one problem. Piet was out of money. His entire fortune had been spent on this shrine for Our Lady. He thought of borrowing money from the bank. (We were going to ask how he would pay the money back but we didn’t get a chance to pose the question.) In 1977 Piet had bought a share in a newly founded bank. In 2005 this same bank was looking for people or companies interested in buying it. At the end of 2005, a company, established in the USA, expressed interest. On the last day of December, Piet learned they had concluded the deal when he found a deposit in his bank account large enough to build the Adoration Chapel.
The day after our interview Piet was upset. He said he thought he sounded too proud when he told us the story, giving himself too much credit. “It is my wife who has the wonderful story,” he said, “and she’ll never tell it.” Most everyone we met mentioned the holiness of Carmen, who spends hours in prayer each day and night, and stays hidden away in the small apartment she and Piet share in the retreat house. It is a cry from the mansions they once owned but you somehow know she is much happier here. Piet’s love for her is so beautiful to witness.
There is a book in the retreat house where you are invited to express your thoughts about your stay. Words like “fabulous, fantastic, inspirational, tranquil, conductive to prayer and reflection, a special place where God is” said what was in our hearts also as we prepared to leave.
Our last view of the shrine, as we drove off to the airport to return home, was of Carmen, smiling and waving goodbye, something she does for each guest as they leave. It is a memory that will be forever seared on our hearts