Pastoral care means: “Being with people”
Fr Peter Hillen SAC worked as a missionary in Cameroon and Nigeria
His title of honor was: “White Man”. A title he gained in Nigeria as he did basic founding work there and gained the population’s respect and love. Fr Peter Hillen SAC died on Saturday, July 18th, 2020 in Hofstetten; aged 68 years, with 42 years of profession and 41 years of priesthood.
Peter Hillen was born on June 29th, 1952 as second son to Josef and Hildegard Hillen in Schauren in the Central German Uplands, close to the river Mosel. He had an older sister and brother. His father’s little shoemaker’s workshop gave room to the whole village and influenced young Peter as did the landscape of the Central German Uplands, an area he loved dearly.
In 1958 he started primary school in Schauren, later on changing to secondary school in Zell a town located at the river Mosel, too. It was already in Schauren, when Peter firstly came in contact with the Pallottine mission. It was for Fr Fürbaß SAC who inspired young Peter and brought him to the Pallottines: Peter joined the Limburg boarding school in 1969, and the Johann-Ludwig grammar school in Hadamar where he finished A-levels in 1971.
After finishing school, he started his noviciate in Untermerzbach, Germany and studied philosophy there. From 1975 to 1979 he studied theology in Vallendar, Germany. On March 11th, 1979 he and three other confreres were ordained priests by Bishop Manfred Gottschalk SAC at the Vallendar parish church. It was as early as during his pastoral year in Augsburg, when one could clearly see his dedication for working with young people. A dedication that showed even more in his time as a chaplain in Hamburg. Even though Fr. Hillen is often valued as being shy he is still being characterized as affable. He is someone who wants to make contact, who wants to be close to people. This won’t change in his future to come.
A new Life in Cameroon
Called by Fr. Werner Meyer who is about to open a vocation pastoral in Cameroon, he is sent to Cameroon on January 6th, 1985. A new life is about to start.
Thus, being challenged by the French language at first, he puts all his energy and his strong will into the Cameroon mission. Most of his eight years as chaplain in the Pallottine parish of Nlongkak in Yaoundé, he actively works in pastoral care. For him, this involves “being with people”. Apart from that he is also postulant’s master at Elat-Minkom, he oversees the eight boarding houses in the Archdiocese, which are all being renovated on his demand and being spiritually reframed by him. He succeeds in arousing the vocation pastoral in Cameroon as national chaplain of “Jeunesse du Monde” and as spiritual companion to many other youth groups. He was especially delighted, when, in 1993, the first native Pallottine confrere was ordained priest. If it had not been for him and his achievements, such a quick growth of the Pallottine community in Cameroon would not have been possible.
Reaching his Limits
All this makes Fr Hillen stretching to his limits again and again, his own limits and those of his
co-workers. He is feeling lonely and complaining about resistance. Describing the year 1997, he writes: “I was at the end of my tether!“ During a sabbatical year in Germany and a training course in Cliftonville/ Britain, he can recover once more.
Thus, having regained his strengths, he is starting all over again: setting off for South Africa and revitalizing things there. Starting in 1999, he dedicates himself to the Pallottine vocations in South Africa He builds the house of studies in Merrivale, suffering from sleepless nights again. It is already here, where he gets in contact with students from Malawi and Nigeria who want to become Pallottines.
In 2001 he pays his first visits to Malawi and Nigeria. It is in his charisma to focus on connecting with everyone, everywhere; bishops, local priests, people looking for life. His visits truly found Pallottine life in Malawi.
Founding Time in Nigeria
In 2007 he is taking one more important step: Fr Hillen decides on going to Nigeria. He succeeds in sprouting the Pallottine idea with the help of Monsignore Martin Ezeokoli who brought Vincent Pallotti’s ideas to Nigeria’s youth.
He is doing this in his own way: he involves different priests in the South-East of Nigeria. He works in different places. As it happens, he comes to Mbaukwu where he can shortly knot a bond of trust to the local priest and to the local king – Igwe Peter. The “White Man” as they call him, impresses people by not considering himself too good for anything. He digs land, eats Nigerian food, learns the local language very quickly and is where he wants to be again: with people. Every day he strolls through town, visits the market, the families in their houses. It’s the street where he enjoys being a priest. He likes being different from what people are used to: Peter isn’t above anyone. That’s what people feel, and they approach him with their worries and sorrows. Countless wells, oil mills, houses and other aid schemes evoke from his commitment and his line of supporters in Germany.
He is kind of a founder for the confreres. He builds the house in Mbaukwu, the water fabric, the retreat house, the house of studies in Owerri. Restlessly he is planning, building, creating. His example shows what it means being a Pallottine. The young confreres watch him pray and work. Yet, you cannot go on a car ride with him, there he is too impatient, it’s always too slow.
“Ichie Ozioma” remains his title of honor. This is a title not involving differentiation or foreignness. It involves the high value and love of the Nigerians in Mbaukwu, and even further: he is one who really means what he says, even though he is white he is one of us. He was proud when his friend, Igwe Peter Anugwu, made him one of his cabinet ministers in 2017. This is a big honor, proving: Fr. Peter Hillen really made it to Nigeria.
When he returned to Germany for reasons of health in 2017, no one would have expected that he would never see the country again. He has always been desperately expected back there.
In the middle of the cherry harvesting season he was snatched from his life. May the Lord of Harvest, as we pray in our Pallottine vocation prayer, house his faithful servant.