«Believing in your resurrection
my heart hopes for your light and your love»
(from the parting words of Hans)
On June 15th this year Anton Züger, the last SMB missionary still living in Japan, died. On Sunday 4th October 2020, our senior, Hans Holenstein, one of the three SMB Japan-missionaries still alive, finally returned to his Creator. Charly Renner and Luigi Clerici (Nairobi) are the last survivors of the SMB Japan mission.
Hans Holenstein was born in 1923 in the St. Gallen village of Abtwil where his father, Johann, worked in the local embroidery factory. The family moved to Fislisbach when his father found work there with BBC (Brown, Boveri & Cie. Baden). Hans shared life in the young family with Josef, Anna and Martin, his three siblings. He attended school in Fislisbach, Mellingen, at Gymnasium Immensee and Schoeneck Seminary. He was ordained a priest on April 2, 1950.
In 1951 he was missioned to Japan, which meant a long journey on a cargo ship to the land of the rising sun.
Upon arrival in Japan, Hans began to study the language in Morioka. After the tough study of Japanese, he began work as vicar in Morioka where he was also an English teacher and scout leader. He moved to Tono, a country parish in the mountains, known for its folklore stories and legends which made people afraid to come to church. Hans tried to establish contact with them by setting up a scout troop, offering slide shows and small plays.
He spent a year in Ofunato by the sea where he tried to reach the people through a large kindergarten, Sunday school and summer courses at the university.
Unfortunately, in 1959, an illness forced him to take a prolonged Spa cure in Arosa and St. Moritz. He had successful lung surgery followed by time to heal completely. But this dark shadow also had a lighter side as it enabled Hans to study and graduate in German and English at the University of Zurich and to train as a grammar school teacher in Schwyz.
In 1962 he was allowed to return to Morioka. Thanks to his second training, a new field opened up for his work. Here there was the large school for girls with 1,700 pupils where he taught ethics and sociology. He was also the spiritual director of the Dominican Sisters in the Morioka Monastery, teacher at a nursing school for ethics, and lecturer for German at the state university. Hans was a born teacher. He paid great attention to Christian-human motivation, especially for the nurses. Wherever he taught, the students received carefully prepared worksheets that had been edited with heart (Japanese Kokoró), which they put together in an anthology at the end of the year.
In his spare time, which was probably limited, he took photos for the archive and wrote the missionary history of Iwate.
In 1981 Hans returned home after 30 years of work in Japan. He worked as librarian in the mission house, as an archivist and devoted himself also to pastoral care. He completed a librarianship course in Chur. For years he held services and sermons for the Baldegger Sisters in the Stella Matutina in Hertenstein and various parishes, especially in Fislisbach.
Hans loved collecting documents, stories and chronicles and he became the author of the following books:
1999 – Baba Martin, memories of his murdered brother, Martin, in Zimbabwe
2004 – Bethlehem Mission in Japan from 1948–2001
2016 – Necrology of the deceased confreres: «those who preceded us»
There were also a number of smaller publications.
Hans remained connected to modern times into old age with computers and the Internet. His nephew, Markus Holenstein, often helped him out of an internet breakdown or installed new programmes on his computer.
Hans gave us a fine testimony of his being a missionary. He was kind, humble, able to listen and he accompanied dying confreres with sensitivity and love. He once said: «I can only be grateful for my 30 years in Japan, and as a missionary chronicler, I try to record memories of what I have achieved in order to awaken joy and gratitude in my fellow brothers for God’s providence in missions.»
As a conclusion, Hans gives us a personal testimony.
One last word from Hans Holenstein:
«Every farewell at an open grave
fills us with sadness, pain and bitter tears.
A little light, hope and warmth
we get from our confidence in God
in whose hand we know the dead.
“Yes, I am ready – if God wants to take me home.”
This is how my brother Martin spoke to him
on that unforgettable New Year’s morning on the way
to the divine service in the African bush –
when suddenly his song fell silent –
and he reached his eternal home.
Martin was a good 40 then, I’m a good 90,
what I had to do is done.
I thank God and everyone who met me
accompanied me in the work for God’s kingdom.
I was allowed to do a lot, I failed a lot
I still owe a lot of love.
Lord, forgive – and bless what has been.
Believing in your resurrection
my heart hopes for your light and your love.
I let myself be guided by your hand
to the eternal home in your peace.
The light of the Easter candle, the sign of the risen one,
gives hope, confidence and quiet joy
and dries all of our tears so that we may
celebrate the divine service in gratitude. »
And we say to Hans: «Arigato, Sayonara! Farewell! »