Flashback: John Calvin Junior College
By Richard Harms, College Archivist, Heritage Hall

In 1894 William (Willem) and Cornelia Veenstra and their four children, including infant daughter, Johanna, moved from Paterson, N.J., to Grand Rapids so that he could prepare for ministry in the Christian Reformed Church. After completing four years of preparatory studies and three years of theological study, William Veenstra was ordained as the minister in Zutphen, Mich. Seven months later Veenstra died of typhus, and the family moved back to Paterson, where Cornelia operated a corner grocery store to support the family.

In Paterson, Johanna and her siblings attended the Christian school, and at age 12 Johanna took classes in a business school, after which she began working in an office in New York City. While working she felt called to serve as a missionary and began studying at the Union Mission Training Institute in Brooklyn. She specifically felt called to serve in Africa, where the CRC did not have a mission effort, and applied to and was accepted by the Sudan United Mission. Since this group required its overseas mission workers to be at least 25, the 22-year-old Veenstra moved to Grand Rapids to study Reformed doctrine at Calvin and work in the city mission effort supported by the Eastern Avenue church. Afterward she returned to Paterson and studied nursing and midwifery at Bellevue Maternity Hospital in New York City and worked in the CRC city mission in Paterson.

In 1919, having become of age, she began her work in Africa among the Dzompere people primarily in the regions around Lupwe. Often by means of a bicycle she traveled to the approximately 15,000 people scattered in an area about 80 miles long. As the years passed, she expanded her travels into an area hundreds of miles in all directions.

A firm believer in establishing an indigenous church, rather than attempting to convert people to an alien church and culture, she learned the Hausa language. She worked among people who had been cannibals in the not-too-distant past and part of frequent inter-tribal wars and slavery, which was legal in the region until 1936. Her medical skills served her well in the regions since malaria, yellow fever, sleeping sickness, leprosy and other diseases were common, and half of all children died before they reached the age of 5. Without concern for her personal well-being, she provided medical and midwife care and spiritual aid to all. When in the United States on furlough she spoke to countless church groups to raise awareness and funds for missionary efforts.

For 13 years she was indefatigable. In the spring of 1933 she began to be bothered by recurrent pain in her left side. While visiting fellow missionaries—a husband and wife/doctor and nurse—she asked that the doctor examine her as the pain seemed to be increasing. The diagnosis was appendicitis, and the surgery went well, but several days later her strength and heart began to fail; she died on Palm Sunday.

Numerous CRC missionaries followed Veenstra’s lead to Africa, and in 1939 the denomination took over the Lupwe work from the Sudan United Mission.

Calvin’s Veenstra Residence Hall is named in honor of the life and work of Johanna.

— Richard H. Harms, Archives