This year, 2010, international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is celebrating the 60th anniversary of providing “Vehicles for God.”
It was 60 years ago that ACN’s founder, Father Werenfried van Straaten, began his first great campaign to provide “Vehicles for God,” as the initiative was then called. The center for all this activity quickly became the small town of Königstein, in the Taunus hills, close to the city of Frankfurt, Germany, where ACN still has its international headquarters today.
It was in Königstein, on what is now known as “Father Werenfried Square,” that the various vehicles would initially be gathered: motorcycles, VW ‘Beetles,’ and converted trucks and buses – the famous “chapel trucks” which not only carried food and clothing but also had a ‘fold-out’ altar in the center.
Altogether some 35 of “chapel trucks” were created, all bearing the names of saints and angels, and traveling out with the priests to the scattered groups of German Catholic refugees in areas where Catholic churches did not exist or had been destroyed.
Starting as early as 1949, some 3,000 ‘rucksack priests’ were supported by the charity so that they could minister to the millions of uprooted Catholics in a devastated post-war Germany. They began with bicycles; then later they were equipped with motorcycles. Finally, even the famous VW ‘Beetles,’ were provided in their hundreds by Father Werenfried and his campaign.
Father Werenfried’s outreach to former foes was not without controversy. Some charged him with “helping the enemy” or of having political objectives. Others accused him of exploiting the poverty of the refugees to pursue a “Catholic mission” in overwhelmingly Protestant northern Germany.
Undeterred, Father Werenfried later wrote about these years, “In the face of the ferocious opposition I encountered then, it was the forgiving love of my own countrymen and the loving gratitude of the German refugees that were for me the clearest proof of God’s blessing.”
What this young Dutch priest had begun immediately after the war, in Germany, very soon continued in other countries. Initially it was the persecuted and oppressed Christians of Eastern Europe, those suffering under communist dictatorships, who he helped. Before long, it was the suffering Church around the world.
An inspiring preacher, Werenfried van Straaten appealed tirelessly for donations, usually taking the collection personally in his famous “hat of millions.”
Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, over the course of five decades the charity has been able to fund and supply thousands of cars, boats, bicycles, trucks, motorcycles – and even horses and donkeys – to support the Church in her pastoral mission.
In 1998, ACN, which, since the mid-1990s, in a new departure following the political upheavals in Eastern Europe, had begun to help for certain projects of the Russian Orthodox Church, also helped fund the creation of the first ever “chapel boat” on the River Volga. Today there are three such boats, traveling along the rivers Volga and Don and ministering to isolated communities of believers there. One of them even bears the name “Werenfried.”
It is no longer possible today to accurately state the exact number of vehicles supplied by ACN since the program began, but between 1994 and 2009 alone no fewer than 6,352 cars, over 1,000 motorcycles, 80 motorboats and 6,650 bicycles were supplied by the charity in support of the Church’s pastoral outreach.