Members of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s Bassendean Conference in Perth, Western Australia were on hand to help their friend Bill (Wilhelmus) Michels celebrate his 100th birthday in October. The birthday celebrations were also attended by five generations of Bill’s family.
‘It was tremendous!’ Bill exclaims. ‘Half the village was there for it. I never thought I would reach this age.’
Bassendean Conference President William Thomas says Bill is a kindhearted man and a valued member of the Society. For Bill, visits with his conference are a regular feature of his week, as is playing lawn bowls and attending mass at St Joseph’s Parish Church.
The active centurion lives alone in his own home following the passing of his wife Tilly (Mechtilde) last year, who was aged 96 years. Bill and Tilly, who came to Australia from Holland in 1951, were married for 75 years.
Although, he doesn’t walk far, Bill walks unaided, apart from using a buggy to get to and from the nearby parish. He became a member of the Society in August 2015.
‘I was looking in the parish bulletin one day and it asked for people to join the conference. So I asked William, “What’s this St Vincent de Paul business about?” And he explained it and I thought I could do that,’ says Bill.
It is not Bill’s first experience of volunteering—he did a two-year stint for Advocacy, volunteering with people who are disabled.
‘I was 84 years old at the time and my wife said I was too old to do that, but I did it for two years in the end.’ Mr Thomas said Bill undertook the necessary training to become a member and is dedicated to helping others. On visits to people’s houses, Vincentians are not always invited into the home, so it can present a challenge.
‘We can find ourselves standing in hot weather leaning on a pergola and when you’ve got two or three of those visits that is when we stop for a break and have a cup of tea and a biscuit,’ Mr Thomas said.
‘The fact that Bill is doing these visits should encourage a lot of seniors. They are very valuable to the Society.’ Bill is no stranger to adversity or hard work. Ten years ago he wrote his life story, Nought to 90, detailing his early years in the Province of Limburg when the tight-knit family of nine had little to eat. Bill wrote:
My Dad was laid up with varicose veins and we had no income whatsoever. We used to fight for the crust as we knew this held more food value than just a slice. Mum and Dad went without anything to eat for our sakes. The parish priest Father Paulsen (I will never forget his name) was marvellous and he would come with something to eat, or clothes for us kids.
The instance of Fr Paulsen coming to see my Mother and telling her that I would have to make my First Holy Communion is etched into memory till this day. Mum said Wim can’t do that as we haven’t got the money to buy the proper clothes. Father did say nothing but four days before the event, he took me and a widow’s son in the same position into the City and clothed us for the event. And as we walked out of the shop he said, wait a minute, we forgot something and back we went and he said “A cap, we must have caps for the boys”.
Bill began work in the coalmines in Holland at 15 years of age and recalls the Germans taking over management of the mine during the war years. He and Tilly married during the war years in 1942.
‘I have lived an interesting life. When we married it wasn’t all that easy. We had five children at the time and I was working in the coal mines. We decided to come to Australia for a better life,’ Bill says.
Bill arrived in Darwin in 1951 and was flown to Wittenoom in WA to begin work as a miner, with Tilly and the children joining him three months after. Wittenoom is now declared too dangerous to live in due to its history with asbestos and mesothelioma.
The couple had eight children, two of whom are deceased. Later in life they travelled widely, enjoying many trips to North Queensland, where they lived for a time, and abroad, including a visit to Medjugorje Town in Bosnia and Herzegovina; and subsequently on a another occasion a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France.
‘I’m thankful to God to be here today,’ said Bill.
The working title of Bill’s autobiography, Prayer, hope and perseverance, sums up this Vincentian’s approach to life perfectly.