Having turned 90 on August 28, Leo can definitely lay claim to being the oldest altar server in the Cathedral parish, most likely the Archdiocese – and possibly even Australia!
Not that reaching this milestone has given him any cause to slow down or adjust his schedule, as he continues to serve at lunchtime Mass Monday to Wednesday, the Benediction and lunchtime Mass on Fridays, and then at both 6pm Masses on weekends. His commitment to the parish over the years has also included coordinating the extraordinary ministers, readers and collectors and he has been a regular volunteer at diocesan events.
“Yes, I am definitely fit and I keep fit by walking. I’ve never been to a fitness class, never been to an exercise class but I just walk everywhere,” he explained, pointing to his pair of black shoes which are replaced every three months because the soles wear out.
Jennifer, his wife of 45 years, is also active in parish life and ensures Leo maintains a healthy diet – although the nonagenarian admitted to having a penchant for Dutch pancakes which are a comforting reminder of his formative years in Holland.
Born in The Hague in 1928, the eldest of five children to “staunch Catholic parents”, Leo recalled the hardships of growing up during the war years and the importance his faith played from a young age.
“I was baptised, did my first communion and was confirmed in the parish church of The Hague called St Agnes. During the war years that church was packed to capacity at every Mass with people praying for peace,” he said.
“The worst time was the winter of 1944/45 when there was no food and no electricity – can you picture a church with no electricity? Indeed, can you imagine living without electricity and no mobile phones?
“We had to use candles… at that time I was in the choir and I remember we had to learn off by heart all the songs in the Christmas Mass because we had no lights and we couldn’t read the words.”
Leo left school when he was 14 and worked in the market gardens near The Hague until he was conscripted into the army at age 20. After initial training his unit was sent to Indonesia where he remained in Padang, Sumatra for three years.
While it took him a long time to get used to the continual hot weather, on his return to the Netherlands Leo found he could no longer stand the cold conditions.
In a bold move, he and his first wife Teresa (who passed away in 1954) boarded a boat and after a six-week journey migrated to Australia in 1952.
Arriving in Melbourne they caught the Overland train to Adelaide and were collected by one of his father’s friends who had organised a job for Leo. The next day he started work as a handyman at Sacred Heart College, Somerton.
In addition to living in a new country and adjusting to a different culture and way of life, Leo also had to quickly learn the English language. One constant that remained throughout all this change and upheaval was his Catholic faith.
After a couple of years Leo took up a position with the railways at Mile End where he trained and became a locomotive driver, staying there on and off until his retirement. For some years he also ran a delicatessen on Fullarton Road, Parkside.
Work aside, he and Jennifer were committed to the Church and attended Mass in the Croydon Park parish where they lived. However, one weekend they ventured into St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral.
“For curiosity, once we came to the Cathedral on a Saturday night and we were so impressed, because like my wife I like these original buildings. It reminded me of the St Agnes Church in Holland.”
Feeling like this is where they belonged, both began taking up roles within the Cathedral parish and when Leo retired 25 years ago he became an altar server. In 2015, the Vandenbergs each received an Archbishop’s Award for service to parish life.
While he did consider the priesthood earlier in his life, Leo said the thought had always got “pushed aside”, and while a member of the St Agnes Youth Ministry he met his first wife. Today, he feels he has been able to “give something more” to God as a server.
“I could go to Mass three times a day and I’d never get bored with it,” he said.
A treasured memory from all his years as a server was carrying the cross at the funeral procession for Archbishop Faulkner – no mean feat given the weight of the cross and the guard of honour stretched from the Cathedral to the end of Victoria Square.
As for the future, Leo said his life is in God’s hands and he will just continue to live by his motto of taking “each day at a time”.