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Boelens’ life as a missionary served the South and the world

Eleanor Boelens always wanted to be a missionary.

“The Lord told me to be a missionary when I was about 10 years old,” the Indiana native said. “I had no peace until I came up with missionary, then I had great peace; that’s when you know the Lord has heard you. And when it’s successful, you know for sure that He’s heard you.”

When she left for college, she said, “I prayed I would find somebody at college that wanted to be a missionary” and found him in her husband Peter, who was the older brother of her college roommate. 

Serving God and helping others took the Boelens to foreign countries in Asia, Africa, Central and South America. But, for 50 years, their work has focused on the Vicksburg area, where she and her husband founded the Cary Christian Center, children’s ministries, Christian healing prayer ministries and helped establish medical missions. After 50 years in the south, Eleanor is leaving the area and heading north to be with family. Her husband died in 2017.

The couple’s first mission was in South Korea, where they worked from 1961-67. They returned to the U.S. to allow Peter, a doctor, to return to school.

“He found most of his patients were children, and he saw he needed to take pediatric and get a master’s in public health,” Eleanor said. “He went to the University of Minnesota for three years — two years in pediatrics and one year of public health.”

It was a comment her husband overheard that brought them to Mississippi.

“It was the Civil Rights movement, and the people at the hospital where he was were saying Christians aren’t relevant; they don’t care about the plight of the poor and we were praying about that, asking God show us where to go,” she said.

The Boelens concentrated their efforts in Sharkey and Issaquena counties, which were two of the poorest counties in the country.

They settled in Vicksburg in 1970 because Peter Boelens knew he would at times need to check patients into hospitals. His patients couldn’t afford a private hospital.

“He needed a charity hospital and Vicksburg had Kuhn (Memorial Hospital),” Eleanor Boelens said.

While he was in Cary, Peter Boelens had his practice in a mobile home that was destroyed in 1971 by a tornado that also damaged a school.

When the school’s students were transferred to Rolling Fork, Peter made an agreement with the school board to let him use the building if he renovated it.

“Volunteers helped renovate the school which became the site for the center in Cary,” Eleanor said, adding the building now serves as a center for an outreach program serving mothers and children.

During her husband’s tenure as the clinic’s doctor, Eleanor, who was an elementary school teacher, would travel to Cary on Wednesday afternoons to teach a Bible class for fifth- and sixth-graders.

“It was very successful,” she said. “I still know a lot of people in that area.”

While they were in Vicksburg, Peter Boelens was named executive director of the Luke Program, a faith-based health care program that provides resources and support for health care programs across the world.

During his tenure as director, the Boelens visited the Philippines, Ghana, Korea and Nicaragua, which at the time was embroiled in the Sandinista Revolution.

They became involved in health prayer ministry after Peter talked with Dr. Bill Wilson, at the time chairman of the psychiatry department at Duke University, who told him about using prayer to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic syndrome from the Vietnam War.

“We went and trained and began helping people in the community,” Eleanor said. She said they began working with people at Triumph Church where she is a member.

Eleanor said the healing ministry has led to some of her best experiences.

“You hear so many wonderful stories,” she said, recalling one person who had a traumatic experience and was able to get through problems and pain to change their life. She said the program remains viable thanks to others who underwent training.

When Eleanor Boelens leaves Vicksburg, she’ll be heading for Grand Rapids, Mich., where her daughters and grandchildren live.

“I’ll be living closer to family for the first time in my life,” she said. “I’m going to miss the climate here and go to snow country, but the call to be with my family is going to make it a bit better.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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