Hugo was born on the 25th July 1930 in Ninove in the Diocese of Gand, Belgium. There were eight children in the family, which ran a textile shop and a printing press. Hugo did his first two years of secondary schooling in the College Saint-Louis at Ninove before transferring to the Jesuit run College Saint-Joseph at Alost for his final four years. He met missionaries there and so began a dream, “in the scouts and the Catholic Student Group at school of which I was a member, we were encouraged to follow such ideals.”
He entered the White Fathers at Boechout in September 1949. After the novitiate at Varsenare, he was sent to Eastview, Canada for theological studies. He took his Missionary Oath there on the 18th June 1955 and he was ordained priest there on the following 28th January 1956. Hugo’s professors described him as balanced, devoted, helpful and pleasant in community. He had a solid spiritual life and never imposed himself. He could take initiatives and get things done. His sense of humour was much appreciated. One of the professors remarked drolly; “Hugo will not make much noise but he will do a lot of good.”
Hugo spent one month in the U.K learning the “British way of life” and six months at Louvain studying Colonial Sciences before leaving for the Diocese of Tamale, Ghana on the 30th March 1957. He was the first Belgian White Father to set foot in Tamale. The Gold Coast had gained independence on the 6th March 1957 and changed its name to Ghana. Hugo’s journey took him from Melsbroek to Hamburg, then via Le Havre to West Africa and finally by train and bus from the port city of Takoradi to Tamale. He found his confreres and some hundreds of faithful in adoration before the Cross-, because it was Good Friday. Two confreres drove him north, to Wiagha. He remembered that it was 30°C! He was named ‘Assistant Parish Priest.’ The local people called him ‘Fr. Van’ for convenience sake. He learnt his first local language; others would follow. He suffered his first attacks of malaria. In December 1960, he moved to Bawku in Navrongo Diocese where he was put in charge of the schools. However, his stay was short-lived because after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, President of the Congo on the 17th January 1961, Kwame Nkrumah, the newly elected President of Ghana, ordered all Belgians to leave within 48 hours. Hugo left the same day for what was then known as Upper Volta (Burkina Faso). He was welcomed at the Language Centre at Gilongu where he began learning Moré. He knew enough by August 1961 to hear confessions. However, in the meantime, authorisation came for him to return to Ghana. The principal reason for the quick return of the Belgians was the importance of good commercial relations with Belgian chocolate manufacturers who bought a lot of Ghanaian cocoa. Hugo returned to Bawku. In January 1964, he was appointed Chief Inspector of Schools in Navrongo. In this role, Hugo had a reputation for being strict and demanding. After home leave in Belgium and the Long Retreat in Rome, he was appointed to teach Latin and French at the Junior Seminary of Navrongo. Two years later, he was giving the same courses at Navrongo Secondary School where he also taught Religion. If any emergencies occurred, the Bishop knew he could rely on Hugo. So, he spent some months in Sirigu before returning to Bawku in December 1971. He became Parish Priest there in 1975. In 1977, he became PP of Garu. Famine often struck the region. The Fathers in the mission often combined their Eucharistic celebrations with educational slide shows showing how to improve agricultural methods. Other subjects were also tackled such as nutrition, hygiene, malaria prevention; dealing with bush fires or backfires to clear ground. Hugo searched for funds in Europe for his many different projects. During his 57 years of missionary commitment, he was always able to count on the generosity of his family and the citizens of Ninove. More than twenty “Missionary feasts” were organised at the College Saint-Louis. Inspired by Hugo, his brother-in-law Jef Lambrechts founded the ‘Fondation Felix’ to finance different projects. On the pastoral front, Hugo liked preparing young people for marriage, looking after young families and youth work. He said, “In this area, the training of leaders is of capital importance.”
In 1979, Hugo spent several months in Belgium for health reasons. This did not prevent him from doing the Session/Retreat in Jerusalem, which reinvigorated him. He returned to Garu serving as PP there. 1984 sees him at Wiagha also as PP before returning to Garu where he stayed until 1996.
Hugo’s last appointment in Ghana was also his longest. He became one of the three rather ancient guest masters at Bolgatanga. “All three of us are innkeepers for the confreres passing through. They come for a rest, to recharge their batteries, to see the Bishop, to renew their visa or their driving licence. Between times we are ‘on call’ for the many small Christian communities and for religious houses roundabout.” He went on, “For the last five years, I am occupied with distributing scholarships for girls and boys wanting to go to secondary or technical schools. The project was funded by the ‘Fondation Felix’ and has just been handed over to the local clergy.” Hugo was also involved in creating a library, importing wheelchairs, supporting football and volleyball teams and many other things.
In September 2014, the time had come for Hugo to return to Belgium. He was 84 years of age, his health was not so great, and he suffered more and more from the heat. Thousands of Ghanaians celebrated the departure of the (first) last Belgian White Father. Dressed in the traditional manner and adorned with traditional symbols, he was proclaimed a Chief of the village and recognised as one of their own.
Hugo took up residence at our community in Genk. He was still the peaceful, friendly, discreet and obliging confrere. He was strong and devoted in the Faith. However, he kept himself up to date using modern means of communication. A heart attack meant that he was hospitalised at the beginning of October 2016. On the 12th November 2016, he died peacefully in the palliative care unit of Saint-Jean Hospital in Genk. The farewell liturgy took place on the 19th November at Our Lady of Fatima Church at Bret-Gelieren in Genk. He was buried in our cemetery in Varsenare.
Jef Vleugels, M.Afr.