Irénée was born at Saint-Tite in the district of Champlain, Quebec, Canada on the 14th April 1938. He attended primary school there before going for his secondary school education at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Trois-Rivières where he also studied Philosophy. On the 17th August 1957, he entered the novitiate of St-Martin de Laval near Montreal. The following year, he left for Carthage for four years of theological studies. Irénée blossomed in this international community, showing himself to be very open, respected for his commitment, for his jovial and obliging character and his apostolic spirit. He had a sensitive and tactful temperament, but vulnerable under the appearance of outward calm. His superiors recognised him as a generous and loyal confrere who merited their trust. Irénée took his Missionary Oath in Carthage on the 27th June 1961. He was ordained priest on the 30th June 1962 at Trois-Rivières.
Fr. Jacob found himself in Rome in September 1962 to study Dogmatic Theology. After completing his licentiate exams, he went to Switzerland for some rest. He then went to a poor parish in London for three weeks to learn some English. At the end of September 1964, he was at Lumen Vitae in Bruxelles to follow a course in Catechetics. In a letter to the Canadian Provincial, he wrote, “Regarding the courses in Lumen Vitae, it is a real psychological break when I compare them with the theological exams of last year which were a real nightmare and which drained me completely.”
Irénée was appointed to Rwanda in September 1965. He taught at the Catechetical Institute in Butare. Then he was sent to the Language Centre in Kigali to learn Kinyarwanda. In July 1966, he worked as a curate in Cyahinda and then in Muyunzwe. This period of parish work was a difficult time for Fr. Jacob. He had many qualities, was serious and supernatural, but was a perfectionist, which prevented him from taking initiatives. In August 1971, Irénée was appointed to Canada. He took time out for a well-earned rest. He then began studies in Educational Psychology at Trois-Rivieres while working in a city parish. He was then chaplain in a secondary school and liked to work in close collaboration with those teaching Catechetics.
In 1976, Fr. Jacob returned to Rwanda, firstly to Runaba in the Diocese of Ruhengeri. A year later, he was appointed to the Rural Formation Centre for Young People at Butamwa in the Diocese of Kigali. It was a training centre for young people coming from rural areas, which gave instruction in modern agricultural and breeding techniques over a period of two months. Irénée felt very much at home in this responsibility and worked very hard for the success of the centre of which he was Director. In this intense working conditions, he found a personal blossoming that allowed him overcome many personal difficulties.
Soon, the De La Sale Brothers took over the direction of the Butamwa Centre. Irénée was able to go on home leave and followed the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life. In 1981, he was appointed to the community attached to the Language Centre in Kigali. His task was to compile and publish a Kinyarwanda-French Dictionary. Irénée threw himself wholeheartedly into this monumental task. It became a dictionary in three volumes, comprising 25,000 words. Rwandan proverbs illustrated each word in order to define it in all its nuances. In the preface, our confrere reminded us that compiling a dictionary is a long and laborious enterprise. However, in undertaking this work, he had not begun from scratch. The work done by White Father confreres, which were used for many years for learning the language, helped him enormously. He told us, “For six years I compiled masses of documents which were put at my disposal by confreres and researchers at the Ministry of Education. The result was a dictionary in three big volumes of about 600 pages each. A real labour of love people said in order to tease me.” L’Institut National de Recherche Scientifique at Butare greatly facilitated the realisation of this project. The Canadian Ambassador in Kigali also collaborated in the publication of this landmark tome. The work caused him many grey hairs, some criticism, a big consolation, and a pacemaker for a heart, which had become very sluggish. Irénée had the joy of being decorated by the late President Habyalimana for this precise, protracted and fastidious work.
After a holiday in Canada, Fr. Jacob returned to the country of a 1000 hills in 1989. As professor at the Language Centre, he prepared a course for learning the Rwandan language for missionaries and expatriates working in the country. A few years later, he published Manuel d’apprentissage de la langue rwandaise (Twige Ikinyarwanda) in collaboration with a Dutch Presbyterian Pastor. A confrere who knew Irénée very well wrote, “All his life the Rwandan language played a big part in the missionary life of Irénée. As he was a perfectionist, he felt that he never knew the language well enough to express himself in front of people. So, he abstained from preaching and kept himself to himself. He spent his time studying the language. He even sat for long hours with primary school children and catechumens to keep his ear attuned to the local language. At that time, there were no benches so he sat on tree trunks with the children. Through sheer will power and hard work, he got to know the Kinyarwanda very well.”
Following the terrible events in 1994, after the assassination of the President, Fr. Jacob had to leave Rwanda hurriedly. It was a complete break from his missionary activity and his work of teaching the language. He suffered from a severe nervous shock and obviously needed time for some rest and to receive medical advice. In fact, his doctor advised him not to return to Rwanda before April 1995. In the meantime, he accepted a temporary appointment as Superior of our First Phase house in Ottawa.
Irénée returned to Rwanda in April 1995. He was stationed at the Regional House in Kigali. He gave some courses on the language and it was suggested to him that he polish up his homilies, given over many years, and to edit them for the good of the local Church because they contained great spiritual richness. He also got involved in parish ministry in Holy Family Parish.
However, by 2001, Fr. Jacob was worn our physically and psychologically. His health was badly shaken. He had to return to Canada for a long rest and treatment. He returned to Rwanda in 2006, this time to Butare and he took up some Parish ministry.
On the 22nd April 2010, at the Office of the Canadian Embassy, the Governor General of Canada held a reception in his honour. It was an occasion to present medals to honour those people who had contributed in a significant way to Canadian-Rwandese relationships and our confrere Fr. Irénée Jacob was among those honoured. The inscription accompanying the medal read, “The close ties that link Canada and Rwanda depend a great deal on the contribution of passionate people such as you, Fr. Irénée Jacob… Your love for this language of your host country has led you from learning it to teaching it as much to expatriates as to Rwandan citizens, to the writing of a Rwandan-French dictionary and a manual for learning this language. Without fear of contradiction, you are a worthy ambassador of the Canadian values of inclusion and the search for excellence.”
In September 2016, Irénée was taken to a clinic in Kigali. He was very weak, he could not feed himself and he often seemed confused. The doctors diagnosed a serious cancer. The confreres did their best to find a way of transporting him to a hospital in Canada where he might receive better care. However, he died in the ambulance en route to Kampala, Uganda, for a flight that was due to take him home. On 13th October 2016, at the Holy Family Parish, all the confreres celebrated Fr. Jacob’s Easter. The Archbishop of Kigali, Thaddée Ntihinyurwa and the Bishop of Butare, Philippe Rukamba presided over the Eucharist in the presence of a large number of Christians who were anxious to express their friendship and support to the White Fathers at this time of mourning. After the Mass, Bishop Rukamba, together with the confreres, accompanied the mortal remains of Irénée to their last resting place in the cemetery of Ndera about twenty kilometers from Kigali.
Let us give thanks to God, who allowed Irénée to die in the country where he had chosen to live, which he loved so well, and in which he had wanted to die. Irénée now rests among the Rwandan people whom he had served faithfully and with whom he loved to speak their language.
Michel Carbonneau, M.Afr.
Petit Echo nr. 1078