Jaak was born on the 11th November 1925 at Meeuwen, Limbourg Province then in the Diocese of Liège, Belgium. He came from a farming background and his father served as the secretary for the commune. Jaak began his secondary studies at the College of Bree but the last two years were done in the Junior Seminary of St. Trond. He entered the White Fathers at Boechout in September 1944. In 1946, he began his novitiate in Varsenare followed by theological studies in Heverlee. He took his Missionary Oath on the 22nd July 1950 and he was ordained priest on the 24th March 1951 in Heverlee. Those in charge of his training spoke very highly of him: Jaak was thoughtful, worked hard, obedient and devoted with a solid piety. He was not a great intellectual, but he had good common sense and a balanced judgement. He was not cut out to be a leader, but he was agreeable in community and he had his heart in the right place. He was very practical and good with his hands. He should make a big effort to overcome his shyness.
Jaak fulfilled his ‘military service’ obligations by following a course at the University of Louvain which prepared people going to serve in Africa. He left for Burundi on the 23rd March 1952. He was appointed to Rumeza which was still in the Vicariate of Gitega. Like most debutant missionaries, he was put in charge of schools. The following year we find him at Gitwenge. He had learned Kirundi very well. In April 1953, he was Treasurer and Director of schools at Rusengo. Fr. Alfons Van Hoof (+ 1979), Regional at the time noted, “He succeeds in what he undertakes” and the confreres appreciated him. In June 1956, Jaak returned to Gitwenge which was pretty isolated where he launched, with some success, into his first building projects.
During his home leave in 1959-60, Jaak did the 30 day retreat in Jerusalem and wrote subsequently, “For my next appointment I am 100% in holy indifference.” In March 1961, he was sent for a couple of months to Kisuru but he returned to Rumeza in August. Fr. Thevenon, Regional, wrote, “Jaak is a nice guy who can live in any conditions and with any confrere. He prefers living in a ‘bush’ parish rather than in a big centre.” In 1961, Bishop Joseph Martin, M.Afr (+1982) founded Bururi Diocese. In July 1963, Jaak was appointed to Mpinga. He built the Church, three schools, a sister’s convent and a water tank. Jaak was flourishing, more self-confident, always in good humour, easy-going, calm and smiling. He took his turn at visiting the outstations and never let material affairs get in the way of his pastoral work. We should note however, that talks and sermons were never Jaak’s strong points. In September 1965, Jaak became superior at Bururi and a year later at Rutovu. He wrote to Fr. Kamiel Plessers (+1993) the Belgian Provincial, “Tomorrow we begin the big scrutinies in view of Baptism and we will try not to be too severe or too easy.” He remained at Rutovu until 1969. He was sent to Butwe for some months for building work. Appointments followed one another: Mpinga (1970), Butwe (1974), Martyazo (1978). In December 1981, he wrote to the Belgian Provincial “They (the Government) have begun again the expulsions in our Diocese, firstly the Xaverians, a complete deanery, four parishes out of twelve, all the fathers and brothers. Here at Martyazo we continue bravely.” On the 30th September 1984, he suffered the same fate along with other confreres. Jaak decided on going to Rwanda if he was refused re-entry to Burundi. He joined our community in Genk for a sabbatical time. The Burundian Government refused to reverse its decision and in March 1985, the General Council appointed him to Rwanda.
On the 17th October 1985, Jaak began a new phase of his missionary service at Muramba in the Diocese of Nyundo in Rwanda. Learning Kinyarwanda did not come easy. In September 1987, he was sent to Mwezi in the Diocese of Cyangugu. This parish was adjacent to the Mabaya Parish in Burundi but contacts were rare. He wrote, “Mwezi is a real ‘bush’ parish; 600 Baptisms at Easter and during the summer two outstations to be built as well as a bridge.” During his home leave in 1989, Jaak accepted an appointment as assistant bursar at Genk. His reply was brief and to the point, “Received the appointment, have never refused one, will not begin now, so OK.” His mother died in 1991 at the age of 91. Jaak moved to Antwerp to help with the dispatch of goods to Africa at the busy procure. Efforts were made to get him back to Burundi. Bishop Makarakiza intervened personally, which Jaak found a little unsettling. “I didn’t sleep; it is a difficult question for me.” A clear decision by Fr. Hubert Huybrechts, the Provincial closed the matter. After a dozen years of humble service, shopping, shipping and painting addresses on trunks, he returned to Genk. He visited his brothers and a sister regularly by bicycle. In April 2010, he took up residence in the Retirement/ Nursing Home at Munsterbilzen.
For the first few years, everything went very well. His family came to visit him regularly. He was a fanatical card player and very often won. However stomach problems affected him and he began to eat less and less. On two occasions, he had to be hospitalised because of exhaustion. His decline was relentless. He walked with the help of a Zimmer frame, then a wheelchair. In the end, he could only take a few liquids. He found speaking difficult, and he was nearly blind. He died in hospital in Genk on the 8th October 2017. The farewell liturgy took place in St. Joseph’s Chapel, Munsterbilzen followed by burial at our cemetery in Varsenare. May he rest in peace.
Jef Vleugels, M.Afr.