Jan was born on the 20th October 1931 at Opglabbeek in the Belgian Province of Limburg. He studied at the Junior Seminary of Saint-Trond and in September 1951, he entered the White Fathers at Boechout. His brother, Piet Knoops (+1998) had already been working as a White Father in the Congo since 1947. He entered the novitiate at Varsenare in September 1953 followed by theological studies in Heverlee. He took his Missionary Oath there on the 6th July 1957. He was ordained priest on the 6th April 1958 (Easter Sunday) by Bishop Marcel Daubechies, M.Afr (+1988) at that time Vicar Apostolic of Kasama. Those in charge of his training underlined his very shy temperament plus the fact that he was not very communicative. Jan was supernatural by nature, thoughtful, calm and always in good humour. In community, he was discreet and sensitive. He radiated a tranquil joy. He was not a great intellectual but a hard worker. Regarding his appointment, he asked for and received an appointment to the Congo, thus following in the footsteps of his brother, Piet.
On the 15th April 1959, Jan took the plane to Bukavu and was appointed to Kabare. His older brother, by a dozen years, worked in the same diocese. Jan felt small beside his big brother whom he admired a lot. Appointments followed on a regular basis: 1961, Katana, 1963, return to Kabare, back to Katana in 1964 but this time for medical reasons as he was suffering from fever and unexplained headaches. Jan was much appreciated for his formation work with catechists. After his first home leave in Belgium, Jan returned to Kabare. However in September 1967, he was forced to seek refuge in Mweso in the Diocese of Goma because of unrest in the area following the Mulelists rebellion. He was to stay one year in exile before returning to the Diocese of Bukavu where he became curate in Mbagira. He did the Long Retreat at Villa Cavelletti, near Rome in 1970. On his return to the Congo, he was appointed to Ciherano and then to Murhesa. In the meantime, everybody noted that Jan was undisputedly gifted for practical matters. So, he was always asked to be the bursar of the community. In many places, he repaired buildings, and organised the vegetable garden. In the fields of the Parish, he introduced the population to the soya bean with some success.
Jan did the Session/Retreat in Jerusalem in 1983 and he was a founder member of the team sent to Mubumbano to set up the parish there. He was to work there for a dozen years and revealed himself to be an excellent builder and contractor. He built everything; the presbytery, educational establishments and the dispensary. People came from everywhere to view his masterpiece: the Parish Church of Mubumbano. Little by little, he became the master builder of the diocese and constructed living accommodation, churches, outstations and schools.
His reputation spread beyond the borders of the diocese. In 1998 and 1999, we find him in the diocese of Kalemie working in the parishes of Christ-Roi and Lubuye. When he returned, he was asked to undertake the renovation of Burhiba.
Jan knew that nothing was more important for development and the health of people than drinking water. His creativity and technical know-how meant he could work miracles in this area. He built canals to bring water to the big centres and so brought clean water closer to where people lived.
There is one point that merits special attention regarding Jan’s missionary activity. He was devoted to the “Daughters of the Resurrection” a congregation founded by Sister Hadewych of the Holy Sepulcher of Turnhout in collaboration with Fr. Werenfried van Straaten founder of ‘Church in Need.’ Jan’s brother, Piet, was their chaplain since their foundation and he was considered as their real ‘spiritual father.’ Jan himself, had built several convents for this young congregation that was expanding fast and he continued to maintain or extend their houses. During the last years of his life in Africa, Jan helped them in their more recent foundations in the Diocese of Kindu, entrusted to our confrere, Bishop Willy Ngumbi. Jan had developed a system of wells with winches and everything and made exclusively with local materials, which was quite a technical exploit.
Jan was laid low by a thrombosis, which left him half paralyzed, on the 28th November 2015. A quick repatriation was absolutely necessary. On the advice of the Provincial leadership team, his departure would be definitive. Everybody knew how much Jan had dreamed of dying in Africa and to be buried beside his brother. He found it very difficult especially as he could not now build some wells he had promised the sisters. In February 2016, he took up residence at our house in Munsterbilzen. His family and his confreres gave him great support. However little by little, his health continued to deteriorate. On the morning of the 21st March 2017, he died peacefully. Jan was the faithful servant who had completed his service and now enters the house of the Father. May he rest in peace.
The Liturgy of the Resurrection took place on Saturday 25th March 2017 in his native village of Opglabbeeck before a large congregation. About a dozen confreres concelebrated. Jan was buried in our cemetery at Varsenare.
Jef Vleugels, M.Afr.