Jean Claude was born in Paris on the 2nd July 1928. There were nine children in the family. Two of his brothers became priests, François joined the Benedictines in France and Alain served in Japan as a member of the Missions Étrangères and much involved in a Foyer de Charité. Those in charge of his training and other confreres often underlined the perfect education that he received in his family.
Jean-Claude wanted to become a missionary. He came to know the White Fathers by reading a book on the life of Fr. Simon Lourdel. However, what made him prefer the White Fathers to any other congregation was the rule of three and rules foreseen for supporting one’s spiritual life.
The future Fr. Qennouelle followed the usual route for all French White Fathers at the time: 1945, Philosophy in Kerlois, Spiritual Year in Maison Carrée near Algiers, followed by Theology at Thibar and Carthage. He took his Missionary Oath at Thibar on the 26th June 1951 and he was ordained priest on the 12th April 1952 at Carthage. All during his training, those in charge underlined his mild and congenial character, his readiness to render service, his piety, and his humility, and the zeal that he put into performing the work assigned to him. The only little blot was his shyness. His formators were right as these qualities remained evident all through his life.
Jean-Claude was not considered exceptionally intelligent but seemed clever enough for further studies especially as his conscientiousness was well known. At the same time, the French Province was anxious to find teachers for the Junior Seminary at Bonnelles. So, Jean-Claude’s went to Strasbourg to study for a Licence in Literature. Once he passed his exams, he was appointed to Bonnelles in June 1956. He proved to be a very good teacher and pedagogue, respected by the pupils many of whom chose him as their Spiritual Director. Just as he had done in Strasbourg, Jean-Claude asked the Provincial for permission to become involved in the Scout movement and he enjoyed going with them on camps, outings and meetings. It was a welcome chance to relax and it was an opportunity for some apostolic activity outside of the very closed academic life.
Already in 1960 and again in 1962, Jean-Claude had written to the Provincial asking for an appointment to Africa. He already felt that the days of the Junior Seminary was over as they were hardly producing any vocations. Moreover, he was already very sensitive to the less than charitable remarks of confreres who often rebuked him with phrases such as “it is obvious that you were never in Africa.” He also felt ill at ease when talking about the African missions when he had never been there. The fact was that as the years passed, he would find it more and more difficult to adapt. He had to wait patiently another three years.
In 1965, Fr.Qennouelle received his appointment for the Diocese of Bunia in the DRC. Before leaving, he did the Long Retreat at Villa Cavaletti, near Rome. He arrived in Bunia in January 1956. He was appointed as Superior of the Diocesan Seminary at Fataki. However, he went first to Kilo to learn Kiswahili. He only stayed two months. All his life, Jean-Claude told the story that the Bishop of Bunia had to ask the Regional three times that he go to Fataki immediately. After the third demand, the Regional came to Kilo and advised Jean-Claude to accept. And as Jean-Claude had the greatest respect for the Bishop, he cut short his language apprenticeship. He always regretted that he had not been given the time to feel at home in the language. However, he took advantage of the longer school holidays to practice his Kiswahili by helping out in the Parishes. He was always grateful to the confreres who helped and welcomed him in their mission posts. All the same, he had a good grasp of the language and he was able to preach homilies, recollections and even retreats in the language.
On the 1st March 1966, Jean-Claude arrived in Fataki. He would stay there for 11 years. Many former students have retained a happy memory of Fr. Jean-Claude, his prayer life, his availability to listen and advise them. Those who benefitted from his spiritual counselling always remained grateful. His confreres also recognised his qualities and he went as deputy to the Chapter in 1974. During his stay in Europe that year, Jean-Claude discovered the work of the Foyer de Charité. From then on, he never stopped thinking about founding such a Foyer in Bunia.
In 1975, the Bishop of Bunia asked him to become chaplain to the Sisters of a local congregation over and above his responsibilities as Superior of the Junior Seminary. He had to preach retreats and recollections and visit all the communities in Ituri comprising the Dioceses of Bunia and Mahagi-Nioka. This meant a lot of time on nearly impassable roads and not a few misadventures with cars. The sisters appreciated their chaplain very much.
Jean-Claude still had the desire to found a Foyer de Charité but Fr. Jean-Marie Vasseur, then Superior General, asked him to take on the responsibility for the first philosophy seminary of the White Fathers in Africa. It started in Bambu in Bunia Diocese in January 1979 (The seminary later moved to Bukavu). As soon as the seminary was well under way, Jean-Claude’s thoughts returned to his pet project. He and Bishop Gabriel Ukec had already gone to Châteauneuf and taken part in a Foyer de Charité retreat there. They found out that they in agreement about founding a Foyer in Bunia. Other WF confreres as well as the diocesan priests encouraged him.
In November 1981, Fr. Qennouelle was seconded to the project for founding a Foyer de Charité. He lived at the Cathedral Parish. It was his responsibility to look at the possibilities, find the land, plan the construction and deal with all the administrative aspects. It was an awful lot of worry for somebody who was not adept at dealing with practical and material problems. However, he was enthused by this call to found a spiritual retreat centre. The Diocese officially adopted the project and its foundation was decided upon in 1982. (It celebrated its 25th Anniversary on the 15th September 2007.) However, a lot remained to be done. It was only in May 1985, that Jean-Claude was able to go and live at the Foyer de Charité at Muhito about 12 kms. from Bunia. It was to be his life’s work. An agreement had been signed between the Missionaries of Africa and the Foyer on the 5th February 1985.
Jean-Claude always insisted that the Foyer of Muhito had been created with the full approval of the White Fathers. He frequently cited the names of the confreres who had supported him and especially the four brothers who, in turn, had helped build and furnish the foyer. He even claimed the White Fathers had founded the Foyer. However, this is an exaggeration because even if the White Fathers had helped, it was his energy and deep spiritual life alone that had brought the project to fruition. Jean-Claude lived the remaining years of his missionary life from 1985 at the Foyer. He wanted to remain a White Father and attended, as much as he could, the retreats, recollections, meetings and sessions and making sure he kept in contact with the confreres. He was also keen that the Foyer be well integrated into the pastoral work of the Diocese. The priests of the Foyer were responsible for many chapels in the neighbourhood and many Christians from Muhito came to the Foyer to pray.
In the beginning, Jean- Claude lived with Monsignor Laurent Badinga, already quite old, a priest of Mahagi-Nioka Diocese. He wanted to find a successor and he put all his hope in Fr. Josphat Kpasini from Bunia Diocese who had been interested in the Foyer since 1991. He was able to hand over responsibility for the Foyer to Fr. Josaphat who became the “Father” of the Foyer in December 2003. He returned to France for a number of months in order to let his successor settle in. When he returned to Muhito, he became the “Grandfather “of the Foyer. However, he continued to preach retreats and recollections, and he spent a good deal of time training new members and he was always available for pastoral work in the surrounding areas especially to celebrate the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Reconciliation and of the Sick.
Jean-Claude had always had a frail appearance. His health was not great but this did not prevent him from living to the ripe old age of 88 years. From 1988 onwards, he had to return practically every year to France for medical treatment or for meetings of the Foyers de Charité. Even if his body was weak, the spirit remained strong and courageous. He remained at Muhito despite the many upheavals that the Congo and, in particular, Ituri had experienced. Like everybody else, he was afraid. He put his trust in Providence and the protection of the Blessed Virgin. At the time of the massacres of 2001 and 2003, the Foyer became a place of refuge for hundreds of refugees and it hid many people who were in danger because of their ethnic origins. It was not without risk.
In 2016, after many urgent repatriations for health reasons, the Missionaries of Africa insisted that Jean-Claude return definitively to France. It was a real wrench for him. His big wish was to die at Murhito. However, he accepted the inevitable. He arrived in Paris on the 19th July 2016. On the 5th January 2017, he broke his hip. Brought to hospital, he died of a pulmonary embolism on the 12th January 2017. He had 65 years of missionary life, 50 years in the Congo including 34 years at the Foyer de Charité in Muhito.
One could be led to believe that his semi-retired life in the Foyer de Charité would handicap his apostolic influence. Far from that! When Mass was celebrated at Bunia at the same time as the Funeral Mass in Paris, the Cathedral was full to the rafters with religious, former students, beneficiaries of the hospitality of the Foyer, priests and of course, M. Afr. colleagues. Our confrere’s gentleness and admirable spirituality was very much appreciated.
One of the former pupils of Fataki wrote, “He was not into confrontation but he always looked for the little parcel of truth and light in everybody.” In his homily at the Mass in Paris, Fr. Emmanuel Ngona described Fr. Qennouelle as “a man of prayer and adorations of God. A man of peace and reconciliation, a humble man. He had a special devotion to Mary, our Mother and Mother of the Church.” The Foyer of Muhito added with good reason, “he left us in an odour of sanctity.”
Gérard Malherbe, M.Afr.