Jo was born in Nistelrode, Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands on the 15th March 1941. After studies at St. Charles, near Boxtel, he went to Franklin, U.S.A for his novitiate in 1961. He studied Theology in Eastview, Canada where he took his Missionary Oath on the 25th June 1965. He was ordained priest on the 2nd July 1966 in Prinsenhage.
Jo had sound judgment, was rather impulsive, frank and not always in diplomatic terms. Others were not always equal to that. He was friendly, cheerful, and ever ready to render a service. He enjoyed music and sports, and he had a talent for languages.
He was appointed to Mozambique and in September 1966 he went to Portugal to learn Portuguese. He left for Mozambique but the colonial secret police expelled him halfway through 1967. He received a new appointment and on the 10th December 1967, he left for Bumangi in the Ssese Islands on Lake Victoria to learn the Baganda culture and language. He learnt the local language so well, using typical proverbs and sayings, that it was a joy to listen to him. He moved to Katimba Parish, Masaka Diocese in June 1968. In 1970, he returned to Bumangi. He was appointed Parish Priest of Kalungu in December 1974 and he was to remain there until 1983. He did the Session/Retreat in Jerusalem in March 1984. When the White Fathers sought volunteers to launch a totally new project in North-East Uganda, Jo volunteered.
On the occasion of his 40 years of priesthood, Jo wrote, “All the 40 years I have been on a team of founders, and more often than not in charge of opening-up those places: Katimba and Kalungu in Masaka diocese; Usuk, Katakwi and Acumet in Soroti diocese; and Nakapiripirit and Tapac in Moroto diocese.
I felt proud that my superiors deemed me worthy to be sent to these trailblazing tasks. Far from complaining about having to bear the brunt of many difficulties … inherent in new ventures, I felt happy and fulfilled, engaged and committed. I still have the conviction that I am commissioned at the borders of established Christianity, one of the most important priorities of our Society”.
Returning from home-leave in January 1979 he wrote, “My nostalgia for Holland did not last long, for the reception here was so welcoming that I immediately felt home again”. Characteristically, Jo signed all his letters: “With hand and heart, Jo“.
Jo left for Usuk-Katakwi, Soroti Diocese on the 28th October 1984. With his habitual skill, he soon learnt the Iteso culture and language. Their region borders that of the Karimojong, notoriously armed cattle rustlers. The presbytery and convent had been abandoned five years previously; they found all the buildings looted and the windows broken. Jo and his community trained a building-group, repaired the existing buildings, and built two classrooms for a secondary school, a maternity-clinic with 5 wards. A new Sisters’ community arrived in August 1985. Of the 32 church-villages, eight were still active. Eventually they numbered 26. The standards of the Catechists were raised. The relationships with chiefs and teachers were far better than in the South and West of Uganda. From time to time, there were raids by the Karimojong, or battles in the ongoing civil war of the time. Jo wrote in June 1987, “All our rooms have bullet-holes. Someone said they had to lie on the floor for protection. Even the bishop advised us to move for the time being … (but) we have begun to love the population … the majority want to earn an honest living and desire peace.” In August 1989, Jo moved to Acumet to start a new parish right in the “heartland of the rebels”. In December 1990, he wrote, “I have a sort of ‘presbytery’, a convent with 3 Sisters, church, clinic, and 22 outstations… The language I have virtually mastered”.
Jo left for home leave in 1993. After 10 years of intense work in difficult surroundings, he felt the need of physical and spiritual recovery. He took time out and in October 1993, he accepted an appointment as parish-priest of Bakel, not too far from his birthplace. In December, Milheeze parish was added. He put his whole heart into the work. When he left, the parishioners clearly showed that they would have liked him to stay. In January 1995, he wrote, “A nostalgia was growing in my heart: for Africa and for a truly WF community.” The bishop honourably released him from his contract although it still had some time to run.
Joe did the Session/Retreat in Jerusalem again in March 1995 and he returned to Uganda in July of that year. He went to Nakapiripirit Parish in Moroto Diocese in the Northeast of the country. From there, he founded Tapac and became its Parish Priest in January 1997. The Parish covered 12 valleys inhabited by followers of African Traditional Religion and a handful Catholics. There were no other religious groupings. In his first meeting with the village-elders, he received the name: “favourite-bull with horns in the form of a heart“! They immediately started three schools. Here too the Karimojong came to rustle cows, and all the men carried weapons. Jo built a parish-centre with running water and solar-energy.
In December 2007, Jo left for a sabbatical period, as he needed time for physical and spiritual recovery. He went to visit relatives and friends in Canada and USA, on the way to a 6-weeks renewal-course in Tucson, Arizona. Then he followed a 3-months-course in Hawkstone Hall, England.
In August 2008, the Provincial of Uganda invited Jo to start a new parish in Nabulagala. This was where the first White Fathers arrived in Uganda in 1879 and where they baptised the first Catholics, of whom four were future martyrs. The Provincial Council had laid down some conditions for him. Jo arrived in December 2008 and wrote, “I am very happy”. He had always been interested in that initial Christian period. When he handed over as Parish Priest, he accepted invitations from neighbouring parishes to lead recollections about those early years. He enjoyed that, until the Sector Superior judged it better that he return to the Netherlands for health-reasons. He did the Transition Session in Rome in September 2012. In the course of the years, he had developed serious breathing-problems and already in 2011, he had just 39 % lung-capacity.
He settled in Heythuysen in April 2015. At first, he did not realize just how weak he was. In the middle of August 2016, he was admitted to hospital and he died two days later on the 21st August 2016. The characteristic of Jesus, which Jo highlighted in his life, was, Jesus frankly debating with scribes and Pharisees.
Together with relatives and friends, we buried him in our St. Charles‘ cemetery on 27th August 2016.
Marien van den Eijnden