Karel was born on the 6th November 1924 at Roulers in the Diocese of Brugge, Belgium. All his education took place in his native city, primary school, and secondary school at the local Junior Seminary. He entered the White Fathers at Boechout in September 1944 and studied there for the next three years. After the novitiate in Varsenare in 1947, he did his first year of theological studies in Marienthal, Luxemburg. He continued his studies in Heverlee, Belgium and he took his Missionary Oath there on the 21st July 1951. He was ordained priest, also at Heverlee, on the 12th April 1952. His professors describe Karel as a conscientious, generous and devoted man. He was not a big intellectual, but he was practical and proficient. He was discreet and candid in his relationships, a little shy but with a big heart. He was inclined to be nervy, easily influenced and inclined to be emotional. His health was not great which meant an appointment to a relatively temperate climate.
Appointed to Rwanda, Karel left on the 13th September 1952 for his first mission post at Kansi. He learnt the language and was in charge of schools. At the beginning of 1954, he was sent to Rushaki where he acquitted himself well with the teachers. He had strict ideas about poverty and was very critical of lazy bursars who according to him could do better with the land at their disposal and meet the needs of the parish and the community. He was appointed to teach in the Junior Seminary in Kabgayi in 1956, but gave it up after four months because the sedentary life got on his nerves. He was able to go back to the ‘bush’ at Mibilizi. Fr. Alfons Van Hoof (+1979), the Regional, remarked that Karel did good work, but took too much on himself and did not rest enough. In November 1959, Karel had two operations on his back and then did the Long Retreat at Mours in France but he was anxious to get back to Africa. In February 1961, we find him once again in Mibilizi. However, ethnic tensions meant that the parish was handed over to the local clergy and Karel transferred to Byumbi in May. In January 1962, he became Parish Priest of Rwesero and the following year, he was the founder and Parish Priest of Burehe Parish. Karel was a hard worker but could not avoid, according to his Regional, “some stupid run-ins with the Christians even with his confreres.” In fact, Karel wrote a long letter to the Bishop and the Regional complaining about his young confrere whom he judged to be too progressive and enterprising. At the beginning of 1965, Karel became Parish Priest of Rustavi. The local authorities and some Christians were not keen to see the White Fathers return because they would certainly address some abuses, which had made their appearance in the parish. They feared Fr. Watteeuw in particular, as he was known to be a man of principles. In a letter to the Bishop, Karel described at length the intolerable situation he was experiencing. In September 1965 he left for home leave and Fr. Jules Severy (+2003) the Regional noted, “It was high time, it was untenable at Rushaki!” Karel returned in June 1967, this time to Busogo but he had to leave shortly afterwards because of his tendency to quarrel with confreres and people. He was appointed to Rwaza but things did not go any better. At the beginning of 1969, in a long letter to the Regional he bitterly complained that the Superior did not trust him and community life was only a lie. He wanted out and go and live outside community.
When Karel left for home leave in July 1970, his Regional, Fr. Severy, expressed the wish that he receive medical treatment for his choleric temperament. His return to Rwanda was therefore postponed indefinitely. While waiting, Karel made himself available for work in the Parish of St-Louis in Deerlijk, Diocese of Brugge. In fact, he replaced our confrere, Maurice Maes (+1997). Karel saw this as a temporary solution only as he wanted to return to Africa. In Rwanda, the Regional Council decided to offer him a last chance. In February 1975, Karel returned, as curate, to Muyunzwe Parish in the Diocese of Butare where he was not known. In welcoming him back, the Regional made it clear to him that people would no longer tolerate certain attitudes on our part. When the parish was handed over to the Diocese in October 1976, Karel was appointed to Kibangu in Kabgayi Diocese. In April 1978, he asked to return to Belgium for good. When he arrived home, a bus full of enthusiastic parishioners from Deelijk was there to meet him. The Bishop of Brugge appointed him as curate in the Parish of Sainte-Godelieve at Roulers. He began work on the 1st January 1979. He lived with his sister, Marie-Louise. Karel was enthusiastic about his new parish and the priestly team. He was responsible for a big sector. He organised the training of Liturgical teams and Bible groups in the Parish. In January 1981, the Provincial asked him to join the White Fathers team running the Parish of Sainte-Catherine at Stabroek in the Archdiocese of Antwerp. However working with his confreres again posed a problem. Karel felt he was being pushed to one side and belittled. Nostalgically, he invoked the memory of the young and vibrant church in Rwanda while here…Karel reached pensionable age in 1989 and promptly retired. In May 1990, he joined the community of La Plante at Namur. The Bishop appointed him as Parish Priest of Beez, a small parish, partially rural, where he served until September 1997.
Karel then moved to Varsenare and for a number of years (1995-2005), he fulfilled the role of chaplain to our Nursing Home at Avondrust. He then moved to the Chateau (Kasteel) but moved back to Avondrust in 2008, this time as a resident. For the last two years of his life, he was mentally absent but he kept his grateful smile. On three occasions, one believed he was on the point of death but each time he pulled through. Finally, on the morning of the 5th February 2017, he died peacefully. The farewell liturgy and burial took place the following Friday, 10th February 2017.
Jef Vleugels, M.Afr.