Leo was born on the 6th November 1927 at Kortemark, in Western Flanders, Belgium. His secondary schooling took place in the Junior Seminary of Roeselare where he was active in the KSA, a Student Catholic Action organisation. One of his brothers is a Scheut missionary. In September 1948, he entered the White Fathers at Boechout. He did his novitiate in Varsenare in 1948/49 and his theological studies in Heverlee. He took his Missionary Oath there on the 19th July 1952 followed by ordination to the priesthood on the 5th April 1953. Leo’s professors described him as having a good and tactful nature, devoted and fervent. He had a nervous and sentimental temperament, very sensitive and somewhat shy. He needed affection but not all this prevented him from having an individual and critical mind. Indeed, some wondered if his interior submission corresponded to the perfect exterior obedience he showed. He was a cultured man and he liked to study. In 1957, he obtained a Licentiate in Psychology and Education from the University of Louvain, his Master’s thesis being on the work of the French educator, Joseph Jacotot. During his holidays, Leo worked with the newly founded Aid to the Church in Need organisation in the refugee camps in Berlin and Hamburg. He became the right hand man of its founder, Fr. Werenfried Van Straaten. O.Praem, also known as the ‘Bacon Priest.’ The misery in the camps deeply moved him. A long interview he gave at the time about the situation in Berlin at Christmas 1955 was published in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard.
Leo took the plane for Bukavu on the 4th November 1957. For two years, he taught at the Teacher’s Training College at Bobandana in Goma Diocese. In his letters, he expressed the desire to continue his studies but his superiors did not see the usefulness of it. He felt misunderstood. He worked in Nyakariba and Masisi from 1959 to 1960. In September of that year, he was appointed to the Teacher’s Training College at Jomba. In his spare time, he continued doing some research work particularly on the role of education in the old Kingdom of the Congo and on old age in the culture of the Bakongo. The difficulties following Congolese independence in 1961 forced him to leave the country. He returned to Louvain, and in 1964, he defended his doctoral thesis on Joseph Jacotot and his Method of Universal Education. Leo returned to the Congo on the 1st July 1965 to teach at the Louvanium University at Kinshasa. In 1968, he became Dean of the Faculty of Education and Psychology. They were difficult years and there were often student riots on the campus. In fact, Leo was taken hostage by rebel troops in Kisangani where he was supervising the university exams. He left the Congo in 1971.
In the guise of a sabbatical year, Leo left for the United States. He went to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a State University, where he was the only priest on the teaching staff. He collaborated in the Parish and became Spiritual Director of the Sisters of St. Mary. Kinshasa did not reply to his question about a possible return there.
Leo now began the most productive period of his life. From 1971 to 1993, he was at Omaha, the kingpin of the new Department of Gerontology. He studied the psychological, social and biological aspects of ageing. He became a renowned specialist on the subject. He was Visiting Professor at the University of Southern California and gave courses and workshops in universities all over the world including China, Japan, Canada, France, Netherlands, Belgium, etc. He analysed problems associated with growing old such as the importance of maintaining mental and spiritual health, the evolution of the meaning of life of the old person and the inevitability of suffering. He also studied the thorny question of priests’ retirement. He published several books and one of them, “Towards a Full and Happy Old Age,” was published in several languages. He published hundreds of articles and he had more than 200 conferences and seminars under his belt. He received many international distinctions and his own university notably awarded him the Excellence in Teaching Award in 1990.
In 1993, Leo became an Emeritus Professor and on the 1st October 1993, he returned to Belgium for good. He became Spiritual Director of the Sisters of Mary at Kortrijk and chaplain to the Sacred Heart Retirement Home. He continued to write and to give some courses, even going abroad sometimes. His diary shows that between 1994 and 2006 he gave some 230 talks addressed to priests, religious, and residents of retirement homes, doctors and university students. He celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his ordination in 2003. Over all these years, he remained the deeply believing Spiritual Director for the sisters as well as being the patient and attentive chaplain for the many aged and sick residents of the home. On the 11th April 2014, the University of Nebraska organised a symposium in his honour.
In November 2014, Leo had to leave his lovely apartment in the city and take up residence in the Sacred Heart Retirement Home in Kortrijk. His age was weighing heavily upon him. In 2015, he was still keeping an intimate diary, which he called, “Some reflections on the end of life of a dying White Father.” He often confided to his visitors that if he had known what growing old really meant, he would have written his books differently. Isolation was the most difficult thing to bear as well as the lack of affection and love. “I have written and taught so many things on what one should do for sick, elderly and dying people so that when I look at myself now, I realise that I did not do the things that I taught to others. Sometimes, I am ashamed” (p.28) Leo remained very grateful for the support of his family, his friends and some confreres. One of his last phrases says, “Let us thank God in my name and your name for all that he has given to us. How will I be reawakened?” (p.37). In the evening of the 18th February 2017, Leo died peacefully. The Funeral Mass took place in our Chapel in Varsenare on the 27th February 2017.
Jef Vleugels, M.Afr.