Antoon Coninx 1935 – 2016 (PE nr. 1080)

Antoine, more often than not known as ‘Toine’ by the confreres, was born on the 25th June 1935 at Achel, Limburg Province, Belgium. He attended the College Saint-Hubert at Neerpelt for his secondary education. He was very active in the Catholic Student Movement (KSA). He entered the White Fathers at Boechout in September 1953. Novitiate in Varsenare followed before going to Eastview, Canada for his theological studies. He took his Missionary Oath there on the 20th June 1959 and he was ordained priest, also in Eastview, on the 30th January 1960. From the assessments made by his professors, it quickly becomes clear that Antoon had considerable artistic gifts. He was an excellent painter, a good draughtsman and he was musically talented. He had good intuition and possessed a creative imagination. He had the artistic and emotive temperament to go with all that. At the same time, he was a good organiser and gifted for languages. He wrote well and showed an aptitude for journalism. In community, he liked to laugh but could also be a bit reserved even somewhat solitary.

It was perfectly understandable therefore that the Province of the USA wanted to lay their hands on this talented individual as his first appointment shows. He was appointed to the White Fathers in Washington as Business Manager of the White Fathers’ Missions and of the ‘Dollar-A-Month Club.’ He also produced the White Fathers Missions magazine.

In November 1965, Anthony was finally able to leave for Zambia. As he had already learnt enough of the language, he was appointed to Chilonga in the Diocese of Mbala. A short time later, he moved to St. Francis Parish in Mbala itself. He was very good preacher and an expert in information technology. He also gave classes in a local secondary school. From the very beginning, he collaborated with the publication of the modest newsletter of the Diocese, which gave news of Church activities, and the Liturgy. Later, it would become the Cengelo magazine destined for the entire Chibemba speaking dioceses in Zambia.

Anthony was recalled to Washington, DC in January 1971. Traditional methods of fund-raising were going out of fashion and the Missionary magazines were not bringing in much revenue. Toine was asked be creative in the area of fundraising. He launched the Development Office of the Missionaries of Africa. He contacted specialist dealers and bought lists of possible benefactors. These lists targeted potential donors according to age, resources, religion, and their likelihood to donate. It was a great success. The Development office has been able over the course of the years to provide millions of dollars to confreres and White Sisters for their projects in Africa. He remained the talented editor of the White Fathers’ publications in the Province.

Toine was able to return to Zambia in August 1978. He was put in charge of the pastoral team looking after the parishes of Chalabesa and Kopa. He animated his team with enthusiasm, supporting the initiatives of his collaborators. He built a Training Centre for Lay leaders. He was part of the Coordinating team of the Diocese. In his pastoral work, he prioritised Parish Councils, the training of Lay Leaders, Justice and Peace Committees and the youth. He was also a strong advocate of the emerging Credit Unions arising from the needs of the local communities. Regular bouts of malaria put a break on his enthusiasm. He profited from the many sick leaves to renew himself spiritually and pastorally by following sessions in London at the M.I.L. and in Jerusalem.

A new Chapter in the life of Toine opened in 1988 when he was appointed as Secretary to the Media Commission of the Zambia Episcopal Conference. His office was in the Catholic Secretariat in Lusaka. He served for three terms of three years. Jean-Pierre Sauge, the Regional at the time wrote, “It was here that Anthony showed his powerful creativity and his capacity for hard work.” In 1994, he helped with the organisation of the Papal visit of Jean Paul II. He set up ‘Yatsani Studios’ (Yatsani means light) which produced all sorts of programmes both for radio and television as well as for various training centres. Subjects covered included religious and socio-economic topics and questions surrounding Public Health. In order to bolster revenue, he undertook to produce advertising spots and he accepted commissions from various religious congregations. He himself produced and directed many excellent documentary videos for the apostolate. He took part in International Conferences. Besides the audio-visual section, Toine managed the Press and Publications section. In all these areas, he was able to show his multi-talented artistic and organisational gifts. He guided and advised many artistic groups.

In July 1997, Toine returned home for health reasons. The Belgian Province held on to him initially in Namur at the Photos-Service and then for ‘Nieuw Afrika’ at Antwerp. In 2001, our traditional missionary schedule was being called into question and there was a hope that Toine might be able to give it a new lease of life. However, he felt too much like an American visitor in his own country and he refused. In June 2001, he returned to Zambia. He was appointed to Chipata to take charge of the Diocesan Media office. He published brochures, pamphlets and Christmas cards. He sketched all sorts of illustrations. He wrote that he had taken up painting once again.

Jean-Pierre Sauge wrote, “I have a particular image of Fr. Antoon Coninx: Taking part in the community evening recreation, while talking with the confreres, he was working on a piece of wood in order to sculptor a face, a bird, intertwined words…Antoon was an artist. He was also a good sketcher with a pencil, drawing beautiful sketches of children, women and …his famous portraits of confreres. A number of his works are hanging on the walls of some communities in Zambia at Serenje, Ndola and Lusaka.”

Toine was appointed to Woodlands, Lusaka in 2004. After some months, the confreres began to get worried about him. He forgot names and dates, seemed to be mentally absent, forgot whether he had eaten or not, as well as meeting times and giving out huge sums of money to passing beggars. In April 2005, Fr. Gotthard Rosner, the Provincial sent him back to Belgium for treatment. He was diagnosed with serious diabetes and the doctors also indicated that he was suffering from a grave cognitive impairment. Any thought of a return to Zambia even for a short period was out of the question. Toine would have loved to return to say good-bye.

Toine spent a number of months in our community in Genk before being welcomed into the Retirement Home of St. Joseph at Munsterbilzen where his condition slowly deteriorated. His family asked that he be transferred to a similar institution in Achel where his sister, Madeleine could visit him practically every day. Often he did not recognise his visitors but when someone said a few words in Chibembe, there was a flash of recognition. In the last weeks, he could eat no more but his heart would not give up. On Tuesday 11th October, he passed away peacefully. The farewell liturgy took place in Achel on the 17th October 2017 in the church where he was baptised and celebrated his ‘first’ Mass. The Church was full to overflowing. He was buried among his confreres at Varsenare.

Jef Vleugels

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